The movie is a modern morality play, a commentary on the corruption of national politics by television and media manipulation that foretells the hoodwinking of America by hucksters spouting vitriolic nonsense under the guise of "common sense".
As such, I thought it fitting tribute to enshrine the film with its own prominent page.
Discovered by Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal), a drunken drifter played by Andy Griffith is plucked from the obscurity of a rural Arkansas jail to sing on a small local radio show for which Jeffries is the producer.
Rhodes' raw voice, folksy humor and personal charm bring about a strong local radio following.
This lands him a TV gig in Memphis, Tennessee, where - with the support of Jeffries and show staffer Mel Miller (Walter Matthau) - the charismatic Rhodes ad libs his way to even greater popularity.
When he pokes fun at his sponsor, a mattress company, they fire him - but his adoring audience revolts, burning mattresses in the street. The sponsor discovers that Rhodes's irreverent pitches actually increased sales by 55%, and he is returned to the air with a new knowledge of his power of persuasion. Rhodes also begins an affair with Jeffries.
An ambitious office worker at the mattress company (Anthony Franciosa) puts together a deal for Rhodes to star in his own show in New York City.
The sponsor is Vitajex, an energy supplement which he ingeniously pitches as a Viagra-type yellow pill. One of the film's most memorable sequences is a frenetic montage of Rhodes's ads, highlighting the power of sex to move product—and cementing Rhodes' own brand.
Rhodes's fame, influence and ego balloon. Behind the scenes, he berates his staff and betrays Jeffries by eloping with a drum majorette (Lee Remick).
The onetime drifter and his new bride move into a luxury penthouse, while a furious Jeffries demands more money for her role in Rhodes's success.
The CEO of Vitajex introduces Rhodes to a senator whose presidential campaign is faltering.
Under Rhodes's tutelage as media coach, the Senator gains the lead in national polls.
But Rhodes's life begins to unravel, as his amoral dealings with the people closest to him have placed his career trajectory on a collision course with their festering wounds. He goes home early to find his agent and young wife ending a tryst.
He dumps his wife and flees to Marcia Jeffries to proclaim that with the election victory assured, he will soon serve on the cabinet as "Secretary of National Morale."
Finally seeing Rhodes's narcissism, Marcia runs from the room.
Miller tells Jeffries he's written an expose about Rhodes, and now he's found a publisher. But ultimately, the final blow is delivered by the one who has loved Rhodes the most.
At the end of one of Rhodes's shows, the engineer cuts the microphone and leaves Marcia alone in the control booth while credits roll. Millions of viewers watch their hero Rhodes smiling and chatting amiably with the rest of the cast. In truth, he's on a vitriolic rant about the stupidity of his audience. Finally ready to rip the mask off of this mega-celebrity, Marcia reverses the volume switch and his words air live. A sequence of television viewers react to Rhodes's description of them as "idiots, morons, and guinea pigs." Still unaware that his words shot out into the air waves, he departs the penthouse studio in a jovial mood...
... and prophetically tells the elevator operator that he's going "straight to the bottom." This while the network's switchboards are besieged by a furious public.
The reckoning is swift and sure. Rhodes arrives at his penthouse, where he was to meet with the nation's business and political elite. Instead he finds an empty space.
Jeffries and Miller go to his apartment and find him in crisis, disconnected from reality. He shouts folksy platitudes at the top of his lungs while a flunky works an applause machine—Rhodes's own invention—to replace the cheers, applause, and laughter of the audience that has abandoned him. Marcia Jeffries admits it was she who betrayed him, and Miller tells Rhodes that life as he knew it is over.
Rhodes threatens to kill himself and pleads with Marcia to come back, but the spell is broken as she and Mel drive off into the city, the sound of Lonesome Rhodes' cries floating into the night sky.
If only reality would end like the movie.