Posts Tagged ‘A Face in the Crowd’

The word “icon” gets thrown around a lot these days, almost as much as the phrase “the word (fill in the blank) gets thrown around a lot these days.”

So I’ll say instead that Andy Griffith stood for something.  His name, his face, his TV costume, the notes of his show’s theme song, all work as shorthand for a certain kind of South: a time and a place that, like all the many Souths of the mind, only ever sort of existed.

Andy Griffith died yesterday.  He was 86.  He died in Manteo, North Carolina, where he’d made his home for as long as I can remember.  I will now make the irresponsible if geographically correct observation that Manteo’s not quite on the absolute opposite end of the state from Mount Airy, Griffith’s Blue Ridge hometown and the long-assumed model for Mayberry, but it is doggone close.

Manteo, though, is where the young Griffith, fresh out of Chapel Hill and teaching school in Goldsboro, played Sir Walter Raleigh in Paul Green’s outdoor “symphonic drama” The Lost Colony, so maybe it felt as much like home as anywhere else.  Griffith moved on from Walter Raleigh to the state’s dinner-club stand-up circuit, and then made his name playing country dumb: first on his hit record “What It Was Was Football,” then in the television movie (and the Broadway play and feature film) No Time for Sergeants.  Then he proved he had serious talent by playing the sociopathic Lonesome Rhoads in Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd.  It’s a performance and a movie that will curdle the stomachs of those who know and love Griffith only from Mayberry and Matlock.  Griffith is vicious and lustful and manipulative, enthralling and intimidating co-stars as forceful as Patricia Neal and Walter Matthau.  He’s amoral and terrifying.  He embodies the acquisitive, Snopesian, white trash South, and could have made a career playing – and come to stand for – that, had the success of the No Time for Sergeants feature not given him a chance to create his own TV comedy.

The Andy Griffith Show was such a hit that in eight years it never left the Top 10.  It spawned not only spin-offs and direct descendants, but a whole subgenre of sitcoms and variety shows.  Griffith showed network executives on both coasts that people in the South – and throughout so-called Middle America – not only owned them new-fangled tee-vee sets, but they had the discretionary income to spend on advertisers’ products.

He also showed that they were aware – or, at least, could sense – that massive shifts in society were under way, shifts that frightened them and made them hungry for what they already thought of as “simpler times.”  Civil Rights were just the righteous crest of the wave; the surge and the rip were economic.

Economics are more or less missing from Mayberry, along with black people.1  Each of the main characters in The Andy Griffith Show has a trade, a job that serves a concrete function within the small town society: sheriff, deputy, barber, mechanic, schoolteacher, town drunk.  No one clocks a shift at the textile mill or furniture plant, which by 1960 was what most small-town Southerners did for a living.  The agrarian-market small town that Mayberry would have been was, by then, largely a thing of the past, replaced by mill towns and factory towns.  Within a generation, those small towns, too, would be dead or dying, the few survivors staying alive by trafficking in the kind of nostalgia that made The Andy Griffith Show such a hit.

The Mayberry fallacy is the belief that the town and its people are based on Griffith’s memories of a cherished boyhood.  The geography and the forms might have been drawn from Griffith’s hometown, but the show’s content is its star’s own conception of the hometown he’d liked to have had, along with the writers’ and the actors’ skillful use of ancient tropes, about comedy and about rural and small-town life.  Mayberry was never real, least of all for its creator, yet millions have flocked to the show (and thousands have flocked to Mount Airy), and they swear by them both as time capsules, as works of historic preservation, for a time gone by and better, when everyone knew not only their role but their neighbors’, and each was happy with and in their role, and all were decent and wholesome and good – give or take a Fun Girl from Mount Pilot.

Many who so swear, of course, tend not to realize – or choose to ignore – that the core and font of Mayberry’s goodness isn’t strict and wrathful order, but the decency, humility, and gentleness of its sheriff, who in the era and region of Bull Connor didn’t even carry a gun; that they themselves are more Barney Fife than Andy Taylor, and that Mayberry would become hellish and dystopian if Deputy Fife were running the show; that if any little bitty part of The Andy Griffith Show was ever true in the real world, even for a moment, it was true only for a very fortunate few, and could never last.  Many who so swear tend to the right, and I do not know what they make of Griffith’s long and vocal support of liberal causes and Democratic politicians, in state and national races.2

So far this has been a shitty year for North Carolina.  We’ve lost Doris Betts and Doc Watson and now Andy Griffith, along with many others, and William Friday was just in the hospital in serious condition; we regressed our state constitution, and our legislators have voted – if only by accident – to rip the state apart, literally.  We mourn the loss of a beloved entertainer, a native and neighbor of whom we were proud, but we also contemplate the waning – I will not say the loss – of what Andy Griffith stood for.  He said of his namesake show, “Our basic theme was love.  And understanding one another.  And hoping the best for one another.  Love.”

He did not give his fans a testament, a historical record.  He did not show the small-town South as it ever really was; he stood for what it was and is at its best: a community, decent, caring, humble, gentle.  Mayberry was never anything but a dream, but it sure was a good dream.

1 In a 2003 interview with the Charlotte Observer, Griffith said he regretted not including African-Americans in Mayberry, but that he didn’t want them appearing only in menial roles, and that he and the writers were unable to figure out a way “so (characters) would rush into a black doctor’s office.”

2 Why take down that video, Funny or Die?  Jeez.


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