Saturday, December 10, 2022

#2,877. Blackboard Jungle (1955) - Teen Rebellion in B&W Triple Feature


It had been almost twenty years since Bill Haley’s teenage anthem, ‘Rock Around the Clock’ opened Blackboard Jungle. From the rhythm of its backbeat a movement was born, a generation tuning in and turning on to the grand illusion of a rock ‘n’ roll world”.

This is an excerpt from author Rob Burt’s 1983 book Rockerama: 25 Years of Teen Screen Idols, and it touches on what is perhaps the most potent legacy of Richard Brooks’ 1955 movie Blackboard Jungle. Many cite this film, more specifically the opening titles sequence that features Haley’s classic tune, as the moment rock and role was born, the catalyst by which it would take hold of an entire generation.

Blackboard Jungle made other headlines soon after its release. It was banned in cities like Memphis and Atlanta, with authorities accusing the movie of inciting riots among its mostly teen audiences. A few of these melees even spilt out onto the streets. In the United Kingdom, it was refused a certificate until major cuts were made. Not that the cuts mattered; there were riots in England as well.

Blackboard Jungle struck a nerve with kids looking for a voice of their own, and as a result many adults weren’t too keen on this black and white tale of rebellion and juvenile delinquency.

Now, decades after the trouble it caused, we can see what Blackboard Jungle was trying to do: bridge the gap between the generations by showing us a city school from a poor area of town, where kids join gangs just to feel safe in their own neighborhoods. And try as some teachers might, it was the kids who were usually in control.

Blackboard Jungle gets this point across - often and effectively - by focusing on one teacher who refused to give up, and would do everything in his power to reach his students.

Navy veteran Richard Dadier (Glenn Ford) has just been hired as the new English teacher of North Manuel Trades, an inner-city high school legendary for its discipline problems. Dadier, whose wife (Anne Francis) is four months pregnant, believes he can make a difference at the school. His enthusiasm is soon tempered, however, when he butts heads with Gregory Miller (Sidney Poitier) and Artie West (Vic Morrow), two students who seem bound and determined to give the new teacher a hard time.

Dadier reaches out to Miller, who is smarter than he is letting on, while West and his cronies, including Belazi (Dan Terranova), Stoker (Paul Mazursky), and Morales (Rafael Campos), continue to make life difficult for Dadier and his fellow teachers, especially math teacher Mr. Edwards (Richard Kiley), who, like Dadier, got into teaching with the best of intentions, only to be pushed to the brink of quitting by West and the others.

But Dadier will not throw in the towel, leading to a battle of wills between he and West that could prove disastrous.

The script for Blackboard Jungle was penned by Evan Hunter, who drew from his own experiences working as a teacher at a city school (though, unlike his lead character, Hunter became so disillusioned that he quit after two months), and many of the confrontations between Dadier and his students, some just playful, others downright dangerous, bring a tension to the film that is all-encompassing.

Things get even rougher for Dadier when, on the first day of school, he rescues another teacher, Lois Hammond (Margaret Hayes), who was about to be raped by a student. Rumors circulate that Dadier beat the assailant senseless (in truth, the kid cut his own face when he tried jumping through a closed window to escape), and this draws the ire of every teen in his class.

The film’s most heartbreaking scene, though, occurs later, when Mr. Edwards brings in his jazz LP collection as a teaching tool. This collection featured some albums that were irreplaceable, only to be ruined when Artie West and his cronies, who don’t share Edwards’ love of music, stop by between classes.

Glenn Ford is damn good as the well-meaning but oft-frustrated Dadier, as is Sidney Poitier, in an early screen role as Greg Miller, an angry young man who, though belligerent, is the most intelligent member of the class. Also strong are Anne Francis as the concerned wife driven to despair by a vicious rumor that her husband may be having an affair with Lois Hammond; and Louis Calhern as veteran teacher Jim Murdoch, the most callous and sarcastic of Dadier’s co-workers, who has given up trying to teach, and now sees himself as a glorified babysitter.

And then there’s Vic Morrow. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the character of Artie West - and in turn the performance of Vic Morrow - that makes Blackboard Jungle such an unforgettable movie. West is always angry, always trying to get the upper hand on authority, whether in a classroom or a back alley (where, one night, he and the others jump Dadier and Edwards and beat them senseless).

West doesn’t talk as much as the other kids; when on-screen, he is usually brooding. The leader of his group, he refuses to let anyone, teacher or otherwise, take his “power” away from him, and it is he who at one point tries to get Dadier fired (by accusing him of bigotry) and starts the gossip about Dadier and Ms. Hammond.

Artie West is the villain of Blackboard Jungle, and who better to play him than one of the screen’s all-time great bad guys? From King Creole to The Bad News Bears, from Humanoids from the Deep to the ill-fated Twilight Zone: The Movie (during which Morrow and two child actors lost their lives following an on-set accident), Vic Morrow has been the guy you love to hate. Even when on the right side of the law, like he was in Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry, Morrow’s character has an edge, a sarcasm that makes him a thorn in the side of his superiors. With Artie West, Morrow delivered what is arguably the most vicious, the most detestable character of his career. And he played him brilliantly.

Though undeniably a teen-centric drama, there are portions of Blackboard Jungle that play like a thriller, sequences that will drag you to the edge of your seat and have you questioning why anyone would want to be a teacher in this school. Tough and unflinching, this film threw a spotlight on teen rebellion and let out a war cry, a warning to parents and authority figures across the U.S.

James Dean made rebellion look cool in Rebel Without a Cause. Based on the backlash it received, the kids in Blackboard Jungle stirred up the shit like nobody before them.
Rating: 9 out of 10


Eric Gilliland said...

Excellent Review - I used to substitute teach so I always emphasize with Glenn Ford - underrated actor. Great performances all around, great points on Morrow who always reminds me of a bully from a Stephen King story.

PooBahSpiel said...

It's been nearly two decades since I've last seen this film. I encourage others who haven't seen it to view it. There are a lot of good things to learn from this film, as is obvious from all the classroom dramas that followed it.