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)