Budd Schulberg wrote the screenplay for the 1957 film “A Face in the Crowd” based on his story “Your Arkansas Traveler.” According to Richard Schickel, Schulberg’s story was inspired by Will Rogers. It featured Lonesome Rhodes, “a good-natured hillbilly with the common touch, who, like Rogers. starts working sly political commentary into his corn-pone monologues, and when his wealth and influence grows, becomes a menace to liberal-minded society.”
Starting with a Rogers-like character, Schulberg contemplated “the then hot career of Arthur Godfrey, a ukelele-strumming hick with a popular music and talk radio show in Washington who had come to a larger public’s attention with his tearful coverage of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s funeral on CBS.” Godfrey became the host of a popular national radio show. When he moved to television variety programs, Godfrey grew “increasingly tyrannical with his supporting cast” and “increasingly forward with his political opinions.” His career flamed out a few years after the release of “A Face in the Crowd.”
Elia Kazan directed the film. Playing Lonesome Rhodes, Andy Griffith turns in a performance of astonishing ferocity. The film reflects the concerns of Schulberg and Kazan over the uses to which television might be put by a glib demagogue. In the scene below, Rhodes gives the dauntingly square Senator Worthington Fuller a lesson in how to transform himself into a presidential candidate through the medium of television.
Rhodes is introduced by his sponsor General Haynesworth, manufacturer of the worthless Vitajex pick-me-up tablets. General Haynesworth advises Fuller that he needs a slogan like “Time for a change,” “The mess in Washington” or “More bang for a buck.” Rhodes takes it from there. It’s a hilarious scene that may inspire timely reflections while we’re waiting for the votes to be counted tonight.
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