The International Writers Magazine: A DVD review
The Blackboard Jungle
Directed by Richard Brooks
Any film that stars Sidney Poitier is going to rise and fall on the basis of his presence. He is one of those classic actors, like a Jimmy Cagney, Spencer Tracy, or John Wayne, that simply captures the attention of an audience, for good or ill. Oftentimes its for the good, but in this film it’s not for the ill, simply for the pointless.
Yes, there is context, and in the mid-1950s, when The Blackboard Jungle came out, Poitier was the only black film star of any heft and seriousness. Yet, he still seems wasted in his role as Miller, a juvenile delinquent in North Manual Trades High School, a good kid gone wrong, and one whom teacher Glenn Ford, as Mr. Dadier, seems intent on rescuing. And to top it off, he simply looks (and acts and talks) way to old to be convincing as a high school student (as do most of the other ‘kids’), especially a delinquent one. So, perhaps I should retract the claim I made to kick off this essay.
The film opens with a stern (but historically humorous) disclaimer, then follows Dadier (mocked by his students as ‘Daddy-o’), a new hire, at one of the toughest high schools in New York City. It’s an all boys school, and a bit smile-inducing for me, having gone to a real new York City high school a quarter century later, and one wherein the delinquents would have eaten these guys for lunch (see the first shots where so-called tough guys hold each others hands and dance to rock music in public), to see the faux macho theatrics and clichés this film revels in the worst is when a teenaged hotrodder sideswipes a car, and that causes the parked automobile to fall over on its side, on a sidewalk- yet one can clearly see the mechanical device that pushes the car over in the subsequent shot. I guess special effects were not so good in those days. Nonetheless, there is some genuinely good acting in the film, by Ford, and especially by Vic Morrow, as tough Irish kid gone wrong, Artie West.
||The film suffers from a lack of realism in that the ethnic mix of kids in the classes, who hung out together, is simply a collection of stereotypes. No white kids would ever look to a black kid, such as played by Poitier, as a ‘class leader.’ Maybe in 2010, but not in 1980, when I entered high school, much less 1955, the year of the film’s release.
And while the film gets the indifference of the teachers right, the trope of Dadier’s struggle to win over his students while also influencing his colleagues would start a trend that led to many noxious pro-teacher films: To Sir, With Love (also starring Poitier), Mr. Holland’s Opus, Dead Poets Society, Lean On Me, Dangerous Minds, and Stand And Deliver, which only inculcated the banalities this film does at its worst.
At its best, the film hints at things that 1950s audiences were not ready for, such as a frigid and sexless marriage between Dadier and his wife Anne (Anne Francis), possible infidelities and trysts between teachers- Dadier and the brunet teacher he saves from rape, the bodacious and lascivious Miss Hammond (Margaret Hayes), as well as the very notion of violent youth, egged on by….rock-n-roll! West leads a band of his hooligans on a rampage in several scenes, one where he assaults Dadier and Mr. Edwards (Richard Kiley, the math teacher, and another where he destroys Edwards’ prized record collection. Perhaps the most valuable social thing the film doers is actually confront racism, in a scene where Dadier breaks up a fight between Miller and West, and lectures them on bigotry, using terms like spic, nigger, and mick. He later gets called down to the principal’s office where (in a foretaste of PC hells to come) he is accused of being a racist, even though he argued against such, although the film later tries to reveal that he is a bigot, after he confronts Miller for squealing to the principal on him. He spends the rest of the film trying to win Miller back to his side.
Naturally, the fink was West, who also torments Anne Dadier into an early labor, by ceaselessly telephoning her with claims of her husband’s affair with the buxom Miss Hammond. He also mails stacks of letters. After she nearly loses the baby, Dadier is ready to quit, until….you got it, one of his formerly skeptical colleagues tells him he should not do so, that he was wrong for all he said in badmouthing the school and students. Refortified, Dadier plunges ahead, and in a confrontation with West, that ends in his getting knifed, Dadier and Miller triumph, sending West and his sidekick to reform school. Justice prevails and the classrooms are free to be hallowed halls of learning once again. Did I mention the film is predictable? And dated? But, on the flip side, I did learn that classes, in that bygone decade, seemed to only go on for five minutes or less, and homework was optional. So, booyah!
Despite the flaws, The Blackboard Jungle is an enjoyable film, ably- if not brilliantly- helmed by journeyman director Richard Brooks, whose insistence upon using the rock-n-roll classic Rock Around The Clock, by Bill Haley & His Comets helped establish the new musical form in its mainstream acceptance. Not much other real scoring occurs in the film, and the little that does adds little to the reputation of Max C. Freedman, who was in charge of it. Likewise, the black and white cinematography, by Russell Harlan, is pedestrian (filmed on MGM back lots). The screenplay, by Brooks, is nothing great, either, adapted from a novel by Evan Hunter, aka Ed Mcbain (lurid pulp crime fictionist), whose real name was Salvatore Lombino. Yet, despite all the flaws, the film is significantly better than the similarly themed Rebel Without A Cause, which came out later that same year. Had the later film not starred James Dean in his lauded (although almost embarrassingly hammy) star-making performance, this film might stand a little higher, not artistically, but historically, for both films were the start of teenagers in trouble films; a subgenre that did not go over well with the big studios, but lent B films a new lease on life, apart from the standard horror and monster films they pushed. It was this craze which basically was responsible for giving the world Roger Corman and American International Pictures, love him or not (I love him, if for no other reason than he gave the great Vincent Price a chance to be a star!)
The DVD, put out by Warner Brothers (although an MGMG film), is solid, and part of a 6 DVD package of films called Controversial Classics. The extras are solid: the original theatrical trailer, a Droopy Dog cartoon- The Blackboard Jumble, and an audio commentary for the 100 minute long film, which is shown in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and has not as much damage as one might expect from a film its age. The commentary is actually a good one, with the commenters being two of the film’s actors, who had small parts but went on to later fame, filmmaker Paul Mazursky and actor Jamie Farr (billed as Jameel Farah, playing an Italian kid), Glenn Ford’s son Paul, and the film’s assistant director, Joel Freeman. The comments are not technical, and mostly of reminiscence, but the many behind the scenes tales that Farr (who speaks the most) and Mazursky (who says the second most) almost make up for the lack of technical or historical expertise. Mazursky speaks how this film was his second film job, after a role in 1954’s Fear And Desire, by Stanley Kubrick. They all revel in one scene where a Puerto Rican kid talks about his day, in a tape recorder, and uses the word ‘stinkin’’ instead of ‘fuckin’.’
The Blackboard Jungle is the prototypical example of a film (or any work of art) that survives not for its art but for its historical import. Yes, there are some well constructed and acted scenes, such as when the class views a cartoon of Jack And The Beanstalk, and opine on it philosophically, thereby furthering West’s loss of control over his delinquent buddies, but for every scene like that there are three or four others that make one want to cringe - say, did you realize that, in their free time, young male Negroes like to get together and sing in perfect harmony because, well, because that’s what young male Negroes of the 1950s did for fun? Ain’t you never heard of doo-wop, Daddy-o? A film like this is best to take if one is prepared to just accept it for what it is, a time capsule not of what was, but of what was feared. If so, The Blackboard Jungle is perfect, however otherwise flawed. Deal with it, Teach!
© Dan Schneider May 2013
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