Controversial Classics Collection(Warner Home Video, 5.10.2005)
At first glance, the seven films in this collection wouldn't really seem to have any connection to each other: a prison story from the 1930s, the American debut of a renowned German director, a romantic comedy, a quasi-western, a juvenile delinquent melodrama, an examination of our political process, and a biting satire featuring one of America's most beloved sitcom actors. But, after you've watched these films together, it begins to seem perfectly sensible to group them this way.
While each individual disc is pretty light on features -- you get either a commentary track or a documentary, plus a trailer, and a few of the discs include short films that cast a comic spin on the features' themes -- the movies themselves are what make the set worth your time and money. Each disc is also available separately. And they are:
I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932)
Over seventy years after its making, this fictionalized version of man-on-the-run Robert Burns' real life story still kicks your ass sore. Coming home sobered and disillusioned from the European front of World War I, James Allen is what was called in the 1930s a "forgotten man" (I guess now you'd call him a slacker). Wandering about the country in search of his version of the American dream, he bad-lucks his way into the process of a hold-up attempt -- a crime that gets one man killed and doesn't net much more than a sawbuck -- and finds himself convicted to serve out time on the chain gang.
It doesn't take too long for James Allen (ol' Scarface himself, Paul Muni) to wind up on the receiving end of some prison brutality and before too long he makes a daring escape from the prison, makes his way to Chicago, and becomes an influential man in the construction business it was his dream to work in before he wound up in prison. He also makes an unfortunate connection there. A woman strong arms her way into being his wife then rats him out to the authorities.
I don't want to give away too much from there because the twists and turns of this tale are part of what gives the film its continuing power. You really feel for this guy and his life takes him in some horrifying directions.
The film comes with a commentary track by USC professor Richard B. Jewell in which he ably balances discussion of the film itself with the real life story of Robert Burns and points out where changes were made from the true story. He also discusses the careers of director Mervyn LeRoy and Paul Muni. A few USC professors contribute tracks like this to other films in the set and, considering how expensive USC tuition is, these tracks are quite a bargain.
A musical short, 20,000 Cheers For the Chain Gang seems in almost surreal bad taste after watching the movie but it is amusing. The theatrical trailer, like the trailers of today, gives way too much away so watch it after you watch the feature.
The American debut of German Expressionist master Fritz Lang, this tale borrows more than a few elements from the last act of his earlier masterpiece M to whip up this drama about the formation of a lynch mob. Like Paul Muni in the previous film, Spencer Tracy is a young man trying to make his way in the world, only this time he goes in search of work so he can earn enough money to marry his sweetheart, Sylvia Sidney.
A funny thing happens on his way to the chapel. Through some happenstance and plain old fashioned bad luck, he ends up with some money that was previously in the possession of some kidnappers and, before he can get the word "railroaded" out of his mouth, he's locked up in jail where an impatient mob decides to take matters into their own hands and burn the place to the ground.
But somehow he manages to survive the fire and he decides to set in motion a little justice of his own. In the commentary track -- edited from observations by director Peter Bogdanovich with some snippets from an audio interview he did with Fritz Lang back in the 1960s -- it is pointed out that the film is somewhat compromised from the director's original vision. He wanted to show the consequences of lynching by making his film about a guilty man, as opposed to the framing of an innocent man, more the way it's handled in M. Compromised or not, this film still packs an entertaining punch.
Bad Day at Black Rock (1954)
Spencer Tracy returns in this film that examines the racism that was bubbling on the surface of 50s culture in a rather novel way. That title sure sounds like a western, doesn't it? The presence of actors like Walter Brennan, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, and Lee Marvin sure make it seem like it could be a western. Spencer Tracy even arrives in a frontier town by train at the beginning of the movie. And the movie is directed by John Sturges who made more than a few westerns of renown in his career (including The Magnificent Seven and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral).
But wait. Spencer Tracy is wearing a dark flannel suit. And he seems to have only one arm. A vet, wounded in World War II, he isn't really up for revealing why he's come to this town when asked by the townsfolk. That makes everyone suspicious. And they have reason to be suspicious because there's been a crime commited in town. And they want to know what Spencer Tracy knows about it. And there's going to be a showdown ...
This genre hybrid, part Western, part film noir, part melodrama, and yet never sentimental, stands out in the set as the only color film, and is given a vibrant transfer in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Widescreen, as pointed out by USC historian Dana Polan in his commentary track, is essential to the full impact of director Sturges' way of staging a scene. What I liked about Polan's commentary is that, unlike the other historian commentaries, he focuses on only this one film. Other films in the director's body of work are mentioned only as they relate to this film. And the film's themes do give one quite a bit to talk about in a short period of time (the shortest film in the set, it clocks in at a tight 81 minutes).
Blackboard Jungle (1955)
This film also builds up to a showdown but I suspect it was the film's beginning, and not its ending, that caused the biggest stir upon its release. Bill Haley and the Comets kick in "Rock Around The Clock" as the credits pop onscreen and a floodgate opens that will change the relationship between music and movies. From that point on, rock and roll was here to stay. Cast member Paul Mazursky recalls on the commentary track that, in some places, they decided to run the credits without music to discourage the dancing in the aisles that was happening.
But there's another interesting aspect to Blackboard Jungle and that is its influence on a certain kind of storytelling. Movies set in schools that detail the students' relationships with a caring educator fall into two camps: those that follow the To Sir With Love standard (Dead Poets Society, School of Rock, and Mona Lisa Smile fall into this camp) and those influenced by this film (such as Lean on Me, The Substitute, and Dangerous Minds).
English teacher Richard Dadier -- played by Glenn Ford and referred to by his students as "Daddy-O" -- is determined to get through to a group of rough-and-tumble kids who include among their numbers a street smart Sidney Poitier, a big mouth attached to the body of Vic Morrow, the "grinninest (sic) cat in the whole school" played by Jamie Farr (who joins Mazursky and Glenn Ford's son Peter on the commentary track), and a host of others that might go one way or the other. They're looking for someone to lead them and hopefully they'll fall in with the right one.
This is the most predictable film in the group but the performances will make the film worth watching for a long time to come. It also comes with a Droopy Dog cartoon, Blackboard Jumble, that makes the disc worth something. There aren't many Droopy cartoons available on DVD at this point and, while this isn't one of the funniest in the series, it's slow-talkin' fun nonetheless.
A Face in the Crowd (1957)
The trailer for this film announces Andy Griffith as a new discovery by Elia Kazan, in the tradition of James Dean and Marlon Brando. To audiences today, reared on a steady diet of his comedy show reruns and Matlock episodes, this might seem a little implausible. But to 1957 audiences, this was probably their first introduction to Andy Griffith -- though he had been doing standup comedy and appeared in the stage version of "No Time For Sergeants" before taking on this film) -- and he plays such a sonofabitch that it's surprising he didn't do more dramas like this one.
I'm going out on a limb here and saying that this is one of the greatest films ever made. While nowhere near as well regarded as the previous collaboration between director Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg (an obscure drama called On The Waterfront), what this film has to say about the power of television and its influence on everything from consumer sales to politics and everything else in between is arguably more relevant today than On The Waterfront.
When Lonesome Rhodes, a belligerent jailhouse drunk with a head full of poetry and righteous indignation, is discovered by Patricia Neal while recording interviews for her radio show "A Face In The Crowd" -- which has a distinct echo in the "This American Life" programs that air on NPR these days -- he skyrockets from local celebrity to national media darling. And what starts off with somewhat noble intention is soon twisted by megalomania and alchoholism into that all-too-familiar institution of our times: the celebrity spokesperson. But underneath all that down-home charm is some serious pain and Kazan's film brilliantly throws you into the world of it.
A making-of doc is provided (since it is the only disc without a commentary track) that details the lives and careers of Kazan and Schulberg and the effect the Hollywood blacklist had on them. Both had youthful flirtations with the communist party and both named names to HUAC. Interviews with Schulberg, Andy Griffith, and Patricia Neal are included in the documentary, which might be the only time I've ever heard Andy Griffith drop the "F" word. It's fitting for a film that will change the way you look at him as a performer.
Advise and Consent (1962)
This film is slow going and meandering for the first hour or so but stay with it -- it kicks into gear once controversial Secretary of State candidate Henry Fonda testifies before a congressional committee and all that seeming lack of focus at the start pays off and snaps into something really involving: an examination of the forces beyond the surfaces of justice and morality that go into the making of our nation's political decisions.
Like Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg in real life, Henry Fonda's character had, in the heat of youthful idealism, attended communist party meetings. A lifelong pacifist, he meant well then and he means to do the right thing now, and hopes to use this diplomatic position to keep the world from the brink of war. Knowing the effect this news would have on his confirmation, he lies about it under oath, forcing a young senator on the committee to delay the vote to confirm Fonda and launch an investigation of his own.
But it turns out the young senator has some past baggage of his own and to keep it from surfacing and finishing his career, he is stuck between a rock and a hard place because an overzealous supporter of Fonda's is threatening to blow the lid off it if Fonda isn't confirmed.
Liberals and conservatives alike take it on the chin in director Otto Preminger's Machiavellian thriller about that town we all know and love where a whisper campaign can be every bit as deadly as a bullet in the head. USC historian Drew Casper ably handles a commentary track that walks a balance between the career of Preminger and the subtle (and not so subtle) changes he made to Allen Drury's novel before bringing it to the screen.
The Americanization of Emily (1964)
"Romantic" and "comedy" aren't the two words that spring to mind if you're considering the work of writer Paddy Chayefsky -- whose reputation was made with later masterpieces like Network -- but a lot of the earmarks of his dramatic work are present in his work in this charming picture, the lightest picture included in the set, though it is no less biting than the other titles in its themes. Most noticeable are the monologues, the long speeches that define these characters, their displacement in the world around them, and the subversive ideas boiling under the surface.
James Garner has managed to rise up in the military world despite the seeming career handicap of being a coward. He's happiest in the rear with the gear, which doesn't exactly sit well with Emily (Julie Andrews), who has lost a husband, a brother, and a father in World War II. She feels considerable pain toward the ultimate sacrifices a good soldier has to make.
World War II was also a war that changed the way our military fought wars. The effectiveness of air strikes in reducing our own casualties was really coming to the fore in that confrontation and, in this movie, the Admiral of the Navy (Melvyn Douglas) is hip to that. Or maybe it's just paranoia brought on by the psychiatric breakdown he's currently experiencing. Either way, he decides that, in order to keep the gravy train of appropriations spending coming in to the navy's coffers, the first casualty of the upcoming invasion at Normandy must be one of the navy's own.
Needless to say, their pick for the job isn't really down with this idea. Director Arthur Hiller -- who'd have thought the guy who directed Love Story would turn out to be a "controversial" filmmaker -- contributes a commentary that is, in many ways, his tribute to the late Mr. Chayefsky whom he would work with again a little later. This is also a valentine to a movie that Hiller, Garner, and Andrews all regard as the best of their long careers. -- Christopher Hyatt