Donald Trump

Seeing Trump on the Silver Screen

What A Face in the Crowd and Meet John Doe tell us about populism, pop culture, and fear.

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In the year of Trump, the 1957 film A Face in the Crowd has had more cameos in the political columns than any other revival-house staple. Pundit after pundit has pointed to the picture to explain the rise of the Republican nominee. That may say more about a certain segment of Donald Trump's foes than it does about Trump or his following.

The movie traces its roots to a tipsy conversation screenwriter Budd Schulberg once had with Will Rogers Jr., the son of the folksy cowboy humorist. "My father was so full of shit," Rogers declared, "because he pretends he's just one of the people, just one of the guys…but in our house the only people that ever came as guests were the richest people in town, the bankers and the power brokers of L.A." That comment inspired Schulberg's short story "Your Arkansas Traveler," and that story became the seed of A Face in the Crowd, scripted by Schulberg and directed by Elia Kazan. The picture has long been popular with people who fear the place where populism meets pop culture.

The movie begins with Marcia Jeffries visiting a county jail in Arkansas. Jeffries is a starry-eyed Sarah Lawrence grad who works for her uncle's rural radio station; she learned in college that "real American music comes from the bottom up," and she's delighted to discover a singing and storytelling drifter doing time for drunk and disorderly conduct. The prisoner is Lonesome Rhodes, played by Andy Griffith as a magnetic bundle of appetites, and his mix of country music and unfiltered philosophizing becomes popular on her uncle's radio outlet, and then on a larger-market television outlet, and finally on a national TV show transmitted from New York. Rhodes turns out to be not just a natural entertainer but a natural advertiser: Between his charisma and his frenzied fan base, he boosts the sales of everything from mattresses to energy supplements.

The story takes a turn when Rhodes starts applying his techniques to politics, pitching an ultraconservative senator with the talents he'd been using to pitch consumer goods. (The movie signals that the senator is a bad guy by calling him "the last of the isolationists" and by having him criticize Social Security.) Just as the dark night of reaction is about to fall upon the land, Jeffries sabotages Rhodes by flicking his mic back on when he thinks a TV broadcast is over. Suddenly his audience hears him mocking them: "Those morons out there? Shucks, I sell them chicken fertilizer as caviar….They're a lot of trained seals. I toss them a dead fish and they'll flap their flippers." His former fans rebel and the republic is saved.

The movie wasn't a hit when it came out, but it has had a long shelf life. That's partly because of Griffith, who gave the best performance of his career: a vortex of villainous charm that can shock viewers used to the genial TV sheriff he played later. But it's also because the picture speaks to a set of social anxieties that haven't disappeared: fears of television, advertising, popular culture, and demotic demagoguery. If a politician wanders over from the entertainment industry, and if his views even superficially resemble Rhodes', someone is bound to bring up Kazan and Schulberg's picture. (Kazan himself declared that it "anticipated Ronald Reagan.") It's no surprise that we've been hearing about it throughout this election season.

"Rarely and perhaps not in modern times has a presidential campaign more resembled the classic 1957 film, A Face in the Crowd," the conservative columnist Cal Thomas announced. At the other end of the spectrum, a scribe at The Nation informed us that "Lonesome Rhodes has come to life in the form of Donald Trump." CNN ran a story headlined "Did this movie predict Trump's rise?" The Washington Post's Marc Fisher declared that A Face in the Crowd set "the template" for "Trump's rule-smashing romp." Several pundits fantasized that a gaffe would trip up Trump the way Lonesome Rhodes' hot-mic moment brought him down. A writer in the Orlando Sentinel jumped the gun by suggesting a Trump rant he'd just watched would be that re-enactment of Rhodes' downfall. (This was last November, so: No, it wasn't.)

Many of these commentaries zeroed in on the personal parallels between the brash and unfiltered candidate and the brash and unfiltered movie character. But they often brought in the film's larger social critique, too. "Although small black-and-white television sets had appeared in American living rooms only a short time before, their power was obvious to Schulberg and Kazan," Robert Rosenkranz wrote in The Huffington Post. "With phenomenally prescient perspective, they imagined the potentially poisonous intersections between mass media, celebrity and political power." The article's headline: "Donald Trump: Just Another 'Face in the Crowd'?"

Prescient or not, that certainly was Kazan and Schulberg's big theme. In the middle of the 20th century, the fear of totalitarianism was closely linked to a fear of mass culture and mass media; with a powerful enough microphone, intellectuals worried, a would-be Caesar could reduce a nation of individuals to a mindless mob. In the '50s, television was a particularly frequent target (and Hollywood, facing competition from the upstart medium, was often happy to echo the critique). But other parts of popular culture came in for attacks as well. Life reacted to A Face in the Crowd by invoking rock 'n' roll, describing Lonesome Rhodes' followers as "frenzied bobby-soxers behaving like Presley fans." In Elia Kazan: A Biography, Richard Schickel reports that Kazan and Schulberg prepared for the picture by visiting the ad agencies of Madison Avenue. "We got the feeling," Kazan told Schickel, "that people were being manipulated in the crudest way."

It is of course true that advertisers, electioneers, and other propagandists want to manipulate the public. But Face goes further, because it essentially agrees with Rhodes about his audience. Even when his viewers rebel, they're being guided by a figure in a control booth: By switching on a microphone, Jeffries changes their programming. They hear Rhodes' crude insults and they turn on him instantaneously; she tosses them a dead fish, and they flap their flippers.

But real people aren't passive vessels. They tune out, talk back, and otherwise act in ways that programmers can barely anticipate, let alone control. There's no room for that in Face, and there's no room for it in a certain sort of critique of the Trump movement—the kind that sees his followers not as individual faces but as one big crowd.

You'll find more prescience in a superficially similar movie that winds up in a very different place: Meet John Doe, a 1941 film directed by Frank Capra and written by Robert Riskin. No, it doesn't anticipate Trump. What it anticipates is a world where media deceptions aren't just ubiquitous; they're a landscape of mutating memes outside anyone's control. Doe is, if anything, more cynical and paranoid than Face. (In Capra's picture, the pop-culture personality who gets co-opted by a totalitarian villain isn't even a real person.) But it is ultimately more hopeful than Kazan's film as well.

The story starts with a newspaper writer named Ann Mitchell learning that she's being fired. Desperate to create some buzz and keep her job, she makes up a letter from "John Doe," an unemployed man who says he's going to protest the state of the world by jumping from the roof of city hall. She prints it as her last column, the public goes wild, and before long Mitchell is writing a whole series of columns about John Doe, his troubles, and his plans to commit suicide. The paper finds a bum willing to play the role, and soon Mitchell has him delivering radio speeches outlining a populist philosophy of baseball, Christmas, and helping your neighbors. Listeners start forming John Doe Clubs devoted to mutual aid; everyone but politicians are free to join.

D.B. Norton, the plutocrat who has purchased the paper, pays for the faux Doe to give speeches across the country, and he then arranges a convention of the John Doe Clubs, where Doe will address 15,000 people in the hall and radio listeners across America. In that speech, we learn, Doe is to announce a new John Doe Party and declare that the next president of the United States should be that friend of the common man, D.B. Norton. It becomes clear that Norton is hungry not just for ordinary political power but for something approaching fascism.

In American Vision, a study of Capra's work, the critic Ray Carney describes Meet John Doe as a postmodern landscape where "there are no realities outside of media events, advertising splashes, public relations blitzes, and image-building appearances"—a world of "fictions within fictions without end." Mitchell and Doe may think they are in control of their environments, he writes, but they aren't: The two cons "are not the masterful, poised, independent performers they fancy themselves to be but are actually puppets in Norton's scheme to advance his political career."

What he doesn't note is that Norton isn't in control either. By the end of the film, John has refused to deliver the speech, Norton has retaliated by exposing John as a fraud, the convention has ended in chaos, and John's fans have turned on him as furiously as Face's fans rebel against Lonesome Rhodes. And yet the John Doe idea has escaped into the wild. In different corners of America, the clubs start to reconstitute themselves, whether or not they have an actual John Doe to lead them. The movie ends on an open note: We don't know what exactly is stirring in the country, just that it's out there and it can't be controlled.

Behind the scenes, Capra himself wasn't completely in control. When he started shooting the movie, he wasn't sure how it would end. He wound up filming five different denouements and testing them in front of different audiences. In his autobiography he claimed that the fifth ending—the one they wound up using—was suggested by a viewer who had dropped the director a line after attending some of the test screenings: "I have seen your film with many different endings…all bad, I thought…The only thing that can keep John Doe from jumping to his death is the John Does themselves…if they ask him…."

Many critics dislike Doe's ending, and it's certainly easy to find fault with it. There's a general clunkiness to the closing dialogue, especially in comparison to the cracking script that precedes it. (The film's final line reeks of both heavy-handedness and sentimentality: "There you are, Norton! The people! Try and lick that!") Capra himself called the conclusion a letdown—better than the four alternatives, but not something he was satisfied with.

And yet there's a real power to the ending too. "John Doe," a fictitious idea created for completely cynical reasons, has evolved into something alive and inspiring and perhaps even revolutionary. It isn't just the audience that has a life of its own. The fictions that were supposed to manipulate that audience turn out to have their own trajectories too. That's the world we live in today, and we'll still be living in it when Donald Trump is just an ugly memory.

NEXT: If Hillary Clinton Wins Nevada, Florida, North Carolina and Other Close States, She Can Thank Gary Johnson

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  1. So you’re saying we should beware the media attempting to sell us a story, always keep in mind the narrator has something he’s trying to persuade you to believe, always be sceptical of what we’re being told is the truth? You know, there’s one obvious problem with telling people they shouldn’t necessarily believe what they’re told.

    1. So *you* say – what’s your angle?

      1. The angle is that Jerryskids has been corrupted by formal logic.

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  2. Makes me wonder why people recognize fascism as so dangerous yet give a pass to its bigger brother communism, when it only takes a little contemplation to see them as flip sides of the same collective statist coin.

    I’ve seen Face in the Crowd, but don’t remember the details enough to remember how explicit the references to fascism are, as opposed to just dictators in general. How much of a stretch would it be to have reworked the script against collectivism in general instead of just some run-of-the-mill populist dictator?

    I don’t know if there are any commonly accepted definitions of communism and fascism which delineate the differences. I see fascism as the government dictators in league with, but still dictating to, the corporations, while socialist and communist governments actually have the deeds to the corporations. I don’t see any practical difference, but I do imagine I can see the propaganda difference: fascism is easier to depict as being powered by corporations, while socialism and communism are powered by workers. I wish someone would make a modern mashup of Face in the Crowd and Meet John Doe, contrasting and comparing the two -isms, showing how they end up in the same place.

    1. How about someone who doesn’t know the difference between an -ism and a kangaroo?

      I enjoy how the “peace movement” turn out to be the bad guys in Foreign Correspondent (on TCM this Friday at 12:45 PM ET).

      1. I didn’t mean the mashup should explicitly use the two terms. I meant something having two competing movements, one rallying workers and the other using advertisers, or whatever would represent the two sides. The -ism names need never even come up, since they are just names.

    2. The “mash-up” PRECEDES fascism and communism as they were both born from Romanticism*, as was Fabianism. And this Romanticism itself is born from the same kernel as theism. Romanticism, while certainly not bereft deists, was the first step in a secular “religion” that is the the great-great-grandparent of today’s progressivism. Its seminal roots trace back to Republican France on through to the revolutions of 1848 (and many displaced “losers” coming to the US and underpinning the first real progressivist rise as the Republican Party that precipitated the War Between The States), and one branch congealing into Marxism and the eventual twining of several sub-branches eventually into Fascism. Romanticism took the budding of humanism and combined it with the conceit of theism and birthed horrid socialism in all its guises.

      * in the broadest sense, not merely in terms of Art, though when one sees how both fascism and communism deigned to “ministrate” art it’s not a completely different movement

    3. I collect definitions–rather, evasions of the definition of fascism. The major determinant–the thing that sets it apart from communistic variants of socialism–is Christianity. The Vatican pact outlawing Catholic-Jewish marriages, the NSDAP Program, the Enabling Act speech and all of Mein Kampf literally drip Lutheran and Catholic Jew-hating mysticism. In Nazi Ideology before 1933 (UT Press) the various threads are translated and explained. But Orwell, Trotsky, and the various politicians–even Smith and Zurcher’s Wartime dictionary of Politics–all waffle and evade for fear of offending New-Dealers, Communists and Conservatives (which even Orwell admitted were the closest thing to fascists). Nobeliefs.com contains a compilation of Nazi religious writings, photos and icons, including Hitler paintings. Goebbels published a novel, Michael in 1929 that any Republican could have written, and National Socialist ideologues were nearly unanimous in slamming Judaism for failure to force belief in life after death as though there were evidence for such a thing.

  3. The people who are shrieking about Trump and A Face in the Crowd probably get wet dreams about something like Gabriel Over the White House.

    1. Or probably Things To Come – at least the dropping of “peace gas” on the deplorables. Raymond Massey’s smug Top Man portrayal can’t help but bring on the money shot.

  4. Of course what REALLY aggravates the media about Trump is that ‘the masses’ are ‘blindly’ following The Trumpster when they SHOULD be following those the media are not quite dumb enough to call their betters (i.e. Liberal Progressives). “Don’t do what HE tells you, do what WE tell you!”

    I’m hardly a huge Trump fan, but he has my vote. Shrillary revolts me a great deal more, and the fun I’ll have watching the Liberal Progressive idiots gnaw their own entrails during a Trump administration is too good to pass up.

    1. sure. vote for the reality TV billionaire. that’ll show those big media plutocrats.

      1. Actually it will. Big Media want lots of advertising money spent. Trump isn’t spending that much. He doesn’t require the approval of the mainstream media. They have no power over him other than not giving him another season of “The Apprentice” which will hardly ruin him and will cost them.

  5. Popular culture pretty much warned us about everything going on today. I give it lots of credit. The problem is of course that that’s exactly what the Trumpkins want. Contrary to the ending in “The Face in the Crowd”, the Trumpkins would justify Trump’s statements of contempt for them – perhaps rationalizing that they applied to others. Fast forward and you get Wayward Pines and Man in the High Castle. Again, this is what people want – they think they can rise to power. However unfortunately stupid Nazi Trumpkins are destined for self-destruction. How do I know? Because Hollywood taught me – the Nazis never win.

    1. I think you should give a bit of credit to Churchill, Zhukov and Eisenhower, not just Hollywood.

      And Hollywood used to so some anti-Communist movies, too.

      1. For example, Red Dawn taught us that progressives will collaborate with Communists, while red-blooded Middle Americans will fight.

        /sarc, kind of

        1. Nope, my sarcasm meter isn’t registering a damn thing….

        2. Yep. Fight they will, for red bloody National Socialism! George Orwell unkindly noticed that in “the autumn of 1945, a Gallup poll taken among the American troops in Germany showed that 51 percent ‘thought Hitler did much good before 1939’.” This was after The Noble Experiment (which the 1930 Liberal Party sought to repeal) helped dump German morphine in These Dry States. Herbert Hoover’s Moratorium On Brains freed Germany of liability for reparations payments–and payment of commercial debt owed US investors–surprise surprise!
          Hitler’s “Enabling Act” speech, shortly thereafter, is the Christianity-praising original that God’s Own Prohibitionists pattern their patter after. You can see it side by wide with the German on the Wikipedia, and compare for yourself.

      2. Trumbo was an anti-Communist movie. You disagree? Well then you weren’t watching very carefully.

        1. Dalton Trumbo was a ferocious anti-individualist. He hated individualism more than he ever loved Communism.

          “Lonely Are the Brave” was one of the most depraved films ever made. The “individualist” played by Kirk Douglas was stupid, cruel, somewhat cunning but ultimately destined to be destroyed by, of all things, Carroll O’Connor in a truck representing the inevitable force of history.

    2. That would be news to Poland and both versions of Nazi France. Under National Socialism. Vichy France changed the French motto, Libert?, Fraternit?, Egalit? to Travail, Famille, Patrie (work, family, fatherland). Could anything possibly shriek conservatism any more loudly without evoking the Jesus-myth by name?

  6. Since Jesse’s brought up old movies, no libertarian moment would be complete without Joan Crawford giving a preview of Dagny Taggart to Clark Gable’s preview of John Galt in the 1931 version of her two “Possessed” movies. Raining down on a political speech are “Who is Mrs. Moreland” leaflets, and Joan’s character stands and says “I loved him” as Dagny would of Hank Rearden during the part of Atlas Shrugged looters cannot bear to look at. The movie is shot through with scurvy machine politicians angling for dirt on their adversaries. But what else do the Dem or GO-Pee candidates have to offer but fear and horror of each other? Only Gary Johnson–the youngest, most athletic and most guileless of the lot–stands on a platform that eschews the looter preference for obedience through terrorism by men with guns. The following year voters got rid of the Prohibitionist Republicans that had destroyed the entire economy in an attempt to destroy individual rights. Pre-Code movies helped pry the claws of religious looters from the windpipe of American freedom.

  7. There is one movie that predicted this election, and it is the 1962 classic The Manchurian Candidate.

  8. After Hillary wins, the coming purge of all Trump voters from society is going to be brutal.

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  10. Trump isn’t Lonesome Rhodes. He’s Charles Foster Kane. But if our political leaders are shades of Kane and Rhodes, we have only ourselves to blame.

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  14. So, which one is Trump? Lonesome Rhodes the diabolical huckster, or John Doe the authentic voice of the people?

    1. He’s neither. He’s the real Mxyzptlk from the fifth dimension. If we can get Trump to say Pmurt we can get rid of him forever.

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  19. “Jeffries sabotages Rhodes by flicking his mic back on when he thinks a TV broadcast is over. Suddenly his audience hears him mocking them”

    As Walker points out, this didn’t happen to Trump in spite of his politically incorrect statements. But it sure reminds me of Clinton’s incompatible public and private positions (which didn’t seem to matter much to Democrats either).

    Full disclosure – I voted for Johnson.

    Seems to me Trump’s marketing genius (which after all is his talent, not his business record which is mediocre but looks good because of the wealth he inherited) is to do what has been getting politicians elected these past few decades: lie to voters promising them lies or the impossible (e.g., stop the oceans from rising, humble foreign policy, eliminating the debt, you can keep your plan, etc.) because the media can’t hold him accountable since they haven’t held any politicians accountable.

    Trump sensed the public wasn’t listening to the media any more, used it, and made his own news which the media dutifully reported just like they’ve done for our politicians, rather than doing their jobs of questioning authority and holding them accountable for their actions and lies. So when the media actually questioned Trump’s statements or his past actions, no one listened.

    1. I forgot to mention, I think Walker’s statement “.. when Donald Trump is an ugly memory” really isn’t fair. It would be fair to say “… when the MSM collusion with statists is an ugly memory.”

      We really don’t know what Trump will do yet, given a) his lack of doing anything yet other than his appointments and push for a Carrier subsidy on the backs of Indiana’s citizens (a slight negative IMHO), b) his “flexibility” on positions c) his contradictory statements regarding his plans and d) his obvious lies like his promise to eliminate the debt.

      I do agree with Walker that Trump may very well be a disaster. Trump doesn’t seem to know it was the freedom we had that made America great. But based on what a psychiatrist friend of mine said, I do think Trump wants to MAGA. I just hope he’s a quick study and learns that quickly. We’ll know soon enough, say in 1 year IMHO.

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