Andy Griffith: Before Mayberry, A Movie Monster

Mm200Boing Boing recently presented a series of essays about movies that have had a profound effect on our invited essayists. We are extending the series for several additional days. See all the essays in the Mind Blowing Movies series. -- Mark

Andy Griffith: Before Mayberry, A Movie Monster, by Bill Barol

[Video Link] If for any reason you doubt the power of television, consider the long career of Andy Griffith, who died this week at 86. Griffith had one TV role that was merely successful and one that was almost archetypical. That’s a pretty good run for any actor. But TV didn’t just give to Griffith. It also took away, and it’s here that the medium shows its muscle in a really astounding way. Griffith’s long TV career effectively effaced a film debut that, fifty years later, is so vivid and visceral that it startles with every viewing. The facts that Griffith played a bad guy in his first film role, and that both the performance and the movie, Elia Kazan’s 1957 A Face In The Crowd, are largely overlooked today -- these are testaments to TV’s power to swamp any cultural phenomena that have the poor judgment to get in its way.

Hang on, there’s more. What’s doubly delicious about this is, A Face In The Crowd is a cautionary tale about the power of -- Anyone? Anyone? Yes: Television. Griffith, who came from nightclubs and the stage and had no resume as a dramatic actor in 1957, plays Lonesome Rhodes, a drifter who stumbles into national prominence thanks to the demagogic power of the then-young medium. A grifter and a charmer, Rhodes is sleeping off a hangover in a rural jail when a local radio producer (Patricia Neal, doing that hard-but-vulnerable thing she did so well) sticks a microphone in his face. He has no ambition to be a radio star or anything else, but once he grasps that a guy with a friendly demeanor can wield mass media like a club, and he grasps it very quickly indeed, there’s no stopping him. Rhodes shoots like a star from tiny Pickett, Arkansas to Memphis to New York, from radio to TV, from a singer and storyteller to “a force... a force,” he says with megalomaniac intensity. And from there it’s just a quick hop to politics, with a presidential candidate sucking around for his magic touch, and a madman’s dreams of power behind the throne.

It all unravels, of course, because that’s what happens in cautionary tales. But until it does Rhodes is a villain of Shakespearean scope and depth, and Griffith -- this is TV’s Andy Griffith, remember -- Griffith tears into the part with both hands. When Griffith as Rhodes laughs -- “I put my whole self into everything I do,” he tells the Neal character early on, equal parts seduction and threat -- the sound explodes off the screen like gunfire, and Griffith’s eyes widen and shine, and sweat dots his forehead like stars, and the tendons stand out in his neck. Understand: Rhodes is a monster, all appetite and ambition, and Griffith makes every second of his rise and fall queasily believable. That doesn't just apply to the operatic moments, though. There’s a great scene early on where Rhodes uses the power of his radio pulpit to turn the populace against the local sheriff, and Neal asks him how it feels to “say anything that comes into your head and have it sway people.” At first Rhodes is too busy enjoying the moment to grasp what she’s saying -- “I guess I can,” he says offhandedly, tears of laughter streaming down his face -- but then the weight of the insight settles on him and the laughter stops and his eyes go cool and appraising. “I guess I can,” he says again, and this time it’s all business. You can practically see the connections being mapped in his hustler’s brain. Later, leaving Arkansas to go to Memphis for his first TV job, Kazan has Griffith stand in the steps of a departing train, and as he turns away from the cheering crowds who’ve come to see him off and sets his gaze down the track toward his future, his face is a mask of hunger and calculation.

There are good actors in A Face In The Crowd -- Neal, Walter Matthau as a well-meaning good guy, and the underrated Tony Franciosa as a conniving office boy-turned-theatrical agent. (Franciosa has a hilarious moment when Rhodes improvises a commercial jingle for some prospective national sponsors, and the office boy/agent wings some backing doo wops to help close the deal.) But for all the starpower the film has, and that includes Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg working at the tops of their very considerable games, it’s Griffith’s film to make or break. And in much the same way that Rhodes seized his opportunity when it happened along, Griffith did too. In every frame his Rhodes is violently alive, for good or (much more often) for ill. Griffith never again duplicated the jet-propelled power of that first performance, and within three years he was a TV star, and he stayed one until Tuesday, when he died. Ask any ten people who know him from either of his long-running TV successes if he ever played a heavy and eight of them will look at you like you’re nuts. But the other two? The other two will nod in appreciation of what Griffith did 55 years ago, before a new medium set his nice-guy image in stone and wiped away the memory of Lonesome Rhodes’ grinning, voracious face.

(RIP, Andy Griffith)


  1. He did some dark roles later in his career (including some creepy villains) but nothing to match Lonesome Rhodes.  It’s a pity this movie is so little known considering that there are way too many real-life Rhodes types out there now.  

  2. As I mentioned in the other thread, the DVD extras allow one to hear/see Andy say “fuck”. Man did I feel all grown up after that…

  3. I came home planning to look this film up after hearing about it on NPR today. I’ll definitely be seeking it out after watching this trailer.

    1.  ‘Daddy and Them’ is actually the best movie in the world since John Prine is also in it. It’s a pretty funny movie, and besides it just made me giggle to hear ‘Ange’ say words like cornhole.

  4. I was unaware of this film until I saw it on TCM about three years ago. WOW! I had to completely re-evaluate my opinion of Andy Griffith. Truly his first role was his best role, ever.

  5. I saw this when it came out. It’s a favorite. When he begins to wield power the right-wing can’t suck up to him fast enough. True then; true now.

  6. Griffith commented that his avoiding such roles in his later career was no accident; he felt that playing Rhodes took him to some dark places that he preferred to avoid.

    1. I also remember a TV-movie, “Pray for the Wildcats”. Seems like Shatner was in it, too.

  7. I grew up loving Ange and Mayberry and only discovered “A Face in the Crowd” a few years ago.  I grabbed everybody I knew and made them watch it.  Everything Andy does in this film is so believable and true, it is hard to believe that they would have given him the part of the sheriff of Mayberry after seeing Lonesome Rhodes–Barney wouldn’t have lasted long in Lonesome’s entourage.

  8. Set your DVRs, TCM is broadcasting it at 1:45 AM on Friday. I don’t know if this is Eastern time or if TCM changes in differing time zones so check your listings

  9. I had a fantastic PoliSci professor who realized after many years of delivering lectures that students remembered films they saw better than lectures he gave, and so, after telling us during our first meeting to return our text book, he promptly loaded this film into the DVD machine and told us it was better than the first chapter on the electoral process. The second film he showed us, to illustrate media in politics, was Network. Both films still hold up well, but this one definitely affected my view of Andy Griffith and concept of Americana. 

    1. Network is much more famous, perhaps largely because of the line “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore”, but I don’t think it’s held up very well.

      A lot of it – maybe 2/3 – is excellent, especially most of the acting, but the rest includes a lot of really heavy-handed satire that felt really trite and near-unwatchable to me (not to mention out of line with the tone of the rest of the film). I mean I realize the whole thing is satire, but it combines what you might call “serious” satire (the successful part of the film) with silly satire along the lines of Woody Allen’s earliest films. The silly stuff is what doesn’t hold up (Allen’s early films are a mixed bag there too, but generally hold up well).

      A Face in the Crowd is such a great, important film because there’s really nothing that doesn’t hold up. There’s nothing to roll your eyes at – it’s transfixing all the way through. And when it hits you that nothing has changed, and politics is essentially the same today, it’s really unsettling. In that way it’s actually gotten better over time.

      What I actually meant to reply to you about was how your professor ran that class – I had a history professor I took three courses from on various aspects of Japanese history who showed us Japanese feature films every week (and gave lectures to support them and to correct major inaccuracies). The course on the samurai was especially great. For many humanities/social science type topics it’s a great, very effective approach.

  10. I’d consider his amiable rube in NO TIME FOR SERGEANTS a sort of monster as well. Just ask the Sarge! Still, A FACE IN THE CROWD has been a favorite of mine since I first taped it off the TV.

    I’d also throw in his performance as the bad-guy rancher (who has the misfortune of being the only nearly sane person in the featured cast) in RUSTLER’S RHAPSODY. It’s a fun, cardboard movie that plays with bent western stereotypes, and Griffith brings hilarious depth to his personation. A YouTube clip (a short scene numbered 3/9) shows him at work, and sets up the funniest gag in the movie, which is presumably in another clip.

    I’d love for TCM to show all three of these. (Is there a recording of the US Steel Hour version of “No Time for Sergeants” out there?)

    1.  The US Steel Hour version of “No Time for Sergeants” is on the Criterion box set, “The Golden Age of Television.”

  11. “A Face in the Crowd” is one of those rare movies that stands the test of time, thanks in no small parts to Elia Kazan’s directing, Budd Schulberg’s script, but especially Griffith’s jaw-dropping performance. One correction: the town Lonesome Rhodes is from is Piggott, Arkansas, not Pickett; I once new an english professor from Piggott who was a southern gentleman–and storyteller–of the first water. 
    Now Andy is truly “a free man in the morning”…

  12. I’m not sure if the phenomenon really has to do with television, After all, Huey Long (and his perhaps better known fictional equivalent Willie Stark of “All the King’s Men”) pulled off the folksy yokel with a sinister power streak act with nothing more than radio and personal appearances. This movie sounds like it basically *is* a remake of “All the Kings’ Men”, actually.

    1. I’m not sure if the phenomenon really has to do with television, After all, Huey Long (and his perhaps better known fictional equivalent Willie Stark of “All the King’s Men”) pulled off the folksy yokel with a sinister power streak act with nothing more than radio and personal appearances.

      Even Clodius Pulcher and Julius Caesar were populares.

  13. Great movie!
    The corporate media must have used it as a recruiting template since then, how many talking heads/entertainers believe that they are more important than the entity that they work for, but they don’t act on that belief (even if they internally maintain that it is their choice, they CHOOSE not to…).

    It’s an amazing juggling act,  all they would have to do is to utter an original thought that speaks truth to power, but they rarely do that, because their ego is being expertly stroked. (“Say what’s on the teleprompter, and you get a very comfortable life and big check. I will choose to exercise my free will “tomorrow”.)

    1.  That reminds me… THE NEWSROOM, Sorkin’s joint, doesn’t really have a villain, does it?

      It can’t really have one, because the producers decided to stay with real events in 2010 — but how would they stand anyone as fierce as LR pissin’ in their Post Toasties?

  14. A Face In The Crowd is unfathomably good but another one of Griffith’s efforts is well worth your time as well. Murder In Coweta County, a made for TV drama pits Griffith vs Johnny Cash in a Deep South struggle of good vs evil. Based on a true story too. It’s up on Youtube, in segments, but still worth a viewing session.

Comments are closed.