Warner Bros. never fails to disappoint in giving their classic releases the special edition treatment. The Controversial Classics Collection is no exception. Unlike the WB’s Film Noir Collection, which showcased a particular genre, this set examines seven films (released between 1932 and 1964) that not only changed the world of cinema but also affected the social conscience – changing people’s attitudes – and brought about political and social reform.
What are they about?
Curious individuals intrigued by hot topic issues that still affect us today are sure to enjoy all the films in this collection – I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, Fury, Bad Day at Black Rock, Blackboard Jungle, A Face in the Crowd, Advise & Consent, and The Americanization of Emily.
With everything that is happening in the world it is interesting to note that films like Blackboard Jungle, A Face in the Crowd, and The Americanization of Emily are as important now as when they were first released.
When the first few lyrics from Bill Haley’s classic tune “Rock Around the Clock” play at the onset of Blackboard Jungle, you get this sense that change was imminent. The typical opening credits musical orchestration were replaced by rock ‘n’ roll ballyhoo. As a “did you know” that you can share with others, “Rock Around the Clock” is the first time a rock ‘n’ roll song was used in a mainstream Hollywood production. (It is also the theme song for Happy Days.) After the rocking good time Blackboard Jungle turns serious with a written statement about the content of the film. It is a fictional work but the topics examined in the film are very real.
Teenage delinquency is a significant problem at inner city North Manual High. Richard Dadier (Glenn Ford) is a new English teacher at the school and a man who wants to make a difference. Thinking himself as a believer in lost causes Dadier instills in his students a sense of deference, changing the ways his students value each other.
Blackboard Jungle is a film that brings racial and sexual tensions, teenage delinquency, and the indifference to schooling into the limelight. Joining Glenn Ford is a great ensemble including Vic Morrow, as the leader of the teen miscreants, and a young star on the rise in Sidney Poitier.
While watching this film, images of Columbine and other high school shootings crossed my mind. Fifty years after the film’s release fisticuffs and knife fights have been replaced by shootings and bomb threats. Definitely not the progress schools had in mind.
A Face in the Crowd stars Andy Griffith as Lonesome Rhodes, a drifter, a storyteller, and a musician who has seen the insides of a jail cell aplenty. But he finds his niche on TV. In his big screen debut Griffith rises in fame due to his television and personal appearances. At the same time, however, he is going down the slippery slope of sex, booze, and political corruption.
Elia Kazan’s (On the Waterfront) film tackles the subject of the insidious world of entertainment and politics and pulls no punches. A Face in the Crowd also served as a warning. Because of television, politics would never be the same. This is true. All you have to do is flash forward 40-or-so years after the film’s release and examine the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky fiasco.
The war in Iraq provides intellectual fodder when looking at The Americanization of Emily. James Garner plays Charlie Madison, a U.S. Naval officer who can’t comprehend the glory of war. This spurs a physical attraction between himself and Emily Barham (Julie Andrews), a war widow. With any romance comes conflict. Since Charlie is from America and Emily is British, there is this clashing of cultures. When Charlie hears word the navy wants one of its officers to be the first one to die on the beaches of Normandy, a fear envelopes him. Just a matter of time before the navy looks at Charlie to become the Navy’s first “Unknown Officer.”
The Americanization of Emily plays like antiwar satire. Yet, it does not represent the anti-glorification of war. The act of war should not be made to seem so wonderful, so heroic. Sure, the media has a pessimistic attitude when it comes to war, but they won’t shy away when it comes to creating heroes. The media call attention to the actions of a few individuals while thousands of other soldiers go about their business unseen.
The films may not seem like landmark works of art by today’s moviegoers; but even in a time of bad reality television and corny cinema, it’s good to see the aforementioned hot button issues being debated and discussed. Warner Bros. Controversial Classics release has exceeded my expectations. This is definitely a collection one must watch and decide if we as a society have progressed.
The DVD Collection:
VIDEO: How does it look?
The seven films look good for their age. Graininess and dirt are persistent, but you can’t expect miracles after fifty, sixty, even seventy years. Just be thankful the prints were in good enough shape to be included in this box set release. I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang and Fury are presented in their full frame format; the rest are in widescreen.
AUDIO: How does it sound?
All seven films come with in 2.0 surround sound. Much like the video transfers, there is some audio interference – hissing and popping. You take what you can get, I guess.
SPECIAL FEATURES: Six commentaries, a few featurettes, and a Droopy cartoon!!
If you love commentary tracks – feeling you are privy to some important information -then you’ll enjoy the six commentary tracks that examine each film’s historical context and impact politically. Sadly, a commentary is not included with A Face in the Crowd. Each DVD also comes with the film’s theatrical trailer.
I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932) has a commentary by Richard B. Jewell from the University of Southern California. In his commentary he talks about the real chain gang escapee Robert Burns and the changes Warner Bros. made to the Burns’ true-life tale when adapting his story to screen. Also included on the DVD a vintage musical short entitled 20,000 Cheers for the Chain Gang.
Legendary filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show) provides commentary on Fury (1936). Special to this commentary are audio interview excerpts from the film’s director Fritz Lang. It should be noted that Bogdanovich recorded the audio interview with Lang in 1965 over a four-day period.
Blackboard Jungle (1955) has a group commentary by the likes of Assistant Director Joel Freeman, co-stars Paul Mazursky and Jamie Farr, and Glenn Ford’s son Peter Ford. The DVD also includes “Blackboard Jumble,” a cartoon spoof featuring that loveable dog Droopy.
Dana Polan, a professor of Film History at the School of Cinema and Television at the University of Southern California, provides commentary on Bad Day at Black Rock (1955). During the feature he bestows us his two cents on the mythology of the classic western and how the advancements in technology have shaped the West.
A Face in the Crowd (1957) includes the 29-minute documentary Facing the Past. It’s not just a feature on the film, it discusses the characters; Elia Kazan’s Communist Party affiliation; the collaborators – Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg; and the characters. Andy Griffith was pulled from obscurity to play the lead. While making the film he started to emulate the Lonesome Rhodes character off camera; he would be constantly swigging from a bottle of Jack Daniel’s.
Dr. Drew Casper, a film historian who holds the Alma and Alfred Hitchcock chair of American Film at USC’s School of Cinema and Television, overviews the biography of Otto Preminger in the politically volatile Advise and Consent (1962). Casper also discusses the similarities and differences between the best-selling novel, the stage version, and motion picture version.
For The Americanization of Emily (1964), the film’s director, Arthur Hiller, shares his experiences from the set. At the beginning of his commentary he explains that war shouldn’t be lamented as a laudable act. If it was, kids would grow up and want to have their own wars. The Action on the Beach (6:02) featurette explores how a beach in California served as the Normandy beach during D-Day. Four months of planning, one week of shooting, equated to three minutes of screen time.
The six commentaries are serviceable as supplemental material, but some people may have neither the time nor the inclination to listen to them. Since these films had such an inherent effect on society, maybe a 60-minute or 90-minute documentary of the impact of these films would have been a better substitute.