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Even in the early days of film, there have always been controversial movies. While the majority of films play it reasonably safe, there is that minority of movies that take risks and generate talk. Nowadays, for better or for worse, the truly controversial movie is a little bit more of a rarity, as there are less taboos that aren't discussed or shown. The Controversial Classics boxed set collects seven older movies that deal with dicey subjects in the Production Code-enforced era that tried to keep everything safe and bland; these films are far from the only ones that could be called controversial or classic, but they are a good sampling.
First (chronologically) is I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, an early talkie with Paul Muni as a man unwittingly implicated in a robbery in the deep South. He is put on a chain gang, and though he eventually escapes and rebuilds his life, his past does catch up with him. This is a powerful but very dark film, with even the last line filled with grimness.
Fury is the first of two starring Spencer Tracy. In the first, Fury, he is a man arrested while driving through a small town. He is suspected of a kidnapping and a lynch mob destroys the jail he is in, apparently killing him. He survives, however, and - now embittered - secretly works to get those responsible tried for his murder. Bad Day at Black Rock has Tracy as a crippled World War II veteran who goes to a small desert community and stirs up memories of an old murder. This one co-stars Robert Ryan, Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine and Anne Francis. Both films are decent but far from great.
Things pick up with Blackboard Jungle, which also has Anne Francis, though Glenn Ford is the star as a novice teacher at a tough school. It is one of the earliest films to highlight juvenile delinquency. Sidney Potier, Vic Morrow and Jamie Farr are some of the students, each with their own level of criminality. Although preachy at times, it is still pretty good.
A Face in the Crowd stars Andy Griffith in his earliest movie role. For those used to Griffith from his nice guy roles, particularly in The Andy Griffith Show and Matlock, this is quite a contrast as he plays an utterly amoral man who uses his homespun humor to go from a bum to an immensely powerful entertainment personality. Also starring Patricia Neal, Lee Remick and Walter Matthau, this is both a great movie and an insightful one.
Advise & Consent starts slow but picks up as it moves into its second half. Otto Preminger's adaptation of the best-selling novel presents the inner workings of the Senate in a somewhat darker light than Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The plot deals with a controversial pick by the President for Secretary of State. This is another great movie, marred only by the ending which wraps things up in a bit too conveniently. Instead of a true star, this features an ensemble cast, including Henry Fonda, Gene Tierney, Walter Pidgeon, Don Murray, Burgess Meredith and Charles Laughton.
If the set begins with a rather depressing movie, it at least ends with a somewhat happier film, the war satire The Americanization of Emily. James Garner is at his most James-Garner-est as the wheeler-dealer Navy Commander serving as a "dog-robber". His job is to make sure that the admiral he works for gets all the pleasures of home. Set in England in the days before D-Day, Garner is a self-admitted coward; he refuses to die just to become a hero. Julie Andrews is the war widow with whom he gets romantically involved. When his admiral decides that the first man to die on Omaha beach must be a Navy man (to help glorify the Navy), Garner is forced to take part in the invasion. As Arthur Hiller relates in the commentary, this is not so much an anti-war film as one opposing the false glorification of war. Not unlike the much more recent Flags of Our Fathers, this film is critical of the manufacturing of heroes; based on recent news stories on Jessica Lynch and Pat Tillman, this lesson still needs to be taught.
With I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, A Face in the Crowd and The Americanization of Emily all meriting five stars and the rest four, this set gets five stars overall, helped by the numerous extras, most particularly the commentaries (on all films except A Face in the Crowd, which does have a mini-documentary). I don't know if this is the ideal sampling of controversial classics, but it is a set of good-to-great films.