#313) Blackboard Jungle (1955)

Blackboard_jungle

#313) Blackboard Jungle (1955)

OR “Stand and Deliver – ‘50s Style”

Directed & Written by Richard Brooks. Based on the novel by Evan Hunter.

Class of 2016

The Plot: Veteran Richard Dadier (Glenn Ford) takes a job as a high school English teacher to support himself and his pregnant wife Anne (Anne Francis). His class is populated with unruly teenage boys, including gang leader Artie West (Vic Morrow) and the rebellious Gregory Miller (Sidney Poitier). His students attack him, both verbally and physically, but Dadier stands firm, hoping against hope he can get these kids to actually apply themselves. But who can pay attention to all this when you have the hep sounds of Bill Haley & His Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock” playing over the credits?

Why It Matters: The NFR states that the film “effectively dramatizes the social issues at hand” and praises Poitier and Morrow, but mostly focuses on the film’s use of “Rock Around the Clock”.

But Does It Really?: “Blackboard Jungle” is the movie that gave us “Rock Around the Clock” and started Sidney Poitier on his road to fame, but that may be it. The film can still startle with its risqué subject matter, but its take on juvenile delinquency doesn’t pack the punch of a “Rebel Without a Cause” or “The Wild One”. Perhaps its focus on Glenn Ford – and therefore the older generation – prevents the film from reaching its maximum potential. Regardless, “Blackboard Jungle” has enough of a legacy for NFR inclusion, and gets a pass from me.

Everybody Gets One: Actors Vic Morrow and Paul Mazursky, the latter of whom would go on to write and direct a successful run of ‘70s character studies that have yet to make the Registry. Also on hand is Jameel Farah, who eventually changed his stage name to Jamie Farr and played Klinger on “M*A*S*H”.

Wow, That’s Dated: Two words: juvenile delinquency. Throw in some hip slang and frequent sexism and you got yourself 1955, Daddy-O!

Seriously, Oscars?: One of the biggest hits of 1955, “Blackboard Jungle” received four Oscar nominations: Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Art Direction, and Editing. The film lost to Best Picture nominees “The Rose Tattoo” and “Picnic”, as well as Best Picture winner “Marty”.

Other notes

  • Is a Blackboard Jungle any relation to an Asphalt Jungle?
  • Accounts vary on who exactly selected “Rock Around the Clock” for the film’s opening credits. Most sources cite Richard Brooks, while others say Glenn Ford’s 10-year-old son Peter was responsible. Regardless, it heralded the beginning of rock ‘n’ roll into mainstream America.
  • Fun Fact: “Rock Around the Clock” was the B-side. How different would “Blackboard Jungle” have been if Richard Brooks had opted for the A-side, “Thirteen Women (and Only One Man in Town)”?
  • Among the actors playing the faculty are stage legend Louis Calhern, future stage legend Richard Kiley, model/Scarlet O’Hara contender Margaret Hayes, and a young uncredited Richard Deacon!
  • Anne Francis is Glenn Ford’s wife? She looks like she’s 12! Did I accidentally rent “Baby Doll”?
  • Speaking of, that’s a 14-year age-gap between Ford and Francis. Another major readout on the Michael Douglas scale.
  • And then we get Sidney Poitier. Right from the start Poitier has the star quality that compels you to watch him, even when you’re supposed to be watching Glenn Ford. It’s also fun to see Poitier playing a character who is a complete 180 from the distinguished, sophisticated persona he would later craft for himself.
  • It appears Miller and Dadier are playing the first ever round of “Please Stop Calling Me Chief!
  • Among the taboo topics covered in this film are gang violence, bigotry, miscarriages, and sexual assault. Very edgy, though there’s still some work in terms of handling these subjects delicately. Anne Francis says Ms. Hammond probably provoked the students by “dress[ing] sexy”. Yikes.
  • Why would you ever bring your prized record collection to a school with a well-known discipline problem? According to Richard Kiley, he continued to get jazz records from concerned fans for the rest of his life.
  • Sidney Poitier was always open about his lack of musical abilities, and his singing is dubbed for this film. I guess the “Porgy and Bess” producers didn’t notice.
  • Dadier shows his students a UPA-esque cartoon of “Jack and the Beanstalk”. This leads to analysis by the students that would make Bruno Bettelheim proud.
  • Did they just censor Poitier saying “damn”? There are enough ethnic slurs in this film to make Quentin Tarantino blush, but heaven forbid these teenagers hear the word “damn”.
  • Thanks to the Christmas pageant, this is another movie for my “Die Hard” Not-Christmas list. And why did no one ask Calhern or Kiley to direct?
  • Dadier makes two dollars an hour!? Even adjusted for inflation that’s not much (roughly $19 an hour). Good thing we pay our public teachers well now, right? ….right?
  • A whole movie about ‘50s teenage gangs and not a single Jerome Robbins dance number? What a rip-off!

Legacy

  • The main takeaway from “Blackboard Jungle” is “Rock Around the Clock”. The film and the song helped each other achieve success, though the song quickly eclipsed the film in popularity. Teen audiences would jump out of their seats at the beginning of the film to dance to this song, though this did occasionally lead to rowdy behavior, with some theaters opting to mute the opening credits.
  • Sidney Poitier would take on the role of inspirational teacher to his own troubled students in 1967’s “To Sir, with Love”. Like its predecessor, the best thing about the film may be the song.
  • The film was spoofed in the 1957 MGM cartoon “Blackboard Jumble”, starring Droopy (well, three rowdy children who look like Droopy).

Listen to This: I still can’t believe “Rock Around the Clock” was only added to the National Recording Registry this last go-round. Learn more about the history of the song with this essay by music scholar David Deacon-Joyner (which sides with Team Richard Brooks on its “Blackboard Jungle” inclusion).

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