Ripped from the headlines
Advise & Consent is one of seven titles newly released on DVD by Warner Brothers as the Controversial Classics Collection. Most were made in the '50s and '60s, when a peculiar belief was floating around Hollywood that movies could change the real world. (For an up-to-the-second but less effective example of that moral conviction, see Sydney Pollack's The Interpreter.) How directly a film affects attitudes and public policy decisions is usually a matter of debate, but these are some that hoped to.
The earliest film here, 1932's I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang, can boast that its release led to protests and reforms in a brutal penal system. Paul Muni stars as a World War I veteran who falls on hard times and winds up in trouble with the law. The story of his two captures and two escapes is told with a gritty realism that drove home the system's inhumanity.
Wrongful conviction is also at the heart of Fury, a 1936 Fritz Lang film (the first he made in America and, according to the esteemed Halliwell Guide, the best) starring Spencer Tracy and Silvia Sidney. Instead of the legal system, Fury takes aim at informal justice - the lynch mobs that claimed the lives of those thought, correctly or not, to have committed a crime. Spencer Tracy plays the innocent man here, believed to be dead after a mob-set fire. Tracy sets out to wreak revenge on those who started the blaze.
Mob mentality rears its head again in Bad Day At Black Rock, and again Spencer Tracy is the man confronting it. Tracy is a disabled World War II vet who arrives in a small town where nobody knows him or what he's up to. With townfolk such as Ernest Borgnine, Lee Marvin, and Walter Brennan, it's a safe bet that mystery and suspicion are going to fester into something ugly and violent. Directed by The Great Escape's John Sturges, this may be the one title in the set that's most discussed today.
Then again, there's The Blackboard Jungle. True, many folks know Jungle simply as the first film to use a rock 'n' roll song ("Rock Around the Clock") on its soundtrack, but one look at the film reveals that rock isn't the only thing about it that stood the test of time; the film inspired an entire genre. Glenn Ford plays an idealistic teacher sent to a troubled inner-city school where he must deal with gangs, racial tension, and students who couldn't care less what he's trying to do for them. It's not easy to change the educational status quo, but it's awfully fun rooting for someone who tries.
Andy Griffith goes horribly wrong in A Face In The Crowd, a 1957 look at the scary side of fame. Director Elia Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg, neither a stranger to controversy, follow a good ol' boy as he ascends from nobody to media darling overnight and just as quickly gives way to every temptation that accompanies stardom.
Twenty years later, Network would cover some of that same territory thanks to scribe Paddy Chayefsky, whose The Americanization of Emily (with director Arthur Hiller) rounds out Warner Brothers' boxed set. James Garner plays a naval officer who wants nothing to do with martyrdom, although the Navy desperately needs some heroes. The filmmakers use his romance with war widow Julie Andrews to take their share of jabs at the marketing of military campaigns.
Finally, a collection of Hollywood controversy-mongers wouldn't be complete without Jane Fonda. The Criterion Collection recently released Tout Va Bien, which is tailor-made to explain to youngsters why Fonda stuck in so many middle-American craws during the '70s. Here she teams up with Yves Montand and legendary America-bashing director Jean-Luc Godard for a film bent on provocation. Anti-materialist, anti-imperialist, and anti-establishment are the same thing as anti-American, right? Decide for yourself just in time for Monster In Law, Fonda's return to the big screen after a 15-year sabbatical. •
By John DeFore