Most people remember Andy Griffith from the Andy Griffith Show. For many growing up in that era and beyond (thanks to syndication even I, who is drastically younger than the original audience, have seen some episodes), Andy Griffith was a lovable sheriff who spouted out folksy wisdom cut down in convenient half hour chunks. But everyone had to start somewhere. Andy Griffith debuted with a smash in an oddly prophetic role in A Face in the Crowd.
Andy Griffith plays Lonesome Rhodes. Lonesome Rhodes is discovered by a young radio personality while staying in the drunk tank in a small town. His performance of “Free Man in the Morning” rocks the radio broadcast and he is pulled into the studio to become a regular on local radio. His “folksy” charm is evident from the beginning. He is loud, gruff, and a liar. But he cuts through the nonsense and gets to the heart of the town. This charm conveys him up the entertainment food chain until he is on television in New York City. He shills Vitajex, a nonsense pill that does absolutely nothing, and sets the tastes for seemingly the whole country. The whole time playing like he is just some simple country man who loves nothing more than to see his country thrive. This is a sham, of course. He is actually a bitter and manipulative man who strings along the person who discovered him until she is a wreck from all the back and forth. He resents his audience and believes that he could sell anything to them, because they are so simple. He spirals out of control until the woman who believed in him and made him who he was decides to leave the microphone on while he rants about how awful his audience is.
This film still holds the bite it once had so many years ago. This is because it isn’t just the story of Lonesome Rhodes, but the story of how television has made us believe anything if packaged just right. Towards the end of the movie, Lonesome Rhodes becomes involved with a man trying to win the presidential candidacy. When we first see the candidate, he bores us with this long and rambling speech. He is prim and polished but he looks just like every other man running for president. Lonesome Rhodes teaches him to mess up his hair, wear jeans, go hunting, and earn a nickname. He becomes a common man up for an uncommon position. In other words he appeals to the “folksy” audience Lonesome Rhodes also appeals to. Now take these ideas and apply them to almost any presidential candidate of the last thirty years. George Bush affected a Texan accent despite being born in Connecticut and spending most of his formative years in Massachusetts. Barack Obama was distilled down to the key words “Hope” and “Change” for most of his first presidential campaign. Elections are won by appealing to the lowest common denominator. The people who watch people screaming at each other over tax breaks for the wealthy on Fox News are the same people who are helping to elect one of the dumbest Congresses to date. (I mean my god they shut down government because they want to defund a program that they themselves help to create. It is just freaking lunacy.) Television isn’t the only thing dumbing down our country, but it sure doesn’t help.