Judge Christopher Kulik's favorite socially relevant film is Howard The Duck; a large duck prejudiced by residents of Cleveland. If Stanley Kramer had directed it, he would have made it a classic.
Our reviews of Guess Who's Coming To Dinner: 40th Anniversary Edition (published February 11th, 2008), Ship Of Fools (published February 16th, 2004), and Tracy And Hepburn: The Definitive Collection (published April 20th, 2011) are also available.
"As for you two, the problems you're going to have they seem almost unimaginable. I'm sure you know what you're up against. There will be a hundred million people in this country that will be shocked and offended and appalled at the sight of the two of you. And you both will just have to ride that out, maybe every day for the rest of your lives. You can try to ignore those people or you can feel sorry for them and their prejudices and their bigotry and their blind hatreds and stupid fears. You'll have to cling tight to each other and say: SCREW ALL THOSE PEOPLE!"—Spencer Tracy, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner
The late Stanley Kramer has been labelled as a "socially conscious" filmmaker, in that he addressed important social issues which had affected the American landscape. Few filmmakers dared do that, particulalry when most studios were more concerned about churning out films based on an entertainment factor. With a list of Academy Award nominations for Kramer's films as long as your arm, it seemed about time that a celebratory DVD set was in order. Although this particular set has only five films, they all stand the test of time in many ways, even if they are not all treated as enduring classics. The six-disc Stanley Kramer Film Collection is now available from Sony, and it provides a more than adequate introduction to an honored filmmaker.
Facts of the Case
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner: 40th Anniversary Edition
Ship of Fools
The Member of the Wedding
The Wild One
The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T
I think I can see exactly why these particular five films were chosen by Karen Kramer (Stanley's widow) and Sony. For one thing, they are all Columbia titles, and second, they are all completely different from one another in every way possible. Two films are from the 1960s and three are from 1953, though The Member of the Wedding would be questionable because the DVD set says it came out in 1953, but the International Movie Database says it came out a year later in all countries, including the U.S. Regardless, we have five excellent films here. Some are marred by dated elements, while others are rather forgotten, though they all serve as richly rewarding entertainments with messages that are more subtle than in-your-face. Plus, the staggering amount of great actors and talents is mesmerizing, with Ship of Fools alone having over 12 international stars. Sony presents all five films with a number of bonus features, with Guess Who's Coming to Dinner getting the most attention as they are celebrating the film's 40th Anniversary. (P.S. This is the one film in the set that is also available seperately).
Starting with Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, I will try to discuss the film without including information that was already mentioned in Judge Tom Becker's fine, recent review of the 40th Anniversary edition. Before watching this entire set, this is the one film I had seen before, and I must say even though the film suffers from too much fluff, it still remains a landmark film. Sidney Poitier's performance as John Prentice is noteworthy, though the film does side swipe realism a bit by making his character "perfect" inside and out. Of course, it was all done to soften the film's controversial themes; yes, we do know that the Draytons will accept John even though he's black, but the real issue is what society's reaction to them would be. They just don't want to see them get hurt, plain and simple. As for John's father, he brings up the vital point that their marriage would be considered illegal in 17 states. Today, that sounds outrageous, but in fact it was only several months before the film's release that the case of Loving vs. Virginia declared anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional.
The sad thing is, however, there are still individuals out there with the petty prejudices that Spencer Tracy discusses in his final, eloquently delivered monologue. Perhaps that might be the reason why Hollywood felt the need to update this film (as Guess Who) for the Meet the Parents generation, though they decided to ignore a message and just go for racist jokes. Nevertheless, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner does have a message which is still more than relevant 40 years later, and it's hard to believe that any another filmmaker other than Kramer who would have had the balls to make this film. Guess Who's Coming to Dinner was a box-office smash, and it was partly due to the fact that it served as the final bow for a legendary team: Hepburn and Tracy, who made seven films together prior to this, which would also serve as Tracy's cinematic swan song. He died mere weeks after completing the film, and Hepburn publicly stated she would never watch the film because the memories for her would be too difficult to bear (they also were romantically involved for almost 25 years). All of the film's performances are superb, though, especially Roy Glenn, Jr. and Beah Richards as the Mr. and Mrs. Prentice, respectively. Yes, I even thought Katherine Houghton (who was Hepburn's niece in real life) was good, with her personality being delightful and bubbly from start to finish.
As for the print of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, I don't think that much is different from the original 2001 release. Colors are bright and bold, and while there is still some grain detected, the film holds up remarkably well. On the audio side, we have three Dolby Digital tracks in 2.0 Stereo which all serve the film well. Subtitles are provided in the same languages: English, French, and Spanish. The real goodies are found in the bonus features, even if their isn't an audio commentary available. On the first disc, we have four introductions by news anchor Tom Brokaw, Karen Kramer, musician Quincy Jones, and filmmaker Steven Spielberg; all of them are brief, though insightful all the same. On the second disc, we have a two-part documentary about the making of the film. The film was concieved by screenwriter William Rose (who won an Oscar, as did Hepburn for Best Actress), who based the idea on a real-life interracial marriage that happened in Africa in the early 1960s. Speakers include filmmaker Norman Jewison, actor Louis Gossett, Jr., and Katherine Houghton, and it's unfortunate that Poitier couldn't take a break from retirement to do an interview.
At 48 minutes, the documentary manages to cover everything about the film's production, though the other bonus features are certainly nothing disposable. There is a segment called "A Man's Search for Truth," which is devoted to Kramer, complete with archival interviews with the filmmaker. Contemporary directors and actors get to put in their two cents about how they were influenced by Kramer's films and how important they are, even today. Academy Award enthusiasts will also be pleased to see the clip of Kramer winning the Irving Thalberg award in 1962. Karen Kramer, being committed to keep her husband's legacy alive, had also arranged for the creation of a Producer's Guild award in her husband's name, which would award today's films that addressed socially relevant issues. Last year's recipient was none other than Al Gore (who else?) for his powerful documentary An Inconvenient Truth, and you can see the clip of that where Gore recieves the award presented by Harrison Ford. Finally, last but not least, there is a photo gallery with approximately 48 images, which mostly show the actors behind the scenes.
Two years before Guess Who's Coming to Dinner was made, Kramer had produced and directed an epic saga concerning prejudices and racism in pre-WW2 society, though instead of a house in San Francisico, the setting was an ocean liner bound for Germany from Mexico. That film was entitled Ship of Fools, and it got nominated for eight Academy Awards, and eventually won two: Art Direction and Cinematography. As an ensemble actors' showcase, the film scores high marks, though I'm one of the few who thinks Ship of Fools is rather overrated. Spinning different story threads on to a large narrative canvas isn't easy, and I think that screenwriter Abby Mann (who also wrote Kramer's Judgment at Nuremberg) did an excellent job overall, I do think the film suffers from overlength and one too many supporting characters. However, it is worth it for the performances, with Vivien Leigh being wonderful (as always), even while fighting tubercluosis and manic depression off screen. Those who love the film will be pleased to know that Sony has decided to release the film in widescreen, as opposed to the full-frame, pan-and-scan version that was present for its 2004 DVD debut. The print has been noticably cleaned up, though it still does suffer from occasional grain and scratches. Extras are limited but acceptable, with two featurettes: "Voyage on a Soundstage," and "Onboard the Ship of Fools." Karen Kramer provides another introduction and there is also a photo gallery.
Earlier in the year, I had written a review on the 1968 film The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and to prepare for it I read the novel it was based on by Carson McCullers. While I didn't love it, I did think it was a moving tale set in the South—-which is the setting for all of McCullers' books, including The Member of Wedding, which she later adapted into a play. The story is simple, but memorable all the same, as it focuses on a tomboy who is going through the difficult transition: staring out as a girl with uncontrollable emotions and becoming a woman who learns to accept life as it is. Like the character of Mick in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Frances "Frankie" Addams in The Member of the Wedding is a dramatized version of McCullers' own troubled childhood. Because of her masculine qualities and attitude, she is treated differently by other girls, who refuse to allow her to join a local club. Her two friends are her black housekeeper Berenice Brown (played by Ethel Waters) and six-year-old John Henry (played by Brandon de Wilde), who is her neighbor. Frankie wants to run away from home and share the freedom that her older brother is now enjoying, though she quickly learns that she is not ready (or experienced enough) to enter the outside world.
The film version of The Member of the Wedding is not only perfectly faithful to McCullers' novel, it also manages to bring back together Harris, Waters, and de Wilde, all of whom had played the same characters on the stage. Kramer served as producer, with Fred Zinnemann (From Here to Eternity) directing, and the film remains as effective as it was over 50 years ago. The only problem with The Member of the Wedding is that remains rather stagy, as most of the action takes place in the kitchen of the Addams' house, but the exceptional performances by all three leads more than compensate. To my knowledge, this is the first time that the film has debuted on DVD, and the print does have its fair share of problems, mostly due to its age. Overall, the full frame presentation is palatable, with the 2.0 Stereo track serving its purpose. Special features are better than expected, starting with an audio commentary by university professor—and McCullers' biographer—Virginia Spencer Carr. She also figures prominently in the featurette "The World of Carson McCullers" which provides a nice overview of the author's tragic life. Another featurette, "The Journey from Stage to Film" accomplishes what the title implies, with a welcome interview with Oscar-winning actor Kevin Spacey. Once again, Karen Kramer provides an introduction and there is also a "note" from actress Julie Harris, which only consists of a few sentences.
The fourth film provided in this collection is The Wild One, an occasionally hokey, but highly entertaining look at a motorcyle gang. Marlon Brando remains impressive as the gang's leader, and Lee Marvin (who has been in several other Kramer films, including Ship of Fools and The Caine Mutiny) pops up in a supporting role as Chino, a former member who later started his own gang. Apparantly, The Wild One was deemed shocking stuff back in the day, though now seems so restrained along side today's films that it plays like Disney-fied version of Class of 1984. However, even I cannot deny that the The Wild One manages to remain potent in many instances—in addition to overcoming its B-movie feel—partlicularly in how it addresses the theme of theme of youth rebellion, which sprouted up in the 1950s. Much of the film's juice and fascination comes from the strained relationship between the angered Johnny and the sweet, responsible "local girl" Katie Bleeker (Mary Murphy). Of all five films in the collection, The Wild One seems to be the one with the "worst" video presentation; I'm not sure if it was an improvement over the original 1998 DVD release by Sony. It's not bad, though, with the black-and-white photography holding up well for the most part. Among the extras are an audio commentary by author/film historian Jeanine Basinger, who provides some cool tidbits, but tends to repeat the obvious more often than not. The two featurettes, "Brando: An Icon is Born" and "Hollister, California: Bikers, Booze, and the Big Picture" are much more enlightening and the interviews by Dennis Hopper (who later appeared in the much-better film abou angry youth, Rebel Without A Cause) and director Taylor Hackford are great to listen to. Once again, Karen Kramer provides an introduction to round out the bonus features.
Finally, we get to what I think is the real gem of the collection: The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, a truly eye-popping combination of fantasy and musical numbers. I never heard of the film before, and while I'm not a huge fan of Dr. Suess, The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T has so much imagination and wonder that you are able to forgive the film for having such a thin storyline. The incredible production design by Rudolph Sternod (who worked on most of Kramer's pictures) features a stunning display of curved sculptures and twisted towers. The film has a dark, haunting nature to it, though it also contradicted by a light sense of humor, mostly provided by actors Conried and Hayes. All of the actors are good, though it is really Conried who stands out as the piano teacher who acts more like an insane military commander. While it's unfortunate that the film isn't available in widescreen (they didn't shoot the film in Cinemascope, a staple of the 1950s), the print preserves the vivid colors and imperfections are, thankfully, minimal. Considering the fact that this is a musical, it's also a shame that a 5.1 Surround track wasn't provided; like all the other films in this DVD set, the audio is Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo. The featurettes manage to provide much information about the film being made and how Dr. Seuss' ideas got translated from page to screen. Also included is a photo gallery and Karen Kramer's introduction.
These five films manage to stand the test of time, even though all of them contain dated elements and references which modern day audiences may find alien. That is not to say that these films are recommended solely for film buffs or classic movie fans, however, because Stanley Kramer truly had a knack for making films that were not only entertaining but also feature socially relevant issues. The bottom line is that Guess Who's Coming to Dinner is a landmark film with a message that still resonates today, Ship of Fools remains a colossal achievement in ensemble acting, The Member of the Wedding remains a realistic examination of a young girl's coming of age, The Wild One stands up as a riveting relic of its era, and The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T is a film that deserves the Willy Wonka or Wizard of Oz status that it truly deserves. This collection his highly recommended by the court, and I would like to thank Karen Kramer for her determination to keep her husband's cinematic contributions recognized by modern-day audiences.
The late, great Stanley Kramer and Sony are hereby acquitted of all charges. John and Joey are free to get married, the ship of fool is free to set sail, Frankie is acquitted of running away from home, Johnny Strabler is free to jump back on his motorcycle, and Brad is free to nuke Dr. T's kingdom. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice, The 5,000 Fingers Of Dr. T
Perp Profile, The 5,000 Fingers Of Dr. T
Distinguishing Marks, The 5,000 Fingers Of Dr. T
• Karen Kramer Introduction
Scales of Justice, The Member Of The Wedding
Perp Profile, The Member Of The Wedding
Distinguishing Marks, The Member Of The Wedding
• Audio Commentary by Author/Professor Virginia Spencer Carr
Scales of Justice, The Wild One
Perp Profile, The Wild One
Distinguishing Marks, The Wild One
• Audio Commentary by Author/Film Historian Jeanine Basinger
Scales of Justice, Ship Of Fools
Perp Profile, Ship Of Fools
Distinguishing Marks, Ship Of Fools
• Karen Kramer Introduction
Scales of Justice, Guess Who's Coming To Dinner
Perp Profile, Guess Who's Coming To Dinner
Distinguishing Marks, Guess Who's Coming To Dinner
• Introductions by Tom Brokaw, Quincy Jones, Karen Kramer, Steven Spielberg
• IMDb: Guess Who's Coming to Dinner
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