Blackboard Jungle (1955) Starring: Glenn Ford, Anne Francis, Louis Calhern. Directed by Richard Brooks. Screenplay by Richard Brooks. Based on the novel by Evan Hunter. Produced by Pandro S. Berman. Run Time: 101 minutes. U.S. Black and White. Drama
Message picture melodrama alert. Post-World War II America, the biggest problem facing the country, besides the Red threat, was juvenile delinquents. At least, that’s what this film would have you believe. It would also have you believe that one teacher, Richard Dadier (Glenn Ford) can make a difference if he can get through to one student, Gregory Miller (Sidney Poitier).
|The teachers at North Manual have lost their love of their profession.|
In his first teaching job, Dadier is hired to teach English at a public all-boys school with the catching name North Manual High School. An inner-city school with a diverse student population, the senior class is being held hostage by a small circle of troublemakers led by Artie West (Vic Morrow) and Miller. Into the breach enters Dadier and a handful of new teachers, including Joshua Edwards (Richard Kiley) and Lois Hammond (Margaret Hayes). They join a staff that has surrendered to the situation. At the top of the heap is Principal Warneke (John Hoyt) and Jim Murdock (Louis Calhern). Murdock tells the newbies that the school is nothing but a garbage pail and the teachers are there to babysit the garbage.
|Richard Dadier (Glenn Ford) gets a rude welcome.|
And this is a rough school. Day one, Miss Hammond, who is shapely, nearly gets raped after school in the library by a horny student. Dadier, who was going to catch a ride home from Hammond, just happened to be in the right place at the right time and breaks up the attack and subdues the student. But his involvement marks Dadier and the other students seek revenge for one of their own being sent to jail.
|Miss Hammond (Margaret Hayes) after she was attacked in the library.|
The first incident happens one evening after Dadier and Edwards stop at a bar across the street to have a couple of belts. Drunk, they take a short cut down an alley to catch the bus and are ambushed by seven students, led by West. Dadier, who is cut and beaten up, refuses to press charges, but we’re told is out of school for a week.
|Joshua Edwards (Richard Kiley) thinks he can reach the students through music...|
Edwards, who is a record-collecting jazz geek, brings in his record collection, which is about 20 disks, to play for his more advanced math classes (even bad schools apparently have AP Math), but West and his gang plead with him to play them a record. His reward for capitulating is to have all his disks broken right in front of him. Edwards will eventually quit over the incident.
|...but, Artie West (Vic Morrow) proves not to be a lover of jazz.|
West then complains to Warneke that Dadier is a racist due to some language he uses in class, including the N-word. But his use of language is a lesson of what not to say to others. Warneke, like everyone else in the film, does not communicate, so rather than asking Dadier if the accusations are true, he calls him into his office to threaten his job. When Dadier stands up to him, Warneke backs down. He even asks Dadier to take on directing the school’s Christmas show. Faster than you can ask “This school has a Christmas show?” Dadier agrees.
Later, West leads his gang in hijacking a newspaper delivery truck; the plan is to ditch the truck and sell the newspapers and split the profits. Dadier just happens to see the hijacking, but is too late to stop it and doesn’t really report it to the police, either. While hijacking a newspaper delivery truck doesn’t sound like a get quick rich scheme these days, it probably wouldn’t have made all that much back in 1955 either, with papers selling for a nickel or a dime back then. But it does show how brutal the gang can be as they knock out the driver and use a bike change on the guy in the back.
But Dadier somehow gets through to Miller, who rebukes the teachers appeals to work with him, until Dadier finds Miller singing gospel with the other black students. They were rehearsing waiting for Dadier to ask them to be in the show.
|West (Sidney Poitier) leads other black students in some gospel singing.|
Meanwhile, Hammond takes on costumes for the Christmas show and lets Dadier know that she’s interested in him. But Dadier, as any good hero would do, tells her he’s not interested in her that way. But because Dadier apparently never tells his wife Anne (Anne Francis) that he’s working on the show, he becomes susceptible to gossip. Anne starts to receive letters and phone calls from West, telling her that her husband is having an affair with Hammond. This causes Anne, who is four months pregnant at the start of the movie, to go into premature labor. Their son, who remains unnamed throughout, is touch and go for awhile, but does pull through on New Years Day.
We see that Dadier gets through to most of the class when he shows them an animated version of the fairy tale, Jack and the Beanstalk. They start talking about what the story really means, that is everyone, but West, who refuses to learn.
In the climatic scene, Dadier tries to take a disruptive West down to the principal’s office, but West pulls a knife. When another of his cronies tries to intervene, Miller stops him. And the class helps Dadier take the two out of the classroom. Dadier has turned the tide and we can all feel good that juvenile delinquency is on the run. God Bless America.
|Using rock and roll in a movie was a new thing in 1955.|
The movie is best remembered for two things: the use of a rock and roll song in the soundtrack (Bill Haley’s seminal Rock Around the Clock) and for having perhaps the oldest teenagers ever. Seriously, all the main and most of the supporting teens are in their mid to late twenties. Morrow is 25 and Poitier is 28. Paul Mazursky, who plays Emmanuel Stoker is 25, and Jameel Farah, who plays the mentally challenged Santini is 21. (Jameel Farah would later change is name to Jamie Farr and find fame playing Corporal Max Klinger on TV’s long-running M*A*S*H series.) Anne Frances, who plays the wife of the teacher, was only 25 at the time herself. By the way, Ford was 39 at the time the film was released.
|Twenty-plus year old teenagers, including Paul Mazursky and Morrow.|
While both Glenn Ford and Anne Frances had been in films since the 1930’s and late 40’s, respectively, Blackboard Jungle launched many careers. This was Vic Morrow’s first film and he obviously has screen presence. Morrow, however, would find most success on television, including 152 episodes as Sgt. Chip Saunders on Combat that ran in the mid-60’s. Unfortunately, he may be remembered by many for the way he died, on the chaotic set of Twilight Zone: The Movie.
Sidney Poitier, who had been in films since the late 40’s, would use Blackboard Jungle as a launching pad for a career that would include being the first black American to win an Academy Award for Best Actor for his role as Homer Smith in Lilies of the Field. Interestingly, Poitier would play a similar role as Ford did in this film, in 1967’s To Sir With Love, when he played a new teacher at North Quay Secondary School in tough East London. 1967 was a busy year for Poitier who would also star in In The Heat of The Night and Guess, Who’s Coming to Dinner. But Poitier would reprise his role as Virgil Tibbs for Heat, in two sequels, They Call Me MISTER Tibbs! (1970) and The Organization (1971).
The other notable in the film is Paul Mazursky, who has had a long acting career, but also directed 19 movies. Blackboard Jungle was only his second film as an actor. Mazursky didn’t start directing until 1969, but his first film was Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, which was a surprise comedy hit that dealt with the subject of free love. Mazursky would go onto direct other films, such as Alex in Wonderland (1970), Blume in Love (1973), Harry and Tonto (1974) Next Stop, Greenwich Village (1976), An Unmarried Woman (1978), Moscow on the Hudson (1984) and Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986). While Mazursky was a good director, he never had the same success nor received the same acclaim as say Woody Allen, who also directed his first film, Take The Money and Run in 1969 or Mel Brooks, who directed his first film, The Producers a year earlier.
Richard Brooks, who wrote and directed Blackboard Jungle, had a message and he made sure to hit us over the head with it over and over again. North Manual High School is agreeably a mess with a principal who looks the other way and won’t back his teachers. The school is located next to a train and across the street from a bar, both conducive to furthering good education. But wouldn’t real juvenile delinquents, who obviously hated being in school, just not go?
Make no mistake, this is not a great movie. Any film with a preface can’t help but come across as being preachy and preachy is rarely a good thing when it comes to entertainment. Further, the film is unrealistic in not only illustrating the problem, but showing the solution. A police Detective (Horace McMahon) tells Dadier that the gang leader is a parental figure for a generation of youth that have been forgotten by their own parents and society. And while that’s partially true, rock and roll and comic books get passing shots as well and that’s not right. And obviously, gangs have not disappeared, but have only gotten worse since 1955, so the solution of one teacher reaching one student isn’t practical to solving the problem long-term.
Blackboard Jungle is one of those films that makes you wonder why it’s still gets talked about today. But there is more to it than is initially apparent. The use of rock and roll in the soundtrack did bring in a teenage audience. They’re reaction to it sometimes resulted in violence at some of the screenings. For some, this film marks the beginning of the teenage rebellion that would take hold in 1960’s.
So this is a film you watch to appreciate its historical significance and for the careers it launched, not because it is great entertainment or resonates in modern times.