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 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.
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.