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Martha Jeffries, a reporter for an Arkansas radio station, one day broadcasts her man-in-the-street show, A Face in the Crowd , from the Pickett county jail. There, Sheriff Big Jeff Bess promises an early release to Larry Rhodes, who has been arrested for drunk and disorderly conduct, if he agrees to sing on air. Marcia, who recognizes the vagrant's innate vitality and charisma, nicknames him "Lonesome" and surreptitiously records him as he rambles poetically about his hillbilly relations in Riddle, Arkansas, and then sings a blues song with great dynamism. Back at the radio station, owner J. B. Jeffries, Marcia's uncle, decides to hire Lonesome for his morning show, and when they discover that he has already left town, they drive the roads out of town until they find him hitchhiking. Lonesome rejects their offer until Marcia convinces him of the job's money-making potential. Although Marcia finds Lonesome's rakishness and self-confidence alluring, she resists his coarse come-ons. The next morning, his folksy humor, high energy and charming, homespun stories prove an instant hit on air, and soon advertisers are clamoring to sponsor the show. At a bar one night, Lonesome reveals to Marcia that his stories about his family are all tall tales, as in reality he was neglected and ran away from home. His boisterous laughter, while impressive to Marcia, disturbs Big Jeff, who is jealous of Marcia's attentions to Lonesome. The two men fight, and the next day, Lonesome launches an on-air diatribe against Big Jeff, who is running for mayor, in which he urges the citizens to send him their stray dogs. When within hours Big Jeff's yard is filled with dogs, Lonesome and Marcia realize with delight the power he now has to marshal his adoring audience. Marcia deflects Lonesome's advances, but finds herself jealous when she sees the other women he seduces. Proud of his success, she is thrilled to see Lonesome shrewdly manipulate a Memphis television station owner who wants to hire him, negotiating a high salary for both of them. Their departure from Pickett is marked with huge fanfare, and Marcia, who is leaving her hometown for the first time, is shocked when Lonesome charms the crowd but then derides them under his breath. At the Memphis station, Lonesome takes an immediate dislike to Vanderbilt-educated writer Mel Miller, and ignores his scripts in favor of ad-libbing. Lonesome's fresh approach, in which he speaks directly to the camera and seems to eschew all pretense, fascinates the viewers, who respond to his plea to support a black station employee by sending in thousands of contributions. Mattress maker S. J. Luffler signs on as a sponsor, and although he is infuriated by Lonesome's refusal to read the scripted ads, his sales soon soar. Finally, however, Luffler threatens to have Lonesome fired unless he tones down his commentary, and Lonesome shows up at Marcia's door late at night to announce that he is leaving town. Unable to let him go, Marcia kisses Lonesome and leads him into her room for the first time. The next morning outside Luffler's workplace, fans are picketing Lonesome's departure, prompting ambitious office boy Joey de Palma to call New York advertising agencies claiming to be Lonesome's agent, thus securing him his own show on a national network. In New York, the ad agency brings in Lonesome, Joey and Marcia to revitalize a leading client, Vitajex vitamins. Ignoring account manager Macey's advice to find a dignified approach to their sales pitch, Lonesome boisterously advocates positioning the inert pills as libido boosters. Soon, sales skyrocket, as do the ratings for Lonesome's show, and Vitajex's owner, Gen. Hainesworth, calls Lonesome to his estate. There, to Marcia's repugnance, he explains that in all great societies "the masses had to be guided with a strong hand by a responsible elite," and therefore he plans to promote Lonesome along with Senator Worthington Fuller, who he hopes will be the next president. With Hainesworth's backing, Lonesome soon graces the cover of Life magazine and becomes a national treasure, hosting telethons and christening ships. Late one night, he calls Marcia and asks her to visit his penthouse apartment, claiming to be lonely. Although she sees one of his girl friends leaving just as she arrives, Marcia responds to Lonesome's assertion that she is the only person he can trust, and when he proposes, she accepts. The next day, however, a crass woman informs Marcia that she is married to Lonesome and demands a monthly stipend to keep quiet. Marcia is wounded, but Lonesome laughs off the woman's demands, explaining that he obtained a Mexican divorce, which the woman is illegally contesting. He promises to straighten out the situation during his next trip, during which he is to judge a majorette contest back in Pickett. While he is gone, Marcia reveals to Mel, who has also moved to New York, that she plans to marry Lonesome, and despite his disappointment and apprehension, Mel wishes her well and decides to return to Memphis. When Lonesome returns to New York, however, he greets the adoring crowd with his new wife, seventeen-year-old baton twirler Betty Lou Fleckum. He later explains to Marcia that he was afraid to marry her, as he finds her too critical of his crass commercialism, and in reply Marcia demands to be made an equal partner in his business. Over the next months, Lonesome's influence grows, and soon he is able to dominate a roomful of politicos, insisting that Fuller adopt a more approachable, friendly persona. Despite Hainesworth's dismay at Lonesome's growing megalomania, he is forced to appease the star and finance a new show in which Lonesome will pontificate about political issues. Lonesome soon promotes Fuller on the show, calling him "Curly," and delights as the senator's popularity grows. One night, as Marcia watches from her customary seat in a nearby bar, Mel enters and reveals that he stayed in New York to write an expose of Lonesome entitled "Demigogue in Denim." Upon realizing that Marcia still loves Lonesome, a saddened Mel chastises her for allowing herself to be exploited. When Lonesome finds Betty Lou with Joey, he tries to fire the cad but Joey informs him that he now owns fifty-one percent of the company. Lonesome arrives on Marcia's doorstep blithely assuming that she will welcome him into her bed, and after he announces that he is hosting a party during which he will be named U.S. Secretary for National Morale and murmurs "you made me," she realizes that she must put a stop to his power. The next day, the television program falls into chaos when Marcia fails to show up, and a furious, vitriolic Lonesome berates his staff but pours on the charm to his audience. Marcia stumbles in as the credits are rolling, and, sobbing, secretly turns on Lonesome's microphone so the audience can hear him deriding them as slobs and fools. By the time Lonesome reaches the lobby, his audience has turned on him and the show's advertisers have all withdrawn. Mel finds Marcia in the booth, despondent, and insists that she inform Lonesome what she has done in order to get him out of her life for good. When Lonesome calls her from his party to reveal that all of the guests have canceled, Mel escorts her there, where they find the former star raving on a balcony to the sound of pre-recorded applause. Lonesome brightens when he sees Marcia and vows that he can win back his public, but she denounces him and runs out. Following her, Mel tells Lonesome that despite his enormous popularity his fans will soon forget all about him. On the street, Marcia falters when she hears Lonesome screaming for her, but Mel bolsters her by stating that although they were all taken in by Lonesome's allure, their strength lies in the fact that they can now discern fantasy from reality.