- The Washington Times - Friday, May 6, 2005

Despite thematic intentions that may have influenced its selections, the DVD set “Controversial Classics,” now available from Warner Home Video, is essentially a miscellany. The most plausible reason for possessing it is to collect, at a price of roughly $10 per title, fresh DVD copies of seven movies that were notable, in part, for being provocative in their original years of release.

The choices leapfrog over about 30 years of Hollywood chronology and topical subject matter. “Classics” begins with “I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang,” circa 1932, and incorporates “Fury” from 1936, “Bad Day at Black Rock” and “Blackboard Jungle” from 1955, “A Face in the Crowd” from 1957,”Advise & Consent” from 1962, and “The Americanization of Emily” from 1964.

Although the lineup offers diverting time travel, it reflects nothing conclusive about the way the movie industry has dealt with material that might have been considered controversial, in some degree, at one time or another.

Why this mix of titles rather than others that would be similarly eligible — and arbitrary? Previously, Warner Home Video released two anthologies that displayed more cohesion. “Warner Bros. Gangster Collection” consisted of six titles, ranging from “Little Caesar” (1930) to “White Heat” (1949). All belonged to the same genre, and all were made by Warner Bros. in its heyday. The “Warner Bros. Film Noir Collection,” which was shadowed by a rival set from Universal Home Video, concentrated on suspense thrillers of the 1940s, most of them originating at RKO.

The Time-Warner merger placed the extensive holdings of Turner Entertainment, which includes several vintage studio libraries, in the Warner Home Video bailiwick. But it’s still rather odd to see one studio’s name attached to a collection such as “Controversial Classics,” which consists of four old movies from MGM, two from Warner Bros. and one from Columbia.

In addition, what should be deduced about a Rip Van Winkle time frame that takes a 20-year hiatus between the middle 1930s and middle 1950s? Did topical content vanish from the screen just before, during and after World War II?

It might have been clever to make at least one stopover in the 1940s, perhaps at RKO’s “Crossfire,” which would have established Robert Ryan as the specialist in long, lean and potentially lethal bigotry that he remained a decade later in “Bad Day at Black Rock.”

When I was growing up, you became accustomed to a recurrent, evidently approved list of “crusading” topics at the movies: anti-Semitism, racism, alcoholism or drug addiction, juvenile delinquency, municipal corruption, and shameful conditions in prisons or mental institutions.

Several of these are represented in the “Controversial Classics” package. “I Am a Fugitive” remains one of the most famous exposes of sinister penology in the South; a racial murder haunts the remote Western town of Black Rock; high school hoods are the preoccupation of “Blackboard Jungle,” which also spiced the classroom with Sidney Poitier in order to deplore and transcend racism; and blood lust prompts residents of a nondescript Midwestern town to terrorize Spencer Tracy in “Fury.”

Hollywood’s opportunistic and superficial tendencies often stereotyped the quality of dire observation and reformist sentiment in topical melodramas. For example, the situations that land Paul Muni and Spencer Tracy behind bars in “Fugitive” and “Fury,” respectively, require an unseemly expediency. They also oblige one suffering protagonist to seem too much the chump and another too much the embittered lunatic. After surviving lynch law and arson in the first half of “Fury,” the Tracy character is incognito to a fault in Act 2 while plotting byzantine vengeance through intermediaries during an outrageous trial.

Clare Boothe Luce, an undiplomatic Eisenhower-era diplomat, made “Blackboard Jungle” controversial all by herself when she protested its invitation to the Venice Film Festival.

At home, it seemed to me that everyone pretty much concurred with writer-director Richard Brooks: Lawless classrooms were a bad thing; dedicated and courageous teachers were a good thing. Among my classmates, the movie’s social outlook aroused far less comment than the wake-up sound of Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” over the main titles.

Warner Bros. had a sensational juvenile-delinquency hit of its own in 1955: “Rebel Without a Cause.” Evidently, it became ineligible for the “Controversial” collection because it was already reserved for a James Dean memorial set being issued at the end of the month.

If controversy and institutional history mattered much, this anthology might have made room for “Bonnie and Clyde” and/or “The Wild Bunch,” released by Warners in the late 1960s. “Bonnie and Clyde” would even have closed a loop by reverting to the time frame of “I Am a Fugitive.”

“A Face in the Crowd,” the Elia Kazan-Budd Schulberg project that followed “On the Waterfront,” was determined to be controversial — on the subject of TV’s demagogic potential. The filmmakers got so riled up that a clever, insinuating start was eventually wrecked by histrionic and polemical wretched excess. For generations accustomed to Andy Griffith as the first citizen of Mayberry, his mad-dog movie debut as overbearing, menacing Lonesome Rhodes is bound to seem an unwelcome assault.

Otto Preminger’s movie version of the Allen Drury best-seller “Advise & Consent” may have more staying power as a “controversial classic” than the other titles. It is certainly holding up as an all-star entertainment and period piece. Indeed, as time goes by, the sight of Charles Laughton stepping off a streetcar near the U.S. Senate offices becomes exceedingly precious.

“Advise & Consent” is actually about a political controversy from start to finish: the conflict stirred by a presidential nominee for secretary of state, Henry Fonda, whose past is vulnerable to suspicion and opposition. The current political climate also contributes to the movie’s portrait of Washington rivalries and infighting.

Perhaps it’s time to set aside a screening room on Capitol Hill where “Advise & Consent” can play on a daily basis.

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