David Haven Blake: The movie that tells us how politics really works in our democracy

[David Haven Blake, associate professor of English at the College of New Jersey, is the author of "Walt Whitman and the Culture of American Celebrity." He is currently writing a book about democracy and fame in the television age.]

Frank Capra's film "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (1939) pervades American political culture. For decades, the film's account of an idealistic young senator who battles government corruption has been our gleaming cultural cliché, the standard by which we measure new political personalities.

But the problem with invoking Jefferson Smith—whether for inspiration or irony—is that his story is a poor touchstone for thinking about the workings of democracy. For all of its attention to senate protocol and power blocs, there is nothing in Capra’s film that can help us understand the spectacle of candidates trying to win over an electorate.

Mr. Smith, we might remember, was never elected to office; he received a special governor's appointment.

It is time to enter a new film into American political consciousness, one more suited to the spectacle of Fred Thompson announcing his presidential campaign on "The Tonight Show" or Barack Obama boogying with Ellen DeGeneres on daytime TV. My nomination is "A Face in the Crowd" (1957), screenwriter Budd Schulberg and director Elia Kazan’s startling film about the power of media and celebrity. Though the occasion was hardly noticed, the film recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. Could there be a better time to reflect on its continuing relevance?

"A Face in the Crowd" tells the story of Lonesome Rhodes, a drunken roustabout played by a magnetic Andy Griffith. Discovered in a small town jail by an ambitious producer (Patricia O’Neal), Rhodes experiences overnight success as an Arkansas radio personality. He quickly evolves into a television sensation and guitar-picking American icon. With the help of the retired general whose vitamin company sponsors his show, he becomes a wielder of national opinion, a showman eager to comment on public affairs.

With devastating bluntness, Rhodes coaches a presidential candidate how to speak in the folksy, down-home style that his 65 million viewers prefer. (The candidate, a rather priggish senator, demonstrates his newly-acquired skills as a guest on Rhodes’ "Cracker Barrel" TV show.) Politicians see Rhodes as being so influential that they talk about giving him a new cabinet position: the Secretary of National Morale. Fueled by a heavy dose of Jack Daniels, the scene in which he responds to his empire’s collapse will forever change the way you look at the normally affable Griffith.

The film struggled to find an audience when it was released, but over the years, its portrait of television and demagoguery has attracted an impressive group of admirers. François Truffaut described "A Face in the Crowd" as "a great and beautiful work," comparing its weightiness to the writings of Roland Barthes. Spike Lee cited the film as a major inspiration and dedicated "Bamboozled "(2000) to Schulberg. It is hard to imagine such gems as "Network" (1976), "Bob Roberts" (1992), and "Bulworth" (1998) without the groundbreaking efforts of this underappreciated film.

In Lonesome Rhodes, Schulberg and Kazan showed Americans their own "demagogue in denim." Although he was inspired by Will Rogers, Arthur Godfrey, and Joseph McCarthy, his lineage is less significant than his real-life descendants. We find his DNA in the long tradition of media personalities who have tried to identify themselves with populist power—Pat Robertson, Jesse Ventura, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rush Limbaugh and his "ditto-heads" among them. Rhodes's rise and fall anticipates the arc of cowboy Don Imus' career, though the speed of his demise makes the Imus departure seem like a slow ride into the sunset.

"A Face in the Crowd" was astonishingly prophetic in understanding the role that television would play in shaping political campaigns. As Kazan presented it, television was the "hypnotic terrible force" that turned celebrities into demagogues and citizens into sheep. "Let us not forget," the general remarks with chilling delight, "that in TV we have the greatest instrument for mass persuasion in the history of the world." The film led Truffaut to conclude that "In America, politics always overlaps show business, as show business always overlaps advertising.”

We have learned since the Eisenhower era that viewers play a significant role in transforming celebrities into objects of their own design. The public has grown adept at choosing which aspects of a star they admire.

And as if they were a kind of cultural Silly Putty, public figures must yield to audience distortions and manipulations that give them alternate, even subversive meanings. Spend an hour on YouTube, and you will see the many ways in which personalities from Madonna to Giuliani are re-imagined and re-conceived.

And yet, despite our media savvy, the values of Lonesome Rhodes and his backers continue to thrive in the Internet age. The 50th anniversary is a good occasion to pick up the DVD of "A Face in the Crowd" and appreciate its remarkable achievement. And as the primary season intensifies, let us hope that the film becomes part of our regular political vocabulary and a recognized source of illumination and critique.

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Tim Matthewson - 11/25/2007

I am not sure that Frank Capra's "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" pervades American political culture any longer, perhaps not today in our deeply divided polarization into Red and Blue states. Still there is a streak of idealism that runs thru American political culture, an idealism that would lead Americans of the Age of 43 to listen to President Bush when he proclaims that America's mission in Iraq and the Middle East is to spread the blessings of democracy thru the region. Even President Nixon spoke of America's democratic mission in south Vietnam as that of spreading democracy thru Southeast Asia -- and many Americans are still mystified by the failure of such ideals as failing to catch on among the poor benighted majorities of the world's populations.
"A Face in the Crowd" presents a far more accurate portrayal of politics and it represents a long and distinguished tradition in literature and art that was well articulated by William Shakespeare centuries ago in "Coriolanus," which is the story of a politician made a number of unsavory compromises with different people and groups in order to achieve power. The same theme was developed in the movie version Robert Penn Warren's book about Huey Long, "All the King's Men," winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1947 and made into a movie starring Broderick Crawfort. More recently, Robert Redford's move, "The Candidate," well portrayed the young idealist who manages to get elected by making alliances with the powers that be, but finds himself wondering when he does get elected, "What do I do now?"
Even though the later movies played to larger audiences and repeated a theme that goes back to Shakespeare and were far more accurate than the Capra movie, "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" speaks to the idealistic spirit of America, tells us what we want to believe about ourselves, and insists that the good guys will win in the end. But it makes me gag to think that cynical politicians like George Bush and Dick Cheney will benefit from the idealism of the American people and that we leave ourselves open to exploitation by the likes of Bush and Cheney when we accept the view that movies like "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" bear any resemblance to reality.

Michael Meo - 11/19/2007

We lived, did we not, Ms. Burnet, through a Presidential election in 2000 in which most all media outlets gave George W. Bush a pass?

Were we not advised he was 'comfortable in his own skin' in place of any discussion of his policy stances? When he denied his own social security policy in his debate with the Democratic candidate, did not the national news media [b]denounce the Democrat[/b] for "sighing" rather than report the fact that George Bush apparantly was ignorant of his own statement of policy?

I am glad you continue to find reason to be optimistic. I wish I could join you.

vaughn davis bornet - 11/17/2007

A good essay, first to last. It is tempting indeed to just give in and assume that TV and movies have permanently and profoundly taken over our presidential politics. Maybe it's me (my first vote was in 1940).

First off, our candidates are a whole lot better than in this film and others where a nobody is molded and shaped by another and more skilled nobody. Snipers may not think so, but most of the candidates this year strike me as persons who have been successful and persons of education and talent. They owe most of their rise in life not to fund donors, I think, but to hard work and ability. (Take a close look, person by person.)

Next, while the media naturally picks up on odd dialogue and unfortunate gestures/conduct in a single meeting, it does seem to me that those who question at our Debates are Serious of purpose and those who answer are trying to muster all their knowledge and inteligence to impress us all. Admit it.

Alcohol, so important to political movies, plays no role in present day real life presidential politics, so far as I am aware.

The candidates are WORKING among the people, night and day. They meet the Public, and they speak seriously all day about matters of substance, it does seem to me--except, of course, when enroute to a new venue. Their speeches and conversation would never do for the movies cited in the article.

It has become unpopular to say that things are not going to Hell. They're not. I think back to the campaigns of my lifetime. Were they all that much better? It's unfair to pick out highlights from the Past and measure daily developments a year before the next election against the atypical and extraordinary.

Be of good cheer. Soon many candidates will be gone, weeded out. Sadly, maybe the best will be among them, but if so, assign at least some blame to our present population,=: the part who reply to polls, attend gatherings, and (especially) don't vote.

This Country is going to survive this apparently downturn in our morale and our eternal optimism, and much harsh criticism of today's marketplace is going to read badly down the line when my seven great grandchildren are helping to run things.

Or so I surmise--and hope.

Vaughn Davis Bornet Ashland, Oregon. Seventy years a historian, of sorts.... Lived through The Depression and World War II and the Rest of It.

Lorraine Paul - 11/12/2007

My mother took me to this film when I was about 9 or 10. (I also saw On the Waterfront about the same time)
"Face.." is part of a long line of experiences which led to my world view.

I could never watch the later Andy Griffiths show without expecting him to drop the affability and change into Lonesome!

One can only hope that either cable tv or free-to-air television might play it here before our own election in less than two weeks.

The article is correct in that the influence of TV was certainly predicted in this production.

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