In the 1950s, the most devastating cinematic critique of television was Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd (1957). The film was a box office flop, and it’s difficult to see why. Everything about the rise of Larry 'Lonesome' Rhodes (Andy Griffith) rings true. Perhaps the public was just getting to know television and was unprepared to fear it.
A Face in the Crowd is a cautionary fable: the philandering heel with women, the temperamental star given to tantrums will eventually be exposed for he is. It’s only a matter of time. The film is also a fable about the sinister, fascistic political powers that would use television to control the hearts and minds of the people.
Rhodes, a low-grade natural talent on an Arkansas television station, climbs to the top of the television world almost overnight, ruthlessly using and disposing of everyone around him. He’s both a manipulator and a man manipulated; a con man and natural storyteller. The film shows Rhodes at once seemingly allowing his backers (advertisers, power brokers) to control him, yet in an instant, he has them mesmerized.
As he moves from local to national phenomenon, Rhodes becomes intoxicated with his growing power. A television star who thoroughly understands the masses, he sneers at politicians and their machinations. Lonesome envisions himself as kingmaker, not king, and subsequently, makes the powerful dependent upon him. In many ways, he anticipates the “media advisors” and other strategists who dominate political campaigns today.
Much is made of the moral emptiness of the man. Seemingly a man of the people, he shows contempt for his audience after one show when he thinks the microphones are off:
Those morons out there? Shucks, I could take chicken fertilizer and sell it to them as caviar. I could make them eat dog food and think it was steak. Sure, I got 'em like this... You know what the public's like? A cage of Guinea Pigs. Good Night you stupid idiots. Good Night, you miserable slobs. They're a lot of trained seals. I toss them a dead fish and they'll flap their flippers.
The advertisers and politicians drop him immediately, as the television studio receives thousands of angry calls from viewers.
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Television's first body blow came in the late 1950s with the eruption of quiz show scandals. They obscured the fact that television was on the verge of media triumph; if you were not television-aware you were considered out of touch. One of the themes of the movie Quiz Show (1994) was iterated by Richard Goodwin (Rob Morrow) in the wake of Charles Van Doren’s (Ralph Fiennes) public burning: “They [the national politicians] think they’re getting television, whereas television is getting us.”
The villain of Quiz Show, however, turns out to be the sponsors of the titular program, 21; in particular the makers of Geritol, a modern snake oil that cured “tired blood.” There is a similar product in A Face in the Crowd, Vitajax, that neatly captures the sex appeal behind much of television advertising as well as the persona of Lonesome Rhodes.
In the real scandal, Van Doren was a singular fall guy, the Judas of the late Fifties. He possessed a quintessential combination of Kennedy boyishness and charisma (sexual charm). Purging him from public life seemed to be the satisfactory solution for the public and a Geritol-like cure all for the current “problems of television;” that is, there would be no more cheating or hoodwinking the public.
As much as the Director of Quiz Show, Robert Redford, would like to believe that the American Age of Innocence ended with the quiz show scandals, his film suggests differently: that the American public has maintained its “innocent” attachment to the scheme of entertainment values, and believes it can remain unaffected by them. Metaphorically, the quiz show scandals were a romantic betrayal of that innocence: television’s slap to the face of an audience that ignored it as an aberration that wouldn’t happen again.
Quiz Show does not show how vigorously New York newspapers pursued the scandals, claiming a minor victory in the turf war that print media eventually lost; but the film captures the seamless transition from innocence to corruption that television fame can effect. It depicts the personal weakness of Van Doren, a scion of the elite who defected to the dark side—like a respected intellectual becoming a Today show special correspondent.
Van Doren understands his betrayal of the public's trust, partly, in the self-effacing speech he delivers to the House Oversight Committee. He was too anxious to claim his inheritance (and approval) without truly earning it.
But Quiz Show connects these attempts to excuse his cheating—essentially his lies to himself—to America’s rationalization of its failure to live up to its own ideals. His tragedy, if not America’s, is a tendency to allow personal obfuscation to dominate the reality of the pain caused and inhumanity served by those lies.
The fact that many today probably can’t see what exactly people were so bothered about with the scandals and with Van Doren indicates how little we have matured or have learned since then.
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A couple of the better scenes in A Face in the Crowd deal with the aforementioned Vitajax, a fictional energy supplement. When its advertisers present their campaign to Lonesome Rhodes and his producers, he rejects the stodgy, unimaginative pitch.
Rhodes understands what the product really is: a pill that wants to put a sexual charge into a tired, impotent public. With Griffith’s acting at its absolute peak, Rhodes ad libs a commercial in his office, and then we see the official ad on his show. He’s tired, listless, and then takes the pill and is refreshed. In an instant he has to fight off women. He’s hustling a variation of Viagra before it was so much as a stirring in the loins of the advertising universe of Big Pharma.
Quiz Show’s version of Vitajax is Geritol, which professes to cure iron-poor blood or, as host Red Barry (Christopher McDonald) says: "it restores your vim and vigor." It also was the product that sponsored The Lawrence Welk Show, a program watched by the same demographic to whom Viagra is aimed. Quiz Show effectively posits that the company that owned Geritol, specifically Martin Rittenhome (Martin Scorcese), propagated the cheating fraud on 21 with NBC its willing accomplice.
The producers of 21, Dan Enright (David Paymer) and Albert Friedman (Hank Azaria), ultimately fall on their swords and confess to Congress that they had given the contestants the answers. Enright and host Jack Barry survived another day and made millions with The Joker is Wild. In the end, Van Doren never tried to absolve himself from blame or even explain his actions.
The thing about Rittenhome being vilified in Quiz Show: he actually wasn’t responsible for the cheating on 21. The man actually being portrayed was Charles Revson, the head of Revlon, which sponsored The $64,000 Question.
Revson was known for interfering with productions; infamously, he wanted Dr. Joyce Brothers not to win the big prize, and gave her extremely difficult questions—from, let it be noted, a category she had chosen. She couldn’t be stumped and won anyway.
Despite the dramatic license of Quiz Show switching these sponsors’ personalities, the truth about these game shows remained: people were chosen to win or lose based on the perceptions of the producers. Herb Stemple (John Turturro) won for many weeks on 21 because he was a person viewers rooted against.
Such a person excited interest, but it was a limited interested. Herb’s numbers peaked; Enright threw him to the wolves. It helped, as well, that Van Doren was waiting in the wings.
Bob Castle is an author, teacher, film critic, and playwright. He is also the founder of the Collingswood Movie Club, which meets monthly in the public library for film showings and discussion.
Castle's writing has appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal, Film Comment, and The Film Journal. His plays have been performed during the Philadelphia New Play Festival, the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, and at the the Gone in 60 Seconds and "In a New York Minute" festivals.