Monday, March 29, 2010

Reeling Backward: "Blackboard Jungle"

"Blackboard Jungle" is an amazing film, but to me this is the most amazing: It was written, shot, edited and released in the space of three months.

It went on to become a watershed movie about youth violence. It launched the career of Vic Morrow, as the chief hoodlum, and gave a big boost to that of Sidney Poitier. Jamie Farr debuted as a slow-witted student. And it was one of Glenn Ford's better-known roles.

If that weren't enough, the last-minute prominent inclusion of Bill Haley & The Comets' "Rock Around the Clock" into the soundtrack was credited with helping launch rock 'n' roll.

How writer/director Richard Brooks (working from the novel by Evan Hunter) accomplished all that in 90 days is beyond me.

Seen today, it's still a gripping account of a well-meaning young teacher faced with a school full of problem kids who don't want to learn. The depiction of social unrest is rather dated -- the worst thing the miscreants do is steal a newspaper truck and beat up teachers -- but the dramatic tension of teachers vs. students has aged well.

There's been a long and often ignoble tradition of movies about teachers in rough schools, and "Blackboard Jungle" kicked it off. It got me to thinking that even over-the-top revenge fantasies like "The Substitute" and "187" are descendants of this film, though the nut has rolled pretty far downhill from the tree.

Ford plays Rick Dadier, a WWII vet who went to a girls' college on the GI Bill and is looking to launch his teacher career at North Manual High School. It's a rough inner-city school where the students all seem to wear greasy ducktail haircuts, leather jackets and perpetually smug expressions. The principal seems delusional in insisting that there's no disobedience problem at his school, as long as it doesn't come spilling in his door.

Things start right off the first day in the classroom when Dadier nearly has his head taken off by a hurled baseball. The crushed section of blackboard, looking a spider web, remains throughout the school year.

The chief troublemakers are Artie West (Morrow) and Greg Miller (Poitier), the leaders of the other boys. Dadier spends most of the movie under the mistaken impression that the two are in cahoots, when in fact they can't stand each other. Miller turns out to be a smart, hardworking kid who's just seen two many adults turn their back on his school, and him.

West is a straight-out criminal, organizing his gang to beat up Dadier and another teacher after they've been drinking in a bar. He even sends letters to Dadier's pregnant wife claiming he's having an affair with another teacher. One day Dadier accosts West on the street after seeing some of his gang knock over a truck. "This is my classroom out here," West warns. "And I'm gonna teach you."

Poitier and Morrow were both pushing 30 when they starred in the movie, which itself has become a long-standing cinematic tradition for films set in high schools. Poitier would go on to star in a similar movie himself -- this time as the teacher -- a dozen years later with "To Sir, with Love."

Louis Calhern has a nice supporting role as a veteran teacher who's given up all hope, but can't help rooting for his enterprising younger colleague. Richard Kiley plays a fellow rookie who isn't as successful in reaching out to his kids. There's a scene where he announces that he's going to bring his swing records into the classroom so his students can study the mathematical construction of the melody, and we already know what's coming.

Despite the slight staleness of the plot, "Blackboard Jungle" remains a riveting drama filled with some wonderful performances. Ford is especially touching as a frustrated guy who doesn't know whether to use compassion, violence, friendliness or some other tool in order to break through. In the end, he does it by showing them a movie.

3.5 stars

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