Seeing Trump on the Silver Screen
What A Face in the Crowd and Meet John Doe tell us about populism, pop culture, and fear.
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.