A roving young reporter (Patricia Neal) brings her radio equipment into a podunk Arkansas jail and falls into an interview with one of the inmates (Andy Griffith), who proves, probably to his own surprise, to be a naturally charming and charismatic man. Christened "Lonesome" Rhodes, he begins a rocket-fueled ascent from drunken drifter to national media and political powerhouse, changing both of them forever.
Written by Budd Schulberg (based on his short story "Your Arkansas Traveler") and directed by Elia Kazan, this 1957 film's message about the power and danger of media demagoguery is still frighteningly relevant, while Griffith's memorable acting helped him get his start in Hollywood, and is usually considered the finest performance of his career.
In 2008 the film was added to the National Film Registry.
The film provides examples of:
- Bittersweet Ending: Would likely be a Downer Ending if not for Miller's media savvy analysis accompanying the whole thing; noting that Lonesome will likely be able to revive some of his career, but his days as a powerful icon are over, and while Marsha is still shaken from the ordeal, she is comforted mildly by Miller informing her she only proved stronger seeing Lonesome away.
- Call-Back: Lonesome shouting to Marcia at the end of the film is reminiscent of "HEY STELLA!", which makes sense since Elia Kazan directed A Streetcar Named Desire.
- The Cameo: Numerous real-life media personalities of the era appear as themselves, including Burl Ives and Mike Wallace.
- Deadpan Snarker: Mel Miller (Walter Matthau), the world-weary head writer for Rhodes' Cracker Barrel show.
- Deliberate Values Dissonance: Slipped in here and there by Kazan and Schulberg, just to give a somewhat less romanticized portrait of the South than most works at the time; for example, when we first meet "Uncle" J.B., the station manager of KGRK, he's getting his shoes shined by a black attendant that he jovially pats on the head like a dog. Lonesome bringing a black woman onto his show is also treated as a big deal.
Helen, look what they're having on television now.It's about time!!
- Which it was, at the time. Especially in the Deep South.
- Driven to Suicide: Averted. Lonesome insists that he's going to jump off the building if Marsha leaves him, but Mel dismisses the threat, since Lonesome is too self-centered to ever kill himself.
- Drunk with Power: The more attention Lonesome gets, the more arrogant he becomes, culminating in his Engineered Public Confession.Cracker Barrel Cast Member: You really sell that stiff as a man among men?Rhodes: 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. (grins and waves to camera, sarcastically) 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.
- Engineered Public Confession: Unbeknownst to Lonesome, Marcia takes control of the production booth to broadcast his speech in Drunk with Power live over the airwaves. Upon seeing that he is a Nice Character, Mean Actor, his audience and sponsors promptly desert him en masse.
- Eureka Moment: When the director of The Cracker Barrel grumbles "Oh, if they ever heard how that psycho really talks!..." as he removes his headphones while Lonesome mocks Senator Fuller and the TV audience, thinking his microphone has been cut, Marcia gets the idea to let the audience hear exactly that: how little Lonesome really thinks of them.
- Fat, Sweaty Southerner in a White Suit: Sheriff Bess is never actually seen in a white suit, but we can presume he has one, and he certainly fits the rest of the type. He manages to be attractive even so, and he and Marcia were unofficially engaged before Lonesome came along.note
- From Bad to Worse: Rhodes, before and especially after his downfall.
- From Nobody to Nightmare: Lonesome Rhodes begins the film in an Arkansas jail, an alcoholic drifter with little more than the clothes on his back and a guitar. Thanks to his exposure on Marcia Jeffries' radio show and a series of breaks that introduce him to wider and wider audiences, he becomes a powerful political demagogue... and the power goes straight to his head.
- Getting Crap Past the Radar: In-universe. Part of the rebranding for Vitajex that Rhodes masterminds involves hinting as much as possible for TV in The '50s that it boosts the male sex drive.
- Hitler Cam: Used effectively on Lonesome when he's giving his deranged, drunken speech in his penthouse late in the film, clearly meant to be a Does This Remind You of Anything? nod to Hitler himself.
- In Case You Forgot Who Wrote It: Budd Schulberg's A Face in the Crowd.
- It's All About Me: When Rhodes offers Marcia 10% of his share, she angrily reminds him that it was her idea which was responsible for his stardom, and demands in writing that she be treated as an equal partner.
- Line-of-Sight Name: When Larry Rhodes won't tell Marcia his first name during her jail radio show remote, she spontaneously dubs him "Lonesome", which ends up sticking.
- Male Gaze: The drum majorette scene features numerous shots from what is clearly Lonesome's perspective. Griffith said years later that the direction that Kazan gave him for that scene was to mentally "fuck her" and his lecherous, leering smile was the result. Lampshaded when J.B. catches him with a lingering smile at one of the girls.J.B.: She's only seventeen...Lonesome: (Composes himself; solemnly) She looks like a very sweet child.
- The Man Is Sticking It to the Man: Both Kazan and Schulberg were interested in exploring how this happens and offering a Deconstruction in this film, showing how anti-establishment rhetoric, even that which, as in the case of Rhodes, originally came from a genuine and sincere place can easily be co-opted and managed by state and corporations for the benefit of the establishment. Schulberg noted that he was inspired by the fact that several famous comics like Will Rogers in The '30s came to support New Deal and FDR and other legislation through their populist pieces even if privately they disagreed with those same policies and were more conservative than they let on.
- New Media Are Evil: This movie is very negative about the effect of television on the public.
- Nice Character, Mean Actor: Lonesome again, though he didn't begin that way. Inversely, Griffith in real life was so disturbed by the effects that playing Rhodes had on him, that it was decades before he agreed to play another villain.
- No Celebrities Were Harmed: Lonesome Rhodes, at least in his public persona, appears to be something of an amalgam of Will Rogers and Arthur Godfrey. Godfrey had already inspired the similar 1956 film The Great Man, directed by and starring Jose Ferrer.
- No Indoor Voice: Lonesome Rhodes.
- Pet the Dog: The first thing Lonesome does with his Memphis TV show is hold a fundraiser for a homeless black woman. Pretty daring for the Deep South during The '50s! When he hits the big time, his charity fundraisers become more cynical.
- Please Don't Leave Me: Said by Rhodes to Marcia several times when she gets sick of his hubris and threatens to walk out of his life; it is not until after engineering his downfall that she has the courage to refuse his pleas.
- Precision F-Strike: During the climax, after Lonesome has inadvertently told his audience what he really thinks of them on the air, we see the reactions of different viewers, including a group of hard-hatted workmen in a bar. One of whom offers this comment (with the offending word dubbed out, but clearly visible on his lips):Workman: We'll f______ fix you, Jack.
- Rags to Riches: Rhodes goes from a drifter with one spare shirt and a guitar to his name to occupying the top two floors of a luxurious New York hotel.
- "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Delivered by Mel Miller to Lonesome following his downfall.Rhodes: Listen, I'm not through yet. You know what's gonna to happen to me?Mel: Suppose I tell you exactly what's gonna happen to you. You're gonna be back in television. Only it won't be quite the same as it was before. There'll be a reasonable cooling-off period and then somebody will say: "Why don't we try him again in a inexpensive format. People's memories aren't too long." And you know, in a way, he'll be right. Some of the people will forget, and some of them won't. Oh, you'll have a show. Maybe not the best hour or, you know, top 10. Maybe not even in the top 35. But you'll have a show. It just won't be quite the same as it was before. Then a couple of new fellas will come along. And pretty soon, a lot of your fans will be flocking around them. And then one day, somebody'll ask: "Whatever happened to, ah, whatshisname? You know, the one who was so big. The number-one fella a couple of years ago. He was famous. How can we forget a name like that? Oh by the way, have you seen, ah, Barry Mills? I think he's the greatest thing since Will Rogers."
- Role-Ending Misdemeanor: In-Universe, after Rhodes' ugly opinions of the audience are leaked out to the public, he quickly loses his endorsement deals. While it's likely he'll revive his career, Miller notes that he'll never get as powerful as he used to be, and will more than likely be forgotten after a while.
- Slasher Smile: Ever expect to see one◊ from Andy Griffith? Holy shit.
- Snake Oil Salesman: Lonesome Rhodes becomes massively popular as a pitchman for Vitajex, a pill that's basically just a mix of aspirin, caffeine and sugar,note which he touts as an energy booster.
- Star-Making Role: For Andy Griffith, who followed this up with his own TV show.
- Strawman News Media
- Telethon: Goes at least seventeen hours, but a sign held by one of the crippled children shows that it's also a commercial for Lonesome's sponsor.
- Villainous Breakdown: As a result of Rhodes's downfall.