Towards the end of the film “A Face in the Crowd,” Marcia Jeffries realises she must take action to stop the star of the TV show she produces, Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes. She discovered Rhodes as a drunken drifter in a jail, when trying to find a voice for a radio item back home in Arkansas. His homespun humour and opinions, and his gravelly singing voice, made him a hit with his audience, but as soon as he saw how they responded to him, and how they could be mobilised, his career took off, to Memphis and New York, from radio to television to politics. He had his audience in his hand, he saw himself in them, and he saw how they could be controlled - ultimately, he thought they were his own flock of sheep. At the end of one show, Marcia fades up Rhodes’ microphone as the credits roll, letting his true opinions be heard by all. Switchboards at the TV station are immediately jammed with the fury of those whose trust he betrayed. His career was over before he left the studio.
For everyone that believes that “cancel culture” began with Twitter, seeing the same thing happen in a film made in 1957, and happen at the same speed, is strangely reassuring: replace telephones with social media, and the scene would have played out in exactly the same way. Indeed, the speed at which the BBC dismissed Danny Baker from his Radio 5 Live show last week, over his placement of an ill-judged picture on Twitter, is comparable to “A Face in the Crowd.”
The writer and director of the film, Budd Schulberg and Elia Kazan, had already been on the receiving end of the power of television, before making a film that warned of that power. They were both witnesses to the House Un-American Activities Committee, under Senator Joseph McCarthy, hearings of which had been carried live on TV, and both had named names – they had been members of the American Communist Party in the 1930s, and sought to use their testimony to highlight the totalitarianism rooted in the ideology. Despite giving names already known to the Committee, Kazan would place an advertisement in “The New York Times” to declare that he was glad he appeared, and recommended that others do the same, earning the enmity of many within his industry. It did not ultimately stop Kazan and Schulberg’s careers – they would make “On the Waterfront” in 1954, before “A Face in the Crowd” – but those of many more were curtailed. McCarthy would also be ultimately undone by television, by the journalist Edward R. Murrow on the series "See It Now."
I had intended to write here about how prescient “A Face in the Crowd” would become, as it had initially done poorly upon its release, as the monstrous and infectious performance of Andy Griffith was considered to be overkill, and the plot being seen as preposterous. Donald Trump’s Presidential campaign in 2015-16, let alone his actual Presidency, has Lonesome Rhodes written all over it, but we all now know that what real life can throw up can defy fiction altogether. In the film, Mel Miller, a writer on Rhodes’ show, is later writing a book that he hopes will expose the real Lonesome Rhodes – how many more can be released about Trump, and how much of him is left to expose?
Before writing this, I had seen “A Face in the Crowd” only once, about sixteen years ago, on my film degree course. The copy I saw was recorded off the television, and its first home video release in the UK came last week. Twitter did not exist when I last saw it, and “cancel culture” was not yet defined, but all the elements were there. What will it say next?