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Andy Griffith Before He Was Nice

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When Waitress, which arrives on DVD his week, was released to theaters this past spring, it wasn’t surprising that a lot of reviews recounted the tragic death of writer-director Adrienne Shelly.  The winning, bittersweet independent film numbered among its virtues a fine supporting performance by Andy Griffith, an actor whose dramatic talents were not well served by television success.

The warm, folksy persona that made him a fixture of television for thirty years, primarily on the "The Andy Griffith Show" and “Matlock,” was used to a different end in his film debut, the 1957 classic A Face in the Crowd.

Griffith played Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, a no-account scoundrel whose gift for gab makes him a hit on radio and eventually on national television. He’s like Sheriff Andy’s brash evil twin, always ready with a story and a down-home joke but wholly contemptuous of the suckers who buy into his charm. It’s a performance that pulls no punches, asking for not a moment of sympathy, and it makes you wonder what Griffith might have been capable of had sitcom success not come his way.

As directed by Elia Kazan and written by Budd Schulberg (the team behind On The Waterfront), Face in the Crowd aims its satirical barbs at the audiences who swallow Rhodes’ act and would probably follow his demagogic lead when he decides to accept the backing of political interests. Watching it, you don’t know whether to be comforted by the proof that political chicanery in the media age is nothing new, or depressed by the fact that we as viewers haven’t earned to be any more demanding of how we let our opinions be molded.

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