REX NELSON: Hollywood comes to Piggott

Posted: October 28, 2017 at 4:30 a.m.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the release of A Face in the Crowd, the Elia Kazan-directed movie that starred Andy Griffith in his first motion picture role. The film was partially shot at Piggott, and those in the town of about 3,800 residents still recall the excitement that was generated when Hollywood came to town.

On one wall of the Piggott City Market, a downtown bakery and coffee bar that has a big-city feel, there's movie memorabilia.

At the Matilda and Karl Pfeiffer home, they'll show you where the pool scenes were filmed. Built in 1933, the Tudor Revival house is surrounded by 11 acres of manicured grounds. Matilda Pfeiffer lived in the home until her death in 2002 at age 97. It's now open for public tours with an extensive library, one of the region's best collections of mineral specimens, and Native American artifacts on display. Those entertained at the house included Karl's sister, Pauline Pfeiffer, and her husband, Ernest Hemingway. The pool was added in 1953, and the filming took place in 1956. Local children were paid $5 each, and you can still find Piggott residents with vivid memories of shooting the scene. To show their appreciation to the people of Piggott, those behind the movie funded the completion of a public pool. The private Pfeiffer pool was converted into a pond in the 1980s.

The movie also featured Walter Matthau, Tony Franciosa and Lee Remick. It was based on the Budd Schulberg short story "Your Arkansas Traveler," which was the first piece in a 1953 collection of Schulberg's stories. In the screenplay, a character named Marcia Jeffries meets Larry "Lonesome" Rhodes in the fictitious Arkansas town of Pickett. Television was replacing radio as the nation's most powerful mass communication tool at the time, and the movie depicts Rhodes' (played by Griffith) rise as a media personality. Filming began in August 1956 at Piggott and ended in November of that year in New York.

Piggott has Otto "Toby" Bruce to thank for the fact that filming took place there. Bruce met Hemingway in 1928 and later became his assistant. On a visit to the Hemingway home at Key West, Fla., Bruce met Schulberg. Bruce suggested Piggott as a location. Kazan, whose son Chris was later a reporter at the Arkansas Gazette, and Schulberg came for a visit and decided to shoot part of the movie in the far corner of Northeast Arkansas.

"It is significant for its prophetic theme of the cult of celebrity, the power of television and the merging of entertainment and politics," Nancy Hendricks writes for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. "Schulberg and Kazan had previously worked together on the film On the Waterfront, based on Schulberg's script. Both men had testified in the televised House Committee on Un-American Activities hearings in 1952. ... Kazan praised local residents in the published screenplay, saying 'I wish I could mention them all by name: the good people of Piggott, Arkansas, who opened their homes to us.' He used many locals as extras, including baton twirlers and marching bands from Piggott and Paragould in the drum majorette scene. Residents of the community had good relations with the movie company. When the film was released on May 28, 1957, it received a mixed reception from both critics and the public. Many found its message about television's power to merge entertainment and politics to be outlandish as well as unpatriotic. ... Today it is almost universally recognized as a classic--decades ahead of its time and an eerily accurate look at the future."

Kazan used famous media personalities of the time such as John Cameron Swayze, Mike Wallace, Walter Winchell and Earl Wilson in cameo roles. The film has been mentioned in recent months by those who compare Griffith's character to President Donald Trump. Columnist Cal Thomas described the movie as a "template" for Trump's rise to power. Marc Fisher of The Washington Post called it "a revealing and cautionary portrait of what happens when a non-politician captures the American imagination, expresses the frustrations and aspirations of the people, wins hearts and trust, and litters the landscape with choice reminders that beneath his truth-telling lies a surly streak of contempt."

Turner Classic Movies showed A Face in the Crowd on Trump's inauguration day in January. In the movie, Rhodes moves from Jeffries' uncle's radio station in Arkansas to Memphis and finally to a national television program in New York.

A Face in the Crowd wasn't the first movie to be filmed in Arkansas. The first came in 1926 when Universal Pictures anchored a steamboat at Helena to shoot scenes of Uncle Tom's Cabin. The local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy protested, but about 200 area residents still participated as extras. Two years later, King Vidor shot parts of Hallelujah in the Arkansas Delta. The musical, which had an all-black cast, earned Vidor an Academy Award nomination for best director. The opening credits of the 1939 blockbuster Gone with the Wind included a shot of the Old Mill at North Little Rock.

In September 2007, a 50th anniversary celebration of A Face in the Crowd was held at Piggott with actress Patricia Neal as the guest of honor. A decade later, on the 60th anniversary of the movie's release, it's worth remembering the Arkansas connection to a story that has political commentators talking once again.

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Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

Editorial on 10/28/2017