Recently I went on a little personal journey through a little bit of American pop-culture history. I saw both Robert Rossen’s All the King’s Men (1949) and Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd (1957). In the Rossen film, Broderick Crawford plays a charismatic self-described hick who develops into a populist demagogue, beloved by the poor folk, and gaining in corruption as he gains in power. Eventually he becomes the despotic and neo-fascist Governor of his state, just one step away from the White House.
In the Kazan film (screenplay by the great Bud Schulberg), Andy Griffith plays a charismatic young country boy who parlays his “aw shucks” charm into a successful radio show. He continues to gain power and influence, eventually getting one step away from installing a neo-fascist into the White House.
By the way, if you only know Andy Griffith from his genial Andy of Mayberry persona, you’re in for a real treat. In this film he plays a character who is not merely monstrous, but also layered, complex, full of contractions. It is a genuinely great performance.
Both films are enormously powerful and effective, and both tap into the same fears: that democracy is fragile, and is always in danger of being destroyed from within by a corrupt charismatic figure who has the charm and wiles to win over the uneducated poor. On the one hand, both films were clearly reflecting cold war fears – the spectre of Communism as insidiuous opiate of the masses – but in fact the monster who arises in both films is not actually a friend to the poor, but rather secretly allies himself with the very rich, in order to pull off a far-right-wing takeover of the United States.
It’s fascinating to compare these two films in another way: Writer/producer/director Rossen was blacklisted in the McCarthy era as a communist fellow-traveller, whereas Elia Kazan famously supported the purge of Hollywood leftists by the House Committee on Un-American Activities.
Both of these films are arguably very relevant today. There may be no way to know what the current occupant of the White House has actually been thinking for the last seven years, but it is clear that our nation has been led into some very questionable places mainly because many very sincere citizens without a lot of money were won over by the down-home folksiness and country charm of a man who is in fact very much a friend to the extremely rich.
It seems that over half a century ago, from opposite ends of the political spectrum, we were warned. And not just warned: We were told exactly what to look for.