Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Back to 1955: Blackboard Jungle

by Heath Holland
They’ve been spending most their lives living in a gangsta’s paradise.

Long before Michelle Pfeiffer made a difference in the lives of inner-city school children in 1995’s Dangerous Minds, even before Skid Row declared themselves the “Youth Gone Wild,” there was a book written in 1954 by an author named Evan Hunter (aka Ed McBain) called Blackboard Jungle. That novel tackled the subject of troubled students and the heroic teachers making a difference in their lives in a new way by approaching the subject matter honestly and openly, admitting that there was a problem that demanded to be addressed. The 1955 movie version of the story is notable for several reasons. First, it’s considered to be one of the first movies to take a realistic--rather than idealistic--look at the “troubled youth” movement, which was becoming a real problem in mid-fifties post-war America. Second, Blackboard Jungle is considered a landmark movie for rock and roll, as it featured Bill Haley and the Comets’ song “Rock Around the Clock.” This is not the first rock song, but it is one of a handful of songs to establish the musical genre in the mainstream between 1953 and 1955. Any way you look at it, though, it’s an important and awesome song. If you listen to the lyrics of Haley’s song about rocking for all of the 12 hours on the clock, it indicates that this rocking is taking place from midnight until noon, and thus predates KISS, who merely rocked all night. KISS did, however, party every day, which is probably when Bill Haley and his Comets were asleep. Bill Haley’s version of the song had already been released in 1954 as a B-side and was considered a failure. After the release of Blackboard Jungle, though, it went straight to number one.
Glenn Ford gets top billing in Blackboard Jungle as Richard Dadier, a World War II veteran who has become a teacher at an inner-city school populated mostly by aggressive boys. The students represent a diversity of cultures and backgrounds, which is a refreshing change of pace from the white, Donna Reed fiction that sometimes seems to be the status quo in fifties entertainment. Among the students are Sidney Poitier, Vic Morrow (who looks thirty), and Jameel Farrah, aka Jamie Farr of M*A*S*H* fame. Starring as Dadier’s long-suffering wife is Anne Francis, whom sci-fi fans will know from Forbidden Planet.

Glenn Ford is fantastic as a soft-spoken and non-confrontational guy who soon finds himself pushed to his limits by his students. Sometimes I think that not enough movies give their actors the opportunity to have an actual character arc; often the characters at the end of the story are basically the same ones that we saw at the beginning and there hasn’t been much of a journey. That’s not the case with this movie. Glenn Ford gives an outstanding display of his dramatic chops as he is slowly forged into steel over the course of the film. I’ve watched a lot of Glenn Ford movies lately, and it’s been interesting to see him develop gravitas between his pre-war films and fifties movies like this. The man is like wine that improves with age. I’m sure his time in service during World War II had a lot to do with it.
Equally impressive are the performances from Sidney Poitier and Vic Morrow, who are the two standouts in the cast of young people that play Ford’s students. Poitier is a natural and plays his role with what looks like complete effortlessness, which offers us an early glimpse of the talent that would lead him to a long, lauded career. Morrow, on the other hand, feels more like a stage actor in most of his scenes, delivering a performance I can only refer to as BIG and a little ostentatious. It works, though, and he feels both incredibly angry and dangerous. That’s one of the things that makes this movie stand out: all these kids feel dangerous and like a real threat. In an early scene, Glenn Ford commands Morrow to take off his hat while he’s in class. Morrow responds with the threat of violence, and I have to imagine that a kid threatening an adult authority figure was shocking to a 1955 audience. This movie also uses racial epithets and derogatory slang candidly. What now seems routine must have been at least a little upsetting then. It also must have been refreshing for younger audiences to see teenagers represented in a way that didn’t feel like complete make believe.

But the realism leads to one of my biggest complaints about Blackboard Jungle. This movie only seems to regard these young people as problems to be dealt with or as a cause to be championed. It feels really self-righteous, and the movie even starts with a few screens of text basically telling us that it is representative of a movement happening all across America and that angry, troubled teens must be reached. They might as well say “For God’s sake, we must reach the children before it is too late!” Yet there is almost no attempt by any of the authority figures, from the apathetic school leaders to the teachers themselves, to learn why these teenagers are so angry in the first place. Vic Morrow has ONE LINE that offers us an insight into his rebellion. I think there’s one other line in the movie that indicates that there might actually be some layers to these kids and they may have some legitimate fears and concerns that no one wants to listen to. Guess what? Glenn Ford doesn’t listen either. In this sense, the movie completely fails. According to Blackboard Jungle, these kids just needed someone who wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty and could challenge them. I feel like this movie thinks that you solve a problem with consistent force and by refusing to back down, not by communication and empathy. This is probably why we would get twenty more years of Youth Gone Wild movies after this, as it took decades before anyone was really ready to listen and look in a mirror.
I love teachers. I’m married to a teacher and most of my friends are teachers. Many of the people who write for this site are teachers, and many of our readers are teachers, too. Teachers are incredibly under-rated, under-paid, and under-valued by our government and our society, and too many of them give all they have of themselves until they eventually leave their position with no steam left in the tank. Many teachers are heroes, and Glenn Ford plays one of those heroes in this movie. It’s not perfect (no movie really is), but Blackboard Jungle gets my respect for being one of the first movies to look at the youth of America and acknowledge that they were pissed off. I wish that it had tried a little harder to figure out WHY they were so pissed off, but that would come later on. I give this movie a ton of credit for at least starting a discussion that we can never finish. This movie makes you think, and that’s all any writer, director, or actor could possibly ask. Plus, it’s only become more relevant as the years have passed. Throw in a classic song from Bill Haley and the Comets and you’ve got a movie that reminds us what an important year 1955 was for movies.


  1. Any way you look at it, though, it’s an important and awesome song. If you listen to the lyrics of Haley’s song about rocking for all of the 12 hours on the clock, it indicates that this rocking is taking place from midnight until noon, and thus predates KISS, who merely rocked all night.

    How do you know KISS didn't record their song at one of the polar circles?

    I love these 1955 articles, Heath. I've read three of them so far. That was a truly amazing year for movies. Have you done Bad Day at Black Rock, Les Diaboliques, The Quatermass Xperiment, The Ladykillers or The Man with the Golden Arm (maybe don't do that last one; it would only confuse the spammers) yet? If not, please do.

    As I'm sure you know, Sidney Poitier went on to star as the teacher in charge of a class of troubled students in To Sir, with Love, a movie I have seen.

    1. I have plans for one of the movies you've listed. Stay tuned.

  2. This is a great article. Thanks for sharing.