Warner’s “Controversial Classics” set is an enticing yet ultimately confounding collection. The seven films selected are indeed provocative — most pass the test of time with flying colors in their disc debuts — but the extras are all over the map, and quality of packaging is sorely lacking. The studio clearly went to great trouble with some of the extras, yet didn’t even bother to tie the pics together with a token essay. The chintzy packaging does grave disservice to the films and treats tucked alongside them.
Consider “Fury,” Fritz Lang’s first American film. The two-sentence blurb on the box-set packaging says nothing about the commentary, while the individual box art (each release is also being sold separately) undersells a bonus sure to make many a cinephile’s heart swell: Peter Bogdanovich commentary interspersing the interviews he conducted with Lang.
Bogdanovich is remarkably fine as a commentator here: knowledgeable without being pedantic. In an easy conversational tone, he muses about the unlikeliness of MGM, “the luxury studio,” making a movie about mob rule, then cuts to Lang claiming MGM was very unhappy about its success. Bogdanovich also is frank about Lang’s prickly nature — he and star Spencer Tracy did not get along — and his struggles after immigrating to the U.S. to avoid a position with the Third Reich.
In fact, some might find that seeing the film with commentary playing is even more enjoyable than viewing the film, not Lang’s most successful, without it.
Arthur Hiller also supplies extremely warm and engaging commentary for “The Americanization of Emily,” a dark satire he lobbied long and hard to direct after Billy Wilder turned it down, though you wouldn’t know it from the box set or individual box art, which inexplicably lists commentary by historian Drew Casper.
Hiller speaks fondly of scribe Paddy Chayefsky, tearing up at his early demise at 59 and rebuts ongoing charges that the movie, which features a military romance between a self-professed coward (James Garner) and a very British true believer (Julie Andrews) is antiwar and anti-American. “If you watch it, you will see it is antiglorification of war,” he maintains.
Hiller also relates an amusing anecdote about the producer’s unwillingness to screen the pic on the Bel-Air circuit and an ailing Samuel Goldwyn’s unshakable conviction that Arthur Miller actually directed the 1964 pic.
“Blackboard Jungle” was under fire from the League of Decency for its depiction of juvenile delinquents and the suggestion of adultery, we learn from the commentary accompanying that 1955 high school expose. “What’s difficult to communicate to people watching this on the DVD or whatever is just how revolutionary this movie seemed,” says Paul Mazursky, who acted in the film during his early 20s.
Mazursky, co-star Jamie Farr (here billed at Jameel Farah), assistant director Joel Freeman and star Glenn Ford’s son Peter fall all over themselves relating anecdotes about the movie, which also featured a young Sidney Poitier. Mazursky, Farr and Ford wax nostalgic about wandering around the Metro lot and seeing Errol Flynn and Gene Kelly at work. And Ford proudly talks about his role in getting “Rock Around the Clock” on the soundtrack.
Sadly, the commentary for “Advise & Consent,” a taut look at wheelings and dealings in the Senate, is less compelling. Casper, a USC prof, narrates the film like a syllabus for a course on Otto Preminger. It’s not until well into the movie that he catches up to this film and addresses the supposed real-life models for Henry Fonda, Walter Pidgeon and Charles Laughton’s characters and differences between it and the successful novel, controversial for its depiction of homosexuality.
“Bad Day at Black Rock,” “A Face in the Crowd” and “I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang” don’t hold up quite as well, with “A Face in the Crowd” an unexpected slog, but each deals with its share of controversial subject matter, from a WWII race killing in “Bad Day at Black Rock” to a former factory worker’s determination to be free and subsequent wrongful imprisonment in 1932’s “I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang.” Both discs feature commentary by historians while “A Face in the Crowd” includes a featurette with fresh reminiscences about helmer Elia Kazan by star Andy Griffith.
No doubt the disparate nature of each film’s accomplishments — and the desire for each release to be able to stand on its own — provided a challenge for Warner. But the lack of a unifying element and sloppy packaging, not to mention spotty compression quality, undermine films more than deserving their due on disc.