Blackboard Jungle (1955) Richard Brook

Blackboard jun

The pounding beat of Billy Haley’s Rock Around the Clock as the screen darkens got teens of the day up and dancing in the aisles. Theater owners in various cities throughout the country were nervous. Some theaters shut off the sound system during those opening credits fearing teens would quickly get out of control.  Censors, parents groups, religious groups and law enforcement all had their say in speaking out against the film. One censor in Memphis, called the film, “the vilest picture I have ever seen in twenty six years as a censor.” Rock Around the Clock was original released in mid-1954 by Haley as a B-side to the song Thirteen Women (And the Only Man in Town). It was not until director Richard Brooks wanted the song for the film’s opening and closing credits that it rocked to the top of the charts selling more than two million copies. Rock Around the Clock was not the first rock and roll record, nor was it the first hit. It was the first to hit number one on the record charts. Its social impact was massive, helping pave the way for another southern boy, a sexy, better looking boy than the chubby, curly twirled haired Haley, to explode on to the national scene. Despite the film’s opening and closing credits filled with the early rock classic most of the soundtrack is jazz.

blackboard jungleGlenn Ford’s Richard Dadier is a new idealistic teacher at North Manual High School. An all-boys vocational school set in a rough section of New York. The students are of diverse ethnic backgrounds and most have no interesting learning. The group’s unofficial leader is Gregory Miller (Sidney Poitier). Like the rest, he’s anti-social but there is something in Miller that separates him from the rest. He’s smart.

Blackboard%20Jungle%205_1Dadier, who the student/hoods quickly nickname Mr. Daddy-O, is not the only new teacher at the school. There’s pretty Lois Hammond (Margaret Hayes) who is almost raped early on and saved by Dadier. She was warned by a cynical veteran teacher that she would need the National Guard to protect her.  The other new teacher is Richard Kiley’s Mr. Edwards, a jazz aficionado with a rare collection of 78 RPM records that he cherishes. When he attempts to connect with the students by equating music to math, he’s paid back with a class riot led by Artie West (Vic Morrow). His record collection shattering into pieces as the uncontrolled students tossed them across the room. His spirit destroyed as well.

Blackboard%20Jungle_20While Miller is the leader, it’s Artie West who is the most violent and dangerous. Dadier and Edwards are beaten up bloody one evening by Artie and a few other hoods. Later, Artie mails anonymous letters and makes phone calls to Dadier’s pregnant wife, Anne (Ann Francis), telling her about an alleged affair her husband is carrying on with pretty Miss Hammond. It’s not true, but the stress from the barrage of letters and calls causes her to almost lose her baby.

While much of the film is dated, and you won’t find much depth or vision into the social reasons why these kids have gone bad, there’s still a lot that packs a punch. It was a breakthrough in showing what inner city schools were like on screen. This wasn’t the land of Leave it to Beaver and Ozzie & Harriet, nor the nostalgic look back at the 1950’s like we had later with Happy Days and Grease. The Blackboard Jungle was progressive in its attitude toward race. Dadier confronts racial slurs in his classroom when things get heated between students. Miller seems to use his race as an excuse not to even try and succeed. He and Dadier finally find some common ground and respect with hopefully brighter futures for both. Not so for some of the others like Artie West.

Ad - Blackborad JungleBased on Evan Hunter’s[1] best-selling novel, published in 1954, the film is a toxic look at juvenile delinquency in the 1950’s. Despite the nostalgic take many have of the Eisenhower days filled with simple good times, there was a darker side to the American Dream. One of the concerns was the rebelliousness of teenage youth. Films like Rebel Without a Cause (1955), The Wild One (1954) along with Blackboard Jungle exposed a new and ugly slice of American life. Then there was the music, where lily white teens were beginning to listen rock and roll music sung by wild black artists like Chuck Berry and Little Richard. If the musicians were white, they sounded black and were just as wild with the likes of Elvis, Eddie Cochran and Jerry Lee Lewis. In 1957, Frank Sinatra said about rock and roll and movies, “the unrelenting insistence of recording and motion picture companies upon purveying the most brutal, ugly, degenerate, vicious form of expression it has been my displeasure to hear—naturally I refer to the bulk of rock ‘n’ roll.” In the same article he went on, “It smells phony and false. It is sung, played and written for the most part by cretinous goons and by means of its almost imbecilic reiterations and sly, lewd—in plain fact dirty—lyrics…”[2]      

The generation gap began to bubble back then only to explode in the 1960’s.

Along with the previously mentioned cast members, the film included Louis Calhern, John Hoyt, Raphael Santos, future director Paul Mazursky, Horace McMahon and Jameel Farah, aka Jamie Farr of M.A.S.H. TV fame.

The New York Times pompous critic, Bosley Crowthers, who has proved himself to almost always be on the wrong side of cinema history said in his original review, “It is a full-throated, all-out testimonial to the lurid headlines that appear from time to time, reporting acts of terrorism and violence by uncontrolled urban youths. It gives a blood-curdling, nightmarish picture or monstrous disorder in a public school. And it leaves one wondering wildly whether such out-of-hand horrors can be.” Mr. Crowthers would be truly shocked by what has happened in the years since.

The film’s impact overseas was just as important. Clare Booth Luce, then the U.S. Ambassador to Italy, intervened in not allowing the film to be shown at the Venice Film Festival. She  feared it was showing an incorrect and violent view of the school system as well as a bad view overall of the United States. The film was withdrawn. In Great Britain, The Blackboard Junlge was originally banned with claims that no amount of cuts could be made to “save” the film. Further reviews by the British censors finally allowed an edited version and eventually an uncut version to be shown. British teens apparently were even wilder than their American counterparts, not just dancing in the aisles but ripping up the seats.[3]

 

Notes:

[1] Born Salvatore Lombino, Hunter is best known for his 87th Precinct series where he wrote ass Ed McBain.

[2] Source: http://quoteinvestigator.com/2012/07/13/rock-degenerate/   based on an Associated Press article from October 1957.

[3] http://articles.latimes.com/2005/mar/24/news/wk-blackboard24

 

This  post is part of Back to School Blogathon. For more entries in this series please click on the link below.

https://popculturereverie.wordpress.com/2016/09/02/the-back-to-school-blogathon-is-finally-here/#comment-501

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3 comments on “Blackboard Jungle (1955) Richard Brook

  1. Quiggy says:

    I read the book back in the days when I was an idealistic wanna-be teacher. Still haven’t seen the film, but I’ll try to now. Good review.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. John Greco says:

    Thanks. I too read the book many years ago. Probably was at high school age. It’ a bit dated but still holds a punch.

    Like

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