Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB.5. USA, 1957. Newtown Productions. Story and Screenplay by Budd Schulberg. Cinematography by Gayne Rescher, Harry Stradling Sr.. Produced by Elia Kazan. Music by Tom Glazer. Production Design by Paul Sylbert, Richard Sylbert. Costume Design by Anna Hill Johnstone. Film Editing by Gene Milford.
A media-saturated America is anticipated by this excellent Elia Kazan film made in 1957. Patricia Neal plays the host of a modest radio show who interviews a group of men in prison and discovers that one of them, an oakie by the name of Lonesome Rhodes (Andy Griffith in his film debut) is a talented singer and guitar player. She lures this reluctant songster into making further appearances on the radio, where he turns out to have a natural, hustling ability to win over scores of audiences with his aw-shucks charm and Elmer Gantry-like charisma. Pretty soon it’s a show biz version of All The King’s Men as Rhodes becomes king of all media, conquering television, influencing politics and making it all the way to big government as he takes advantage of everyone’s belief in him. Neal falls madly in love with him despite the occasional warning that Lonesome Rhodes has never for a minute needed any encouragement to exhibit himself to the world. The script is a wonderfully sassy poke at the gullibility produced by a country that has watched too many westerns and Andy Hardy movies and has come to believe in its own mythology as gospel truth, but Kazan’s direction also makes sure that there’s a lot of character drama to balance out the messaging. Allowing the story to make its own political statement, the director’s concentration on personality makes for a film that is much deeper than its allegory. It also benefits greatly from Griffith’s shockingly Satanic performance and Neal’s deeply moving and electrifying work: just watch her jaw cut glass when she reacts sharply to her first indication, while boarding a train with her co-star, that he might not be everything he claims.