Controversial Classics

Warner Brothers, generally considered to be the most realist studio of the studio era, has released a DVD box set celebrating some of its most unvarnished looks at American society. Controversial Classics consists of seven discs: I Am a Fugitive From the Chain Gang, Mervyn LeRoy 1932; Fury, Fritz Lang 1936; Bad Day at Black Rock, John Sturges 1955; Blackboard Jungle, Richard Brooks 1956; A Face in the Crowd, Elia Kazan 1957; Advice and Consent, Otto Preminger 1962 and The Americanization of Emily, Arthur Hiller 1964. If you think of old black and white movies as being naive or hopelessly romantic, a look at some of the above titles might convince you otherwise. Based on the autobiographical writing of Robert Burns, Chain Gang is the fiercest of the lot. This is a story of a cruel and merciless penal system and a manipulative dame who conspire to reduce the protagonist, played Paul Muni, into the ultimate fugitive. It's worth watching just for the final line. Fury, made the next year, packs the occasional wallop. It's not what you'd call a favourable portrayal of small town folk, especially when they burn Spencer Tracy alive. You'd think Tracy would learn his lesson but in 1955's Black Rock he's back in another Hicksville, only this time with one arm, and he's got his hand full with the bad news locals. Blackboard Jungle may have been considered controversial at one time but I doubt it was ever considered good. But it's still worth a look for very early appearances by Paul Mazursky, Jamie Farr and Sidney Poitier, who later starred in the very similar To Sir With Love. It also earned eternal footnote status for being the first film with rock'n'roll on its soundtrack. If Jungle is predictable, A Face in the Crowd, starring Andy Griffith, is wholly unexpected. The cult of personality never looked so bad. You won't be able to go back to Mayberry after this. The same themes of media manipulation are explored in Emily but it doesn't appear that anybody in the film, including stars James Garner and Julie Andrews or writer Paddy Chayefsky, can cope with its thematic switchbacks. More efficient is Preminger's Advice and Consent. Perhaps the most controversial aspect of this film is that Washington politicians are presented as either wily, principled or both. If you called George W. wily, he'd just start yammering about jet packs and super-fast birds. The transfers, visually, are great but the sound is a little muffled. The best extra is the animated MGM short that comes with Blackboard Jungle. (Warner)