Warner Brothers developed a reputation in the '30s for "social problem" films like 1932's I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang, which has Paul Muni as a World War I veteran enduring, then speaking out against, the inhuman tortures of Southern prisons. The film is based on a real-life case, but Warner and director Mervyn LeRoy massaged the details, turning a restless vet into a war hero beaten down by the Depression. Still, Chain Gang doesn't flinch from the situation's gaminess. Muni consorts with prostitutes, tries to pawn his war medals, and sinks into the sweat and gruel of prison life (depicted as vividly in Cool Hand Luke, decades later). The film features one of the most nerve-wracking escape sequences in movie history, but it's just as impressive how the filmmakers connect a pressing social issue with more universal problems. Muni goes from a bad job to a bad marriage with a little bad justice in between, and the unspoken message is that he becomes a fugitive the moment he starts to dream of something better than the daily grind.
I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang heads up Warner's seven-disc DVD collection "Controversial Classics," a brief history of movies that have been considered un-American for one reason or another, and an incidental survey of evolving Hollywood style. There's a world of difference between Chain Gang and Otto Preminger's 1962 political melodrama Advise And Consent, about the tumultuous confirmation hearings of a Secretary Of State nominee played by Henry Fonda. Both films are heavy-handed in their way, but Advise And Consent is a '60s-style prestige picture, with a big-name cast and a stately pace. It's a more-relevant-than-ever portrait of Congressional confirmation procedures–and the subplot involving one senator's closeted homosexuality retains its shock value–but the thickly drawn characters and Preminger's "I'll hold this composition until you notice how artful it is" method make the movie a grind. Director Arthur Hiller and screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky do better with their 1964 adaptation of William Bradford Huie's novel The Americanization Of Emily, with James Garner as a World War II naval officer serving in a cushy London-based administrative post, and Julie Andrews as a war widow scandalized by Garner's utter lack of patriotism. There's a lot of tooth to Garner's speeches about the folly of military heroes, and the lampooning of bureaucratic madness remains pretty keen, but The Americanization Of Emily still seems fussy and overenunciated, like a lot of the big Hollywood movies of the time.
In a way, filmmakers in the early '60s were struggling with the legacy of the '50s, when adult subject matter and sophisticated themes became more prevalent, often in watered-down versions of more incendiary novels and plays. In the hands of a true artist like director Elia Kazan, the new maturity could be bracing. The Budd Schulberg story and script for 1957's A Face In The Crowd lays on the social commentary with a trowel, as its hayseed hero (Andy Griffith) rises from puckish scoundrel and tell-it-like-it-is local radio sensation to monstrous TV star. It's like an early version of Network, and it's just as overwrought, but Kazan enlivens the material with a mise en scène so vigorous that it could make anyone buy into the auteur theory. Kazan varies his shooting style, alternating between portraiture, expressionism, and docu-realism for a look and rhythm that's about 15 years ahead of its time. He also coaxes great performances from a sweaty, manic Griffith, and from Patricia Neal as the savvy young woman who discovers him, promotes him, and then comes to fear what he stands for.
Compared to Kazan, reliable craftsmen Richard Brooks and John Sturges look like hacks, at least when handling hot-potato subject matter. Brooks' 1955 adaptation of Evan Hunter's high-school pulp novel Blackboard Jungle features crackerjack performances by Vic Morrow, Sidney Poitier, Jamie Farr, and Paul Mazursky as juvenile delinquents (the latter two also anchor a touching DVD commentary track), and by Glenn Ford as the tough-but-fair new teacher who gets them to care. But aside from the rollicking "Rock Around The Clock" opening credits, the movie has gathered mounds of dust. Sturges' 1955 neo-Western Bad Day At Black Rock holds up stronger, with its spare desert landscapes and one-armed Spencer Tracy showing a town full of murderous racists what dignity means. The film is upfront about the way patriotic Japanese-Americans were mistreated during and after World War II, though like Blackboard Jungle, its villains have no depth, only a heavy, heavy weight. Both films succeed at generating outrage, but in ways that come off as one-sided and even a little condescending.
Spencer Tracy makes a more multidimensional champion of justice in Fritz Lang's 1936 Hollywood debut Fury, playing a man wrongly imprisoned in a small town and surrounded by fired-up locals intent on a lynching. They burn down the jail and leave Tracy for dead, but he survives, and works behind the scenes to bring the whole town to trial for murder. There's nothing subtle or ambiguous about the anti-mob-rule message (though there might've been, had Lang been allowed to follow through on his M-like intention to make Tracy guilty), but as with I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang and A Face In The Crowd, Fury has an immersive quality that excuses the bluntness. It's an astonishingly expressive film, as Lang uses subjective tracking shots and satirical montages of clucking chickens to mock the rioters and make the righteous look phony. Fury is heartland Americana knocked cock-eyed, with petty gripes about taxes and lawyers escalating into murderous rage. Lang doesn't just have people stand around talking about a social problem. He shows them living it out, and makes the audience live it too.