WHAT TO WATCH ON TV
Stream On: The Yin and Yang of Andy Griffith—‘A Face in the Crowd’ and ‘No Time for Sergeants’

By on December 15, 2022

Last time we had a look at Outer Banker Andy Griffith’s eponymous hit TV show in the light of John Railey’s book, Andy Griffith’s Manteo: His Real Mayberry. His journey from college student acting in our own historical pageant to the toast of television in thirteen years was aided by his showing in two films—a fierce drama in which a hillbilly guitar player becomes a powerful demagogue, and a broad comedy in which a hillbilly draftee turns the Air Force upside-down.

A FACE IN THE CROWD

/Amazon.com /Prime Video /Streaming /Trailer /1957 /NR

Andy had moved to Roanoke Island as a UNC-CH student to act in The Lost Colony, and put his time in onstage at the Shrine Club at Whalebone Junction (now a chapel) working out comedy bits when he got a Broadway comedy gig, No Time for Sergeants, for which he received a Tony nomination for Best Featured Actor. He used a Shrine Club bit, “Hamlet,” in which a hillbilly tries to explain Shakespeare’s play to his buddies, for the audition.

Andy’s cast-mate in Sergeants, R.G. (“Bob”) Armstrong (Matlock), recommended him to director Elia Kazan for a project about the abuse of power, about a bum whose media charisma turns him into a powerful and mendacious political king-maker, which was to become A Face in the Crowd. Budd Schulberg (What Makes Sammy Run, On the Waterfront) wrote the screenplay from his own short story “The Arkansas Traveler” from the 1953 collection Some Faces in the Crowd.

Andy received co-top billing, but first listing, with Patricia Neal, who had been working on Broadway and TV since 1947 (she won the first Tony award for Best Featured Actress in a Play) and was already well established in movies. The music over the opening credits is a guitar-and-whistling version of “Sitting on Top of the World.”

A Face in the Crowd opens on a rustic group whittlin’ on a small-town park bench that could easily be in Mayberry (or Manteo for that matter), as Marcia Jeffries (Neal), a radio producer, arrives at the “Tommyhawk” County jail to film another segment of her program “A Face in the Crowd,” highlighting local talent.

The prisoners, “in county” in a stained one-room drunk tank, shy away from her microphone until someone mentions the “drunk with the gi-tar”  from last night, Rhodes (Andy Griffith), asleep in a corner. They awaken Rhodes, who hollers, “Get away! I don’t care if the president of the You-knotted states is here!” He is all smoldering hate until he hears Jeffries’ explanation of her radio show. As calm as a snake, he asks, “What do I get outta all this?”

The sheriff, who learns from a deputy that Rhodes is in for a week on a drunk and disorderly, says he might “see his way clear” into letting him out first thing in the morning. Both Rhodes and the sheriff are hard cases, and Jeffries’ face reflects a thrill of excitement.

That thrill deepens when “Lonesome” Rhodes begins ad-libbing and scatting with his guitar in a perfect synthesis of every colorful swain that Andy had met from Mt. Airy to the Outer Banks. This is what the Shrine Club has led up to, and Andy’s natural temperament (not Sheriff Andy Taylor’s) filled out the character’s dark side, which leads ultimately to his downfall.

John Railey wrote that channeling Lonesome Rhodes got to Andy; Kazan needled him in order to draw the character out. He was confident that a part of Andy was Rhodes, and he was right. New York Times reporter Gilbert Millstein wrote, about a scene where Rhodes, exposed to the public for the monster he was, drunkenly tears up his penthouse, that Kazan “gave him the Jack Daniels treatment” and got Andy drunk for the scene.

“When they shot that speech,” [Andy] said, “I told ’em, ‘Bring me some chairs, any old chairs around.’ And I stomped ’em to pieces. It was pathetic. For a few minutes, I didn’t even know it was me—trying to be this man.” The shot was silent except for the crack of wood breaking and splintering, and Griffith’s labored breathing.”

“I had to grow up,” Andy told Millstein. “I don’t think I’ll ever have that much trouble again. I’ll be able to lead two lives [as an actor].” (Railey, page 46 f)


NO TIME FOR SERGEANTS

/Amazon.com /Prime Video /Streaming /Trailer /1958 /NR

No Time for Sergeants was released a year and a day after A Face in the Crowd, and while the latter was soon recognized as a great (and prescient) satire on the cult of celebrity, it didn’t attract audiences right away. Andy’s fans, who loved his 1953 comedy record, took more to his starring role in Ira Levin’s teleplay “No Time for Sergeants” (watch it here) on the United States Steel Hour anthology TV series. In 1955 Andy came to New York to star in 796 performances of its Broadway version, earning a “Distinguished Supporting or Featured Dramatic Actor” nomination at the 1956 Tony Awards and a win at the 1956 Theatre World Awards.

They loved the lighthearted 1958 movie version. I, and the fellow Boomers whom I discussed it with, remember loving it as a child.

No Time for Sergeants is a comedy, purely and simply, about a hillbilly, drafted into the Air Force. It opens, after humorous opening credits under fiddle playing, on a dirt shack, such as might have been found on the outskirts of Mayberry or (not Manteo this time) Mount Airy, where Andy came from. Will Stockdale (Andy), barefoot (like Andy used to go whenever he could on Roanoke Island) but in denim overalls, and his dad, are confronted by Mr. McKinney (Dub Taylor, The Andy Griffith Show) from the draft board. Will is cheerful, simple, and charismatic and his pa, who has been tearing up Will’s draft letters, doesn’t want him to go.

Will is an extremely sympathetic character; Andy, in an interview that I saw, said Will Stockdale was the most “Christ-like” figure he ever played. He befriends and stands up for another draftee, Ben Whitledge (Nick Adams), a smart but milquetoast type who’s bullied by the others. The voice-over narration by Andy as Will, explaining what went on, is very reminiscent of Andy’s bit on Hamlet.

Dub Taylor was not the only cast member to appear later on TAGS (The Andy Griffith Show); notably, its co-star, Don Knotts, who was famous on TV as “the nervous man” on the Steve Allen Show, made his film debut in Sergeants as officious, hysterical Corporal John C. Brown, who gives Will a manual dexterity test. Offstage, Andy and Knotts began a long and fruitful friendship and working relationship, Knotts even guest-starring on several episodes of Andy’s later series, Matlock.

No Time for Sergeants was a big success, generating a TV series (which lasted for three episodes—it was on opposite TAGS) and four comic books. The first, published in 1958, followed the movie’s story line closely. Three more were produced in the 1960s as a tie-in to the TV series. And it was probably on the minds of the producers of the TAGS spinoff, Gomer Pyle, USMC, in which Mayberry regular Gomer (Jim Nabors) joins the Marines.


(Pete Hummers is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to earn fees by linking Amazon.com and affiliate sites. This adds nothing to Amazon’s prices.)

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