Saturday, September 25, 2010

"Lonesome Rhodes": "Andy Taylor's" Questionable Cousin

This is the first of what will be periodic guest essays from various members of the Classic TV Preservation Society. We begin with Lonesome Rhodes: Andy Taylor's Questionable Cousin by Charles Tranberg, who is the author of several books on classic media tie-in books, including biographies of Agnes Moorehead (Bewitched), Marie Wilson, and Fred MacMurray (My Three Sons), and a chronicle of The Thin Man feature films.

In his essays, Charles will focus on classic TV stars who have also appeared in classic (or at times maybe not so classic) films. As Tranberg explains, "It used to be that if you were a film star and you went on to do television that it was a step-down. It was kind of a snobbish attitude regarding the new medium of TV that was taking a toll on box office receipts. Similarly if you were a TV star your dream might have been to break into films, but 40 or 50 years ago that was harder to do than today. Today a TV star can become a film star (John Hanks, Bruce Willis, Demi Moore, George Clooney are examples). For my first installment I’ve chosen one of my favorite TV legends, Andy Griffith. Before he was Sheriff Andy Taylor on The Andy Griffith Show, he played one of the most repulsive narcissistic personalities ever put on film — Lonesome Rhodes in the classic A Face In The Crowd."

Charles then commences his essay:

Andy Griffith became a TV legend by playing Sheriff Andy Taylor on The Andy Griffith Show (CBS, 1960-1968). If ever there was a part that fit the actor—this was it. In fact, Andy had a great deal of input into the development of the character and its setting—his hometown of Mount Airy, North Carolina became the inspiration for the shows idealized small town, Mayberry, NC.

Yet just two years earlier he played a variation on this very same character in what is now regarded as a classic American film—Elia Kazan's A Face In The Crowd. Griffith plays Lonesome Rhodes, who on the face of it has several qualities in common with Andy Taylor—folksy, good-natured and a man who enjoyed chewing the breeze while strumming his guitar. But Lonesome had another side, too. He enjoyed his booze, he enjoyed women (Sheriff Taylor always had a steady girl friend—but one at a time), and where Andy Taylor guarded the jail—Lonesome Rhodes was often in it. Lonesome also had a mean streak and an ego that wouldn't quit. Could Lonesome Rhodes be Andy Taylor's meaner cousin?

Andy Griffith was born on June 1, 1926 (incidentally that's the same day and year that Marilyn Monroe was born) in the aforementioned Mount Airy, North Carolina. He was a sickly youngster and "wasn't much of a student and didn't have an aim until I was 14." His aim became music - which he majored in at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. He eventually performed in several Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. While driving 45-minutes between Chapel Hill and Raleigh he worked out in his mind a monologue about a country hick who had never seen a football game. The monologue was titled, "What It Was, Was Football, which became a hallmark of a night club act.

Capitol Records heard the monologue and hired Andy to do a recording of it (along with a country version of "Romeo and Juliet") and it became a huge seller. He was booked on The Ed Sullivan Show - and Andy Griffith was on his way.

In March, 1955 Andy starred as another country bumpkin who gets drafted into the U.S. Army in the television production of a popular comic novel, No Time for Sergeants. The TV program proved so popular that by November of that year it was a popular Broadway hit - and ran for 796 performances with Andy receiving a Tony nomination for his performance.

In 1958 Andy starred in the hit Warner Brothers film version of No Time For Sargents. It was actually his second film. His first film was a departure for him from the comedy realm – A Face In The Crowd, was also one of the most auspicious debut movies of any actor.

A Face In The Crowd was based on Budd Schulberg's short story Your Arkansas Traveler, from his book Some Faces in the Crowd. When it was made into a film, Elia Kazan was chosen to direct with Schulberg writing the screenplay. Kazan and Schulberg had previously collaborated four years earlier on the classic film On the Waterfront.

The theme of the film, as it had been in the short story was, according to Kazan, "our anticipation of the power TV would have in the political life of the nation."

A Face in the Crowd tells the story of an Arkansas radio producer, Marcia Jeffries, who, while visiting a small town jailhouse, discovers Larry Lonesome Rhodes strumming his guitar while paying his debt to society for drunken and disorderly behavior. She finds him a fascinating creature and believes that he has potential. A local show in Memphis leads to the big time in New York, where Rhodes easy-going, country charm (and he could pour it on when he wanted to) leads to a major sponsor and top ratings.

Fame has gone to his head and when the red eye of the camera is off he is a bully with the crew and staff who must cater to his every need. He develops an ego which could fill a room and he begins to treat Marcia, who had fallen in love with him, with callousness. Behind the scenes he is dismissive of his fans believing them gullible in believing everything he tells them.

One of his sponsors is promoting an extreme right-winger for the presidency and needs Lonesome’s help to win the man the presidential nomination—Lonesome soon comes to believe that he will be the real power behind the presidency and perhaps could have the office himself one day. Eventually his spite, ego and callousness catch up with him and it’s Marcia who betrays him.

It was clear that a character such as this would have to be performed by an actor of exceptional talent. The character, as written by Schulberg, was based on such personalities as Arthur Godfrey, Huey Long and evangelist Billy Graham. At first, Kazan considered Jackie Gleason, who himself was privately known to be a man with huge appetites— ego included— as well as a true star of television.

But when Kazan heard Andy's comedy album and saw him on television something clicked, "He was the real Native American country boy and that comes over in the picture." Patricia Neal was selected to play Marcia after Schulberg saw her perform in a production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Added to the cast was Walter Mathau, Anthony Franciosa (from TV's Longsreet and Doc Elliot) and, in her film debut, Lee Remick, who plays one of Lonesome's playmates.

Andy was very nervous with this his first film—and inexperienced. He was nervous when the camera rolled, so much so that Kazan eventually took him aside and told him, "Andy, the camera is an amazing piece of equipment. Just find what the character is feeling and thinking and allow it to come out of your eyes."

Andy took this advice to heart. He would later call Kazan, "a great teacher, but he would rather that you learned it on your own." Andy recalled that every morning Kazan would have him meet him in his office and Kazan would explain what was expected of him during that day of filming. The climactic scene of the film has Lonesome violently angry and shouting at the top of his lungs on a balcony.

"I had him drunk all through the last big scene because it ws the only way he could be violent," recalled Kazan. "In life he wants to be friends with everybody." Patricia Neal later recalled, "I think he got him (Andy) drunk once—but not really (all that drunk). But he tended to give him a little too much to drink sometimes."

Andy would recall A Face In The Crowd as an exhausting picture to make physically and emotionally. "It took three months to shoot," he later said, "and two months to get over."

When the film premiered in New York on May 28, 1957, Bosley Crowther, the venerable critic of The New York Times, and one of the most respected critics in the country, called the film "sizzling and cynical," and went on to praise Griffith:

"In a way, it is not surprising that this flamboyant Lonesome Rhodes dominates the other characters in the story and consequently the show. For Mr. Schulberg has penned a powerful person of the raw, vulgar, roughneck, cornball breed, and Mr. Griffith plays him with thunderous vigor, under the guidance of Mr. Kazan."

The film, while critically acclaimed, was not a success at the box office. Andy later said, "that movie didn't make a dime, and besides, roles like that don't come along often."

Still, as the years have gone by its reputation has grown—especially as television has become more of a force in influencing public opinion and creating instant television stars courtesy of so-called "reality shows."

The Oxford Companion to Film wrote of A Face in the Crowd, "the inherent dangers of personality-building, and the exploitation of the gullible viewing public, were exploited with humor, bitterness and sharp observation."

Magill's Survey of Cinema, in its entry on the film said, "If A Face in the Crowd ends in melodrama, it is nevertheless highly effective satire, exposing the actual workings of an industry which has continued to demand attention for sparse entertainment and high levels of abuse."

In three years time Andy Griffith would become Sheriff Andy Taylor for immortality. But Sheriff Taylor had an off-center cousin -Lonesome Rhodes - and only on a few occasions in the years that followed would he allow this inner beast to come out on screen.

Perhaps he had to ration it out to keep his sanity?

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