Billy Haley and The Comet’s “Rock Around The Clock” is often touted as the first rock n’ roll tune. I won’t get sucked into that discussion for the time being, but whatever we want to call it, there’s this sense of youth culture — teenagers as a demographic — coming into bloom.
Future generations would harness the music of the contemporaneous adolescent culture to greater effect. In Richard Brook’s Blackboard Jungle, it feels a bit more one-note and generally unattached to the marketing and main message of the picture. They haven’t quite harnessed its power. Because like the gangster pictures of old — or even The Wild Ones and Rebel Without a Cause — this is meant to be another cautionary tale about delinquent youth. In its day, it was no doubt considered dangerous and indecent.
There’s some of that, but an honest assessment would acknowledge how tame most of it feels now. It’s the 50s take on the teenager problem through the eyes of a Hollywood still neutered by the production codes. However, that’s not to say there is nothing to be relished about the movie or gleaned from the depiction of cultural anxieties.
I’ll let you be the judge of whether or not Glenn Ford does an adequate job at playing a teacher. It’s certainly not a western and although there are tinges of an urban jungle, it’s not quite your prototypical city noir. To his credit, in spite of his usual intensity, his scenes with Anne Francis, in particular, do reveal a certain sensitivity. He uses his brawn on a number of occasions; he has a foot in that world, and yet there’s some sense he is a gentleman and an aspiring family man.
Still, his life as a new recruit to North Manual Trades High School feels a bit like baptism by fire. Despite its gruff and no-nonsense administrators as represented by such ready veterans as John Hoyt and Emile Meyer, there’s no question the all-boys, multiethnic melting pot of a school has a major discipline problem.
One wry teacher who’s been around the block calls it the “garbage can” of the education system. And he’s resigned himself to taking out the trash. Nothing more. As such, in preparation for the first day of school, there’s an uneasiness in the air. Even as Mr. Dadier (Ford) desires to reach his class, there’s a sense that battle lines are being drawn up: you have students on one side and teachers forming a rear guard. One new recruit, a bookish Richard Kiley comments, it’s like being back on the beach at Salerno doing the war. In other words, this mission is not for the faint of heart.
The world and the atmosphere around the school evoke so much. One of the primary pleasures of the picture comes with actually familiarizing ourselves with this rank and file replete with familiar faces like the Louis Calherns, Kiley’s, and even an odd Richard Deacon or Jamie Farr here or there. We can only experience the power dynamics and, the underlining conflict thanks to the range of characters.
I have very little practical hands-on knowledge about New York geography, but there is this sense that the high school featured here could exist not too far away from the courtroom in 12 Angry Men. If the morality on what to do with punks and malcontents doesn’t entirely overlap, then the visual landscape feels like a shared space.
But enough delaying tactics. We must acknowledge the emblematic youth at the heart of Blackboard Jungle. Gregory Miller (Sidney Poitier) is cool and disaffected. Dadier ushers him out of the washroom during a mid-period smoke break. He’s made his stance toward education plain. Though he’s a more complex case than his opening introduction might suggest. Most people are.
Artie (Vic Morrow) thrives as the gang’s primary leader, at least in the fact he’s good for a derisive comment and stirring up his cronies in rebellion against the establishment. Boys like Miller’s have intelligence and some semblance of passion. Artie’s got nothing of the sort. He has a future career of hoodlamism all sketched out.
It’s not a radical hypothesis, but watching Sidney Poitier here, it’s easy to surmise that if he had been white, he would have been lauded as a cult icon on par with Brando or Dean. However, to his credit, he takes the part in a direction commensurate with his specific talents. While Morrow at times feels like the typical street thug, Poitier eschews many of these conventions over time.
Considering the opening preamble and where the movie goes, it’s intriguing to consider the implications. It does preach a message of racial tolerance — that certain people aren’t too far gone and teens are humans too — but there does seem to be an easy fix. You have to pin the blame on the black sheep. They are the ones souring everything. It has nothing to do with skin color, but perhaps the pains, the fears, and the psychological duress of youth.
One of the most powerfully symbolic moments is not any fistfight or savage skirmish. It happens in a classroom where the boys, urged by Artie, bust a teacher’s collection of jazz records. Kiley’s reaction is hardly devastation. He’s more so shellshocked and resigned to bewilderment. What would come over them to do such a reckless thing? They get no utility out of it. It’s merely an act of spite, a way to wreak havoc and target other people so they become inured to it.
Creativity or beauty of any kind, anything that doesn’t conform to teenage masculinity, even flaunted sexuality gets quelled and totally crushed into the ground. There need not be a better summation. Otherwise, there are few revelations in the movie and the finale is tense if not altogether authentic, brimming perilously with self-serving melodrama.
In this facet alone, it seems time has not been kind to The Blackboard Jungle. At the very least, it’s because a myriad of similarly-minded movies were built out of its image — on its shoulders even. If you’ve seen Stand and Deliver or even Poitier’s later success, To Sir, With Love, it makes the work here feel outmoded, if not altogether negligible.
However, after everything else burns off, there’s a particular appreciation for Poitier. If Morrow deservedly filled the space of a punk antihero, then Poitier derives a nuance out of his role that seems unprecedented, and he would keep on presenting such seismic and extraordinary performances to the American screen. Even in his relative youth, I’m always in awe of his intuitive stage presence.
Far from simply offering a convenient context for the movie and its student-teacher factions, Ford’s character reaches out to Poitier because he is the leader that others follow. In 1950s America this seems like an almost startling statement. Here is a black man being acknowledged as capable of leading the masses. But when you watch Poitier, it doesn’t seem implausible by any means because he plays it so assuredly.
Thus, Blackboard Jungle might as well remain as a time capsule of 1950s sensibilities, beatnik-era slang, burgeoning rock n’ roll culture, and most importantly of all, a showcase for one of the movie industry’s incomparable talents. Yes, I’m talking about Jameel Farrah.