The degree to which any of these films is or was “controversial” varies quite a bit, but the claim can certainly be made that all seven of these films dealt with pertinent social issues of their times. Some are still quite relevant today, and all are well worth watching.
I Am a Fugitive from as Chain Gang (1932) is the film that, of this group, had the most direct impact on the real world: not only did it give a huge boost to penal reform, but Robert E. Burns, on whose book …he film was based, received a commuted sentence (that this last was a consequence of the film tells you what his situation was at the time the film was made, so be prepared for one downer of an ending). Paul Muni plays Burns, whose unjust conviction lands him in the appalling world of the chain gangs, one he is determined to escape.
From chain gangs we move to lynch mobs with Fury (1936), Fritz Lang’s first American feature. Spencer Tracy is picked up as a suspect in a kidnapping, and a mob torches the prison. He survives, and, his faith in his society and its justice system destroyed, he remains in hiding, watching as the members of the mob are tried for his murder. The fearful symmetry set up by the story is fascinating, and the lynching and the trial have all the suspense Lang is known for. The ending has been called a cop-out, and while that case can certainly be made, it is also one that, beneath the surface, is deeply cynical and sour. Powerful stuff.
If you want a little more straightforward (but still very intense) entertainment, turn to Bad Day at Black Rock (1954). Spencer Tracy headlines again as a war vet with a paralyzed arm who arrives in the middle-of-nowhere town of Black Rock. He is looking for a Japanese-American farmer, and his questions ignite fear and suspicion among the townspeople, who have a shameful secret. This was an early look at the ghastly treatment Japanese-Americans suffered during WWII, but the film is first and foremost a terrific thriller. Tracy’s impassive, disillusioned hero is matched step for step by Robert Ryan’s spitting venom (and look for Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine as Ryan’s lead thugs).
Blackboard Jungle (1955) is arguably the film that has aged the least well here, but it is also the weakest from the get-go. Glenn Ford is the idealistic teacher who confronts terrible odds to bring education to disaffected inner city youth (among whom are such new arrivals as Vic Morrow, Sidney Poitier and Jamie Farr). Too pat to be convincing, this is still a valuable historical document, incarnating as it does the 50s terror of the “juvenile delinquent.” But its lasting claim to fame is the fact that “Rock Around the Clock” plays over the opening credits.
A Face in the Crowd (1957) wasn’t a success on its original release, but seems spookily prescient now in its jaundiced examination of the marriage of television and politics. Patricia Neal discovers a natural media personality in singer/storyteller/drifter Andy Griffith, and in giving him a platform, she unintentionally creates a monster demagogue. Almost fifty years haven’t diminished the film’s relevance a jot (if anything, it has become even more topical), and Griffith’s bigger-than-life, force-of-nature performance is several terrifying light years from Matlock.
Advise & Consent (1962) is an ambitious adaptation of Allen Drury’s colossal bestseller about Washington politics. President Franchot Tone’s nomination of Henry Fonda as his National Security Advisor triggers merciless battles between the forces for and against him. Director Otto Preminger generally does very well by Drury’s book, though one of the most important characters (Orrin Knox) is reduced to an irrelevant bit part here. The politics are more balanced than in the novel, but the treatment of homosexuality is far less sensitively handled. Interestingly, the redemptive treatment of the Fonda character anticipates the direction Drury would take the figure in his subsequent novels.
After all this seriousness, it’s nice to encounter at least one comedy, and that’s what we have in The Americanization of Emily (1964). James Garner is a WWII dog-robber (an officer whose job is to make life easy for the brass), and, a proudly confessed coward, he has no intention of ever seeing combat. His wishes, not to mention his romance with Julie Andrews, are no match for the chain of events set in motion by an admiral in the midst of a nervous breakdown. The admiral’s fevered determination that the first man to die on the beaches of Normandy be a navy man winds up putting the unfortunate Garner on a collision course with destiny. Arthur Hiller’s direction may not have all the punch it might, but Paddy Chayefsky’s script is witty but with a serious heart.
All the films except Bad Day at Black Rock and The Americanization of Emily have mono tracks. The sound is always crisp and clear, though I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is very audibly from the early years of sound, and the short feature that accompanies it is even more distorted. The two stereo films don’t have much by way of surround elements, but also avoid surround dialogue, so it’s a fair trade.
The prints are very good, but do not appear to have been restored. Thus, Chain Gang is very much showing its age, with plenty of grain on display. There are instances of speckling throughout the collection, but the images are sharp, and the black-and-white tones and colours are all strong.
Each disc has a commentary, with the exception of A Face in the Crowd. In its place that disc has a solid documentary that deals head-on with director Elia Kazan’s testimony at the McCarthy hearings. The commentaries are all very informative, though Drew Casper’s for Advise & Consent is needlessly padded by minutiae (do we need to know how many words per line, and lines per page, there are in his copy of the book?). The most fascinating of the bunch is the one Peter Bogdanovich contributes to Fury. He incorporates extensive interviews he conducted with Fritz Lang, and the effect is very close a director’s commentary by that legend. Short features along the lines of vintage featurettes and cartoons are included on most discs, as are all the theatrical trailers. The main screens of the menus are scored.
An eclectic but superb collection, and it is a real treat to at last see such films as Advise & Consent on DVD.s
Special Features List
- Audio Commentaries
- “Facing the Past” Documentary
- Theatrical Trailers