The headline in The New York Times Tuesday was typical of the way Andy Griffith has been remembered across the nation: "Andy Griffith, Folksy TV Sheriff from Mayberry, Dies at 86." Other obits remembered Griffith for his long-running role as the lawyer Matlock -- another folksy (if more cantankerous) character.
But Griffith's rise to fame in the late 1950s took an odd route through a film that harnessed Griffith's natural Southern charm to a frenetically dark message about the mixture of politics, advertising, money and media.
In Elia Kazan's "A Face in the Crowd," Griffith plays a rogue hillbilly, Larry "Lonesome" Rhodes, who is discovered picking on his "git-tar" in a drunk-tank by a small-town, college-educated radio producer, Marcia Jeffries, played by Patricia Neal. With Marcia's help, Rhodes evolves into a multimedia star who uses his charisma to convince his audience to buy everything from vitamin pills to presidential candidates.
Rhodes knows he has the power to sway his rural, southern and working-class audiences, those "rednecks, crackers, hillbillies, hausfraus, shut-ins, pea-pickers -- everybody that's got to jump when somebody else blows the whistle," even though he belittles and berates them when his microphone is turned off. Marcia eventually exposes him by leaving his mic on, and at the end of the film Rhodes is left alone in his penthouse, drunk, lonely and desperate for the love of his audience that he thought was real.
I first used "A Face in the Crowd" in the classroom in 1997 in a course about films that took aim at the culture industry -- in this case, television.
By 1957, when "A Face in the Crowd" debuted, television had mightily shrunk the film-going audience, and Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg used the character of Lonesome Rhodes to swipe at both the power of the idiot box as well as the gullibility of the mass audience.
One of the central arguments of "A Face in the Crowd" is that big money, big advertising and big media have the power to distort our democratic system. If this was more prophecy than reality in 1957 the film is a poignant reminder today, in the wake of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, that we are uniquely challenged to overcome the influence on our politics of billionaires and 24-hour cable news programs.
As of last week, when the court ruled that Montanans cannot keep corporate money out of even the smallest of state races, we know that only something as radical and laborious as a constitutional amendment would allow us to enact any meaningful limits on the influence of money in our political system.
Ironically, perhaps, the power of money in politics is being felt with a vengeance in Griffith's home state of North Carolina, as The New Yorker recently reported. The millionaire Art Pope, through direct contributions and front groups, has helped to defeat a raft of moderate Democrats in the North Carolina legislature. Just last Monday, Republican lawmakers overturned a gubernatorial veto in order to defund Planned Parenthood.
Here in Pennsylvania, 48 state legislators are members of ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, which is supported by the dues of corporate members who pay between $7,000 and $25,000 a year to belong. ALEC writes and lobbies for conservative and corporate legislation in statehouses across the country.
As for the influence of television advertising, Barack Obama in recent weeks has been running targeted ads that accuse Mitt Romney of outsourcing jobs, and his poll numbers have been going up in swing states. Never mind that Factcheck.org calls Mr. Obama's outsourcing accusation false.
This is why Andy Griffith's passing, for me, is not a reminder of a kinder, gentler time, when a picaresque widower fished with his tow-headed son as an infectious whistled soundtrack played in the background. Andy Griffith, with his stirring, erotic, erratic portrayal of Lonesome Rhodes in "A Face in the Crowd," reminds me that the past wasn't so very tranquil, and that money and media ruled politics during the American mid-century in a way that harkens to our present moment.
If Andy Taylor wanted to run for re-election as sheriff of Mayberry today, how much would it cost Art Pope to unseat him? Probably not more than a few cracker barrels.
Kathy M. Newman is an associate professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University (firstname.lastname@example.org). She is currently finishing a book about working-class culture, film and television in the 1950s called "Striking Images."