As I become more, uh, mature, I find myself enjoying older movies more than newer movies. The trio of films presented here for your consideration are three of my all-time favorites. They share great stories, great screenplays, great directing, great acting. They also have in common ratings in the 90s on Rotten Tomatoes, and a place of distinction in the National Film Registry, a highly selective honor reserved for the crème de la crème of American cinema.
“All the King’s Men”
Broderick Crawford is the gravelly voiced, barrel-chested actor my generation remembers from the 1950s TV series “Highway Patrol.” It’s probably the first time as young kids we heard the police code for “message received,” as he barked “10-4!” into the patrol car’s two-way radio.
Mr. Crawford’s career peak was his Oscar-winning best actor performance as political firebrand Willie Stark in 1949 best picture “All the King’s Men.”
As depicted in the Pulitzer Prize novel by Robert Penn Warren, from which the film is adapted, Stark is based on infamous Louisiana governor and U.S. Sen. Huey Long, whom history posits as a demagogue and who was assassinated in 1935.
In the movie, Stark is a small-town politician who claws his way to the governor’s mansion. Willie’s early success comes as a champion of the so-called “little guy” who doesn’t have a voice in the halls of power. The irony, and the cautionary lesson, is that after fighting the local, bare-knuckles political machine, Stark quickly comes to epitomize the same kind of corruption he once denounced.
He loses whatever moral compass he had, if any, and cheats on his wife with several women, including the girlfriend of his PR man. Whenever he gets in trouble, Willie wriggles his way out of it by buying off people or by trying to blackmail them. He survives an impeachment investigation but, echoing the fate that befell Huey Long, Stark isn’t able to survive an assassin’s bullet.
It turns out that Stark’s murderer is the nephew of a judge who committed suicide after Stark threatens to blackmail him for a past indiscretion. Similarly, Huey Long’s assassin was the son-in-law of a judge whom Long tried to blackmail.
The versatility and creativity of the brilliant Peter Sellers run the gamut, from his hilarious Inspector Clouseau in the classic Pink Panther comedies to his compelling performance as the hapless protagonist of acclaimed 1979 film “Being There,” which earned him an Oscar nomination for best actor. The movie is based on a best-selling novel by Polish writer Jerzy Kosinski.
Sellers plays a simple gardener who has worked and lived his whole life in a town house owned by a wealthy man in Washington, D.C. The gardener’s real name is Chance, Kosinski’s symbolic nod to the random events he encounters after his employer dies and he is forced to find his way in the world.
Having never been properly socialized while living mostly in isolation, Chance’s people skills are virtually non-existent. That leads to his name being mistaken as Chauncey Gardiner.
“Being There” is a social satire that invests Chauncey with a credible façade of erudition and intellect that he acquired not from a formal education, or even from innate common sense, but from staring all day at television. It’s as if he has a PhD in TV.
Cleverly employing horticultural metaphors (like “stimulate growth”) to comment on unrelated matters such as the economy, the novel and movie do not aim to poke fun at Chauncey. Their point is to remind us that we hear and see what aligns with the bias of our own narratives. In other words, we are willing to bend reality to make sure it doesn’t clash with our insecure comfort level.
At movie’s end, Chauncey is viewed by Washington power brokers as fit for the presidency. By saying as little as possible, and by being clueless about what people are saying to him, Chauncey serves as the perfect empty vessel into which the rich and powerful pour their personal agendas. In Chauncey, they see only what they want to see. He serves everyone’s purpose, even though, beyond gardening, he serves no purpose competently.
“A Face in the Crowd”
Andy Griffith is best known to older generations as Sheriff Andy Taylor in 1960s TV sitcom “The Andy Griffith Show,” based in fictional Mayberry, N.C. His young son, Opie, was played by Ronny Howard, who grew up to become Ron Howard, one of the most prolific filmmakers of his generation.
In 1958, Griffith starred as a backwoods Air Force private in the hit film comedy “No Time for Sergeants.” It had been a Broadway play, and the movie’s success furthered his career as well as that of his eventual TV sidekick, Don Knotts.
Griffith’s big break, though, came in a much darker role than either of those characters. In 1957 dramatic movie “A Face in the Crowd,” he portrays “Lonesome” Rhodes, a charismatic drifter who becomes a national TV sensation. Part of his appeal is an unorthodox style that pokes fun at his sponsors, which only seems to increase the sponsors’ sales, as well as Rhodes’s influence.
His on-screen folksy persona and popularity leads to his also managing the campaign of a presidential candidate. Rhodes’s private life, meanwhile, is quite messy. He elopes with a teenager, even though he is engaged to his manager, and is possibly already married to yet a third woman.
Rhodes’s newly won fame and fortune begin to fall apart, however, when his true colors become known. Quite apart from the nice guy he plays on TV, once off the air, he’s as nasty as they come, a tin-plated phoney.
Rhodes’s final comeuppance comes at his own hands—or out of his own mouth, that is. In one of the most ironic and chilling scenes in movie history, after Rhodes thinks he is off the air at the end of his show, someone he has wronged gets revenge by purposely leaving his microphone on without his knowledge.
As he looks into the camera and tears into a tirade belittling his TV fans as “idiots” and other insults, the audience hears every word. His ardent followers are shocked to discover he is not who they think he is.
If that’s not cynical enough for you, the final scene of the movie leaves open the possibility that Rhodes’s public ultimately will forgive him, and that it’s conceivable, at some point, he will make a triumphant comeback.
Bruce “The Blog” Apar promotes local businesses, organizations, events and people through public relations agency APAR PR. He also is an actor, a community volunteer, and a contributor to several periodicals. Follow him as Bruce The Blog on social media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 914-275-6887.