Maybe my favorite sequence in A Face in the Crowd is one I couldn’t find on The YouTube, and since I am not yet a smart enough monkey to capture my own video off a DVD, I’ll have to just tell you about it.
It begins about 26 minutes in, just as Lonesome Rhodes is making the leap from small-town radio in Arkansas to a TV show in Memphis. There’s a great shot of Lonesome (Andy Griffith) as his train pulls away from the station in Pickett, AK where hundreds of fans are seeing him off. He waves goodbye with his hat, looking back at the admiring throng, but then turns to face forward, into the camera. In that moment he gives a look that has something really profound in it. It’s hard to say what exactly. It’s more than just hope, or expectation, or confidence; it’s a look that says this guy is going to fucking eat the world. He is America circa 1957: a hungry predator, an unstoppable force. That was a long time ago.
That’s just the beginning, though; from there the scene shifts to a TV studio in Memphis, where Lonesome is making his first-ever appearance on the sacred box. He’s getting his makeup put on when in walks none other than Walter Matthau, playing Mel Miller, the pipe-smoking, bespectacled writer who’s been assigned to the show. He is introduced by an enthused Marcia Jeffries, Lonesome’s right-hand woman (Patricia Neal), setting up a dynamic that will play out through the rest of the movie: Marcia and Mel are clearly right for each other — they are on the same intellectual and moral level — but Marcia can’t escape Lonesome’s pull.
The bit that follows is priceless. The city-slicker TV people see Lonesome as some kind of country rube; they stick a piece of straw in his mouth and pose him in front of a pastoral mural. Lonesome sees through the game immediately; inside of a minute he’s turned around the studio monitor to face the camera, and keep in mind this is more than 20 years before David Letterman invented metaTV. He waves at the control room and complains:
The director said all I had to do was act like I was looking straight at you. But what he forgot to say was there’d be a great big old red eye looking straight at me!
Prompted by the cameraman, Lonesome tries to sing a tune, but his heart isn’t in it. After croaking “If the river was whiskey and I was a duck,” he breaks it off, demands a close-up, and delivers a soliloquy on his impressions of Memphis:
You know, one thing I can see right off about a big city: There’s a whole lot of people in trouble out there. You don’t see it so much in the daytime when everybody’s hustlin’ and bustlin’ around, rushing from where they is to where they ain’t. But it’s at night. Late at night, round 4 o’clock in the morning is what I call the dividing line. All you got left is folks in trouble.
With that, he goes backstage and comes back with someone in trouble: an African-American lady whose house has burned down. (Comments Matthau: “A colored woman, in Memphis — that takes nerve.”) Lonesome asks his viewers to each send in 50 cents, and the next scene is Walter pushing a wheelbarrow full of coins onto the stage as the audience goes nuts. You can pretty much draw a straight line from there to Stephen Colbert’s SuperPAC. Genius!