The Sounds of Silence in A Face in the Crowd (1957)

photo: Warner Bros.

“Electric: this voice in the crowd,” proclaims David Hammond in a 1957 issue of the British fan magazine Picturegoer. “The biggest rival to Elvis Presley and Tommy Sands as a hill-billy [sic], guitar-playing performer… I’d say he tops Presley as an artist… The voice is rough-edged and strong, the style straight from the cornfields. The effect: electrifying.” This worshipful description refers not to any real-life singer or stage performer but to the character of Lonesome Rhodes in Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd

Played by Andy Griffith, Rhodes ascends from his deadbeat existence of drunkenly jail-hopping to a life of broadcasting fame, sex, wealth, and even political power—all on a wave of folky populism and coal-black cynicism. His authoritarian impulses, which only ramp up as the film goes on, have led contemporary critics to seek commonalities between Rhodes and Donald Trump or, at least, between his moment and ours. The biggest difference so far is that Lonesome Rhodes is met with justice; the masses turn against him when they discover what a phony he is.

But I have never found this parallel compelling: Rhodes and Trump do not share the same vices or struggles. At the start, Rhodes appeals to his audiences’ higher angels. Devilishly charming with his fans, he is sympathetic to the plight of women and people of color and enjoys pranking those in power (cops and sponsors, mostly). 

I side, rather, with Thomas Beltzer, who writes “[m]ore than Arthur Godfrey, [Rhodes] is reminiscent of Sputnik Monroe, Dewey Phillips, and, of course, Elvis Presley. These personalities stroked their poor white and black audiences, treating them better than they’d ever been treated while at the same time deceiving them cheerfully and taking their money.” The pairing of Rhodes and Presley is more revealing: if I’m not fully electrified by it, it at least seems to uncover something new about A Face in the Crowd. Presley and Rhodes are white, male performers whose “rough-edged, strong” stage personas construct white, Southern masculinity through the appropriation of Black expressivity: gospel, jazz, and the blues. It speaks to something I’ve always suspected about this movie: that it’s more about Blackness than it lets on.

Generosity and greed, authenticity and fakery: in his 1993 book, Eric Lott labeled the white feelings motivating minstrelsy as a combination of “love and theft.” Lott establishes—and, seven years later, Spike Lee affirms in his 2000 film Bamboozled—how minstrelsy and blackface lie at the heart of Hollywood’s dream factory: Lillian Gish jumping off a cliff before she’d let herself be embraced by a white actor in blackface; the first “talkie,” The Jazz Singer (1927), culminating in Al Jolson’s corked-up rendition of “My Mammy”; golden child Shirley Temple tap-dancing amid a sea of Black tap dancers. Filmed Blackness is historically cool, sentimental, dangerous, predatory, sexless, and ridiculous. This tangle of contradictions constitutes a pool of traits that white performers can dip into or discard, as needed, sometimes as themselves, other times in mock-disguise, covered in a layer of paint and exaggeration. As a response, A Face in the Crowd engages in a compelling paradox: it prominently displaces and visibly erases Blackness on-screen. Intentionally or not, in following the rise and fall of a white folk personality, the film tells a different but related story, that of “love and theft” as Hollywood’s original, and gravest, sin. 

*

For a film about the marginalization of Black representation, it’s worth noting how infrequently Black characters feature and even more rarely speak. That is – that has to be – the point… right? More than a political critique, the movie is a show business satire, and, by the director’s own account, “it’s exaggerated—all satires are—to make a point.” (Many spoofs of Hollywood fit those same descriptors, birthed by industry malcontents who are mad as hell and aren’t going to take it anymore.) 

The movie’s criticisms of mass culture, media hypocrisy, and the celebrity megalomaniac are dryly narrated by Walter Matthau’s Mel Miller, impossible to miss. Its argument about race is silent but deadly, near invisible on initial, even repeated, viewing. It gets drowned out by Andy Griffith’s foghorn laugh and all those presciently Trumpy vibes. Mobilized pointedly, in a way few films of this period did purposefully, is the trope of the Silent Black Extra—the maid, the train porter, the nameless face in a crowd. If, in these other Hollywood films, an unspeaking Black presence centers white stories and white characters, here the silence of downtrodden Black men and women underscores white loudness, its insistence on drowning out everything and everyone else. 

We might wonder how the quiet(ed) or peripheral Black characters in A Face in the Crowd—a film that Kazan insisted was about television—comments on a mid-century practice called “Integration without Identification.” This NBC policy, instituted by public relations specialist Joseph Baker in 1951, involved hiring Black actors to play unspeaking extras. The network’s intent was to please liberal more progressive east coast audiences without offending Southern sponsors, but, of course, the result was a toothless corporate response to the growing Civil Rights movement. 

The important elements of Lonesome Rhodes’s story—secret and stolen recordings, voices estranged from bodies—give new form to the old story of minstrelsy, blackface, and racial exploitation, doing so through the rendering of a white entertainer’s rise and fall. If the narrative of A Face in the Crowd is haunted by these problems of “love and theft,” then the film’s peripheral, sidelined Black figures have been cast as ghosts, stern reminders of all those whose subjectivities have been stolen to prop up the moneymaking enterprise of American populism. 

Tina Post’s category of the deadpan offers the inverse, possibly a rebuke, of blackface’s burlesque qualities and its commercial intent; she calls it “a form of signifying… in the matrix of ways that black people have marshaled inscrutability as a technique for surviving oppression.” There is nothing to copy, nothing to steal, from the expressionless Black subject. Post goes on to compare Black deadpan to “Asian inscrutability,” specifying that “deadpan might be projected by an observer or performed by the observed; the deadpan’s aesthetic functions operate with or without the intention of the subject who performed it.”

The problem and promise of authorial intent rears its Medusa-esque head. I’m not positive that Kazan is empowering these subjects through Post’s deadpan mode or if he’s even trying to. At best, he is—and at worst, he’s a highbrow Rhodes, using these Black performers in service of his very-much-faltering progressive credentials. As the meme asks: why not both? Satire isn’t so much about solving problems as presenting them, and A Face in the Crowd takes ample time to lay out a long, deep, pernicious representational problem. 

Now, having thoroughly tied myself in knots, the anti-auteurist in me pipes up: maybe this isn’t about Kazan at all. Fair enough! Regardless, there’s a lot to hear, a lot to witness, in A Face in the Crowd. So I have decided to listen to those who don’t talk (or who talk less) in this otherwise noisy masterpiece. Their silence, I suspect, speaks volumes. 

*

“Oh, wait a minute! I forgot my tape recorder!” 

Before we meet charismatic anti-hero Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, languishing in the town jail on account of a drunk and disorderly charge, we are introduced to Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal), clean and fresh in her ivory suit jacket and skirt, a sun hat poised atop her curls. A Seven Sisters graduate working in northeastern Arkansas, Marcia is looking for some local color to spice up her program. She leans over Rhodes’s sleeping form, eager for a song or an anecdote, and their eyes meet. (“People are fascinating wherever you find them,” she vows, not knowing what she’s in for.) Rhodes will only perform if the sheriff, who happens to be sweet on Marcia, agrees to release him in the morning; he then proceeds to explain why a guitar is more loyal than a woman, improvises a mean song about the sheriff, and brags he’ll be a “free man in the morning.” 

Then there’s Louie, the Black man who is behind bars while other (white) inmates walk around freely. Louie laughs at the jokes and songs of the other men but refuses to perform himself. “Just ’cause I got black skin, I ain’t no minstrel man,” he maintains. When Rhodes jumps into his song about being a “free man in the morning,” he asks Louie if he has “any objection to being a free man in the morning,” to which Louie replies, “No, sir I ain’t.” As Post writes,  “[E]ven as the deadpan refuses some part of an encounter, it amplifies other details for those witnesses… primed to notice.” The detail that calls to me in this moment is how his arms stretch in between the bars, so it looks as though his wrists are tethered together by invisible handcuffs. Louie’s “deadpan” affect draws my attention to his body language: how he is incarcerated first by the state and second by the representational schema that contains him. 

Louie knows he won’t be a free man in the morning, so he won’t be ceding control of his likeness entirely. This is in contrast to the naive, or maybe secretly calculating, Lonesome. Marcia, a self-proclaimed “sneaky pie,” catches Rhodes’s musings and ramblings without his knowing. “Hey now,” Lonesome tells her. “Don’t rush me. Cut that thing off for a minute” (referring to the recorder). Marcia initially consents, but secretly clicks the recorder back on and sits in front of the device so he won’t see.

In this sequence, Marcia lives up to Rhodes’s misogynistic commentary about untrustworthy women—not great—and, perhaps worse, acts as an over-awed tourist amidst all this populist poverty. “When I went East to Sarah Lawrence,” she intones perkily, “I majored in music, and I learned the real American music comes from the bottom-up.” Hers is a whitewashed history of the art form, to put it mildly.

As a producer who acts in many ways as his Gal Friday, Marcia elevates Rhodes to the level of a broadcasting demi-god in the eyes of the American public, and he pays her back by uncovering countless ways to seduce, abandon, and humiliate her. Marcia even gets taken in by her own invention; in a bit of accidental prescience, she is the one who first calls him “Lonesome.” Marcia stands by, amused and enraptured, as Rhodes spins yarns about the simple folk of Riddle and the lonely city “pickle hearts” who roam the streets of Memphis at 3 am. It is as though her first secret recording has become secret even to her. 

At film’s end, in a symmetrical act that gestures toward the couple’s first meeting, Marcia captures Rhodes on a hot mic spewing hateful rhetoric about his adoring fans. “For those morons out there… I can make ’em eat dog food, and they’ll think it’s steak!… Goodnight, you stupid idiots! Goodnight, you miserable slobs!” he says, a big fake smile stretched across his face. His fall is staged as a kind of Greek tragedy, as predetermined and brutal as any punishment for the hubristic mortal. 

Marcia is the one who purposely sets his disgrace in motion, and she does so by again stealing his voice, separating his speech from his face, and setting his voice and likeness on two parallel tracks. 

*

The theme of secret recordings is tangled up with the motif of sound and image severed: the disembodied voice, the muted mouth. Once the voice is removed from its source, from the body, any semblance of indexicality or reality is shattered, as elements of each can be distorted, dubbed, tweaked, or altogether stolen. As Louis Chude-Sokei writes, “the interbreeding and interdependence of… [the] uncanny anxieties,” referring to those of race and technology, “require strategic moments when the two blend and pass for each other.” The problem of stolen speech, of the body out of sync with voice, is a race problem passing as a technical difficulty, a way to talk about the former through the latter; turns out, the bug is actually a feature. Chude-Sokei goes on to explain how “minstrelsy… maintains a white sense of humanity in that wilderness of industrial modernity”; the author is writing of the Sambo mask specifically, but could just as easily be talking about A Face in the Crowd

At the beginning of his rocket ride, at least, Rhodes is staunchly opposed to the opportunistic selling-off of people’s parts—his own, in particular. Instead of manipulating through media, he wants to reveal the apparatus, comically strain against the mechanisms of broadcasting, while letting the viewer in on the joke (which is sort of the point of the show-business satire as a form). It might be a strategic “authenticity,” but it remains a recognizable phony-folksiness. He resists whenever someone on the production team pressures him to speed up or conclude a segment. He tilts the monitor toward the camera, telling the crew, “Show the folks what I’m talking about… [I] wanna talk face to face with my friends out there.” 

This experimentation, a kind of Roy Rogers meets Ernie Kovacs schtick, serves as a wild but seemingly earnest rejection of both automation and convention. His unwillingness to be turned into a set of usable parts comes across at first (with Rhodes, it’s always at first) as ethical commitment. But it turns out he has just been waiting for a better offer. Everything changes when the previously puckish Rhodes becomes the face of Vitajex, a drug that boasts to boost energy and libido. It does neither, but, as one doctor notes in private, at least it won’t kill you. The Vitajex sequence—perhaps the most memorable of the entire film—is raucous, chaotic, and even racy at points. (Erotically speaking, it must be said, it doesn’t hold a candle to the film’s practically pornographic baton-twirling competition.) 

A trio of chipper, costumed chorus girls sing the theme song (“Vitajex, what you doin’ to me?”), before their voices become the soundtrack to a montage that includes Griffith’s face being fed a Vitajex pill from a hand, extending from off-screen; a cartoon of the pill goes down his esophagus and explodes, H-bomb style, in his stomach; an audience applauds and grunts in approval, as Vitajex sales climb on a line graph; the camera closes in on Rhodes’ mouth as he lets out a braying laugh. Not only are the voice and body disconnected throughout this sequence, but the body is dismembered too, hands and mouths removed from their context through the power of peppy, violent camerawork.

photo: Warner Bros./YouTube

Rhodes’s now-fractured identity is exemplified by his favorite toy: an applause machine he has installed in his own home. He is so consumed by the desire for praise, for adoration from people who he barely sees as human, that he turns his home life into a television studio capable of delivering the acceptance he needs. The disembodied laughter is uncanny, loud, and freaky, not unlike the Vitajex scene itself. It says something about fame and who it spoils, but it also calls into question whether there was ever a coherent “Lonesome Rhodes” to begin with. 

From the beginning, Hollywood has stolen from Black performers, separated their labor from their likeness, sometimes in plain sight and other times in secret, without leaving a paper trail. At first, it seems the same thing is going to happen to Lonesome—his voice stolen, his self fractured beyond repair—but as Marcia discovers with horror, he has always been the architect of his own corruption and, ultimately, his own destruction. 

 

*

A Face in the Crowd, then, is a blaring satire and a quiet allegory, in which secret recordings and disembodied voices are symptoms that tap into the larger problem of silenced Black entertainers. The wordless service of Black waiters and servicemen throughout the film underscores the too-often-unmarked representation of white wealth and luxury. When Lonesome Rhodes is disgraced, he gathers up his Black staff and urges them to laugh at his jokes. They are not his minstrel men: deadpan, they do not react or perform approval. This kind of impassive, non-acting acting transforms extras into featured players, into characters rather than devices.

Earlier in the film, when Rhodes brings a Black woman on the first episode of his show, he describes how the house she shares with her children has just burned down and pleads with his viewers to send her money. She starts to speak when he chimes in, explaining her plight: “She just walked around and around, because she ain’t got no place to go.” His motive, at first, seems good, and his growing, color-blind fanbase sends in lots of money. But something is up with how he steps around her, blocking her body as he leans into the camera. So is the sign behind them, an advertisement for National Fertilizer. 

In other words: it’s all bullshit, no? Rhodes might claim to not have a problem with Black people; he’s not spouting white supremacist rhetoric on air. But he has no problem using them, either. His scorn and ruthless ambition, minor eruptions until this point in the film, kick into high gear as his star waxes. 

This last point is not something I noticed on first viewing; it took watching this movie with my jazz aficionado dad for me to clock the presence of Brownie McGhee. McGhee, real-life blues singer and guitarist, has an infinitesimal role in the movie, shining the shoes of Marcia’s boss at the small-town radio station. He is more absent than present in the scene, lurking in the lower corner. McGhee, however, was not a true extra, but a consultant on the film, hired to improve Griffith’s guitar playing. The two became friends in the process, and now, whenever I watch Rhodes go to wild, glorious town on his guitar, I think of McGhee’s hidden labor, his masked artistry. Is the film playing a prank on us, or is it unwittingly replicating Rhodes’s own opportunist streak? 

Two years after the release of Kazan’s film, McGhee released a track entitled “Face in the Crowd.”

Standin on the corner / People rush by me
Shy ones and sly ones / The humble, the proud
How long must I go on looking? / Looking for your face in the crowd

Walking through the city / The crowded ol’ city
Thousands of faces / The quiet, the proud
How long / How long will it take you?
Just to find / My face in a crowd

People all around me / Feel so all alone
Just like a motherless child / Long ways from home

Rhodes, the “motherless child” who learned love from a guitar and not from his broken family life, haunts this song. But so does my relationship with this movie. I’m sorry it took me so long to find your face in the crowd, Brownie McGhee.

*

Spike Lee’s Bamboozled (2000) was dedicated to A Face in the Crowd’s screenwriter (and Lee’s friend), Budd Schulberg. The protagonist of Bamboozled is an Ivy-educated Black screenwriter (Marlon Wayans) who produces a minstrel show for television. He is Marcia and Lonesome wrapped into a single character: egomaniacal and ashamed, having grown estranged from his initial, critical intent. He and the other characters suffer as a result of losing perspective on fame and on history, in a manner far bloodier than anyone in A Face in the Crowd

There is no anxiety of influence here, just solidarity. Lee and Schulberg have made complementary films, both movies products of their televisual ages, both men committed to making their audiences squirm. Rhodes’s maniacal laughter in the Vitajex sequence harmonizes with how Ashley Clark describes Bamboozled’s last shot: “a close-up of… [the blackface performer’s] smiling, sweating face, slathered and trapped in that glistening burnt cork and fire engine-red lipstick,” as an unseen audience roars its terrifying approval. The medium close-up of Rhodes, costumed to be “natural, easy, and relaxed, real country,” complete with cowboy hat and straw-in-teeth, keeps bleak company with the image of Tommy Davidson and Savion Glover putting on blackface in the mirror. Whose sadness am I seeing there in the reflection? Their characters, or the actors?

As Bamboozled itself argues, any racial or political critique can be neutralized, cut together maliciously, turned against itself and made to mean its opposite. The power of television! If he was indeed purposely commenting on racial representation by ostentatiously foregrounding whiteness, Kazan might be breaking the cycle—or maintaining its momentum. Together, however, Schulberg, Kazan, and Lee manage to bring the viewer close—dangerously, grotesquely close, in fact—until whiteness, Blackness, and the color of money become a muddled mess. Then, all we have left are faces: great, committed performers who give their all and hold nothing back.