Blackboard Jungle stars Glenn Ford as Richard Dadier, husband, WWII veteran, and brand-new high school English teacher. He gets a job at North Manual High School in what we assume is New York City. He's diffident, quiet, nervous. He has a pregnant wife (Anne Francis) who miscarried their first baby and is terrified she'll lose this one too. And he's faced with an inner-city high school full of rowdy, surly, angry, combative teen boys.
Two of them, Artie West (Vic Morrow) and Gregory Miller (Sidney Poitier), give him an especially hard time in the classroom. Dadier struggles to teach them, to reach their minds and hearts, to lead them.
This film is a product of its times, certainly -- the optimistic ideal it holds forth is that if teachers only care enough, only try hard enough, they can engage their students. Sure, there are bad kids, but once you weed them out, the rest of the kids will learn and grow and flourish. At first glance, this film can seem simultaneously naive and bleak -- love for your students will solve everything! But inner-city schools are horrible garbage cans full of human refuse, so you're going to need a lot of love! Not a lot of nuance there. All the nice, white, middle-class teachers kindly trying to rescue the poor students, many of whom are black or Hispanic, all of whom are "depraved on account they're deprived," as West Side Story would put it.
But if you look at this film through the lens of time, if you keep in mind what was going on in 1955, Blackboard Jungle is amazingly progressive. You've got a fully integrated school here -- black and white students mingling freely. It was only one year earlier that the Supreme Court ruled that "separate but equal" rights and the segregation of schools was unconstitutional. And while this film does address race several times, it doesn't make that the point of the movie. The "us vs. them" divide is about teachers versus students, all the students. Maybe this is the most naive thing of all in the film, but I think that by not focusing on "let's all try to get along with people who look different" and instead showing black and white students simply interacting naturally, the filmmakers were presenting a positive look at how students really could get along. With each other, anyway, if not with their teachers.
I mentioned above that Dadier's two problem students are played by Sidney Poitier and Vic Morrow. In the end, it's Poitier's Greg Miller who Dadier connects with, while Morrow's Artie West gets kicked out of the classroom and sent to reform school.
Throughout the film, Miller is shown to be intelligent, and Dadier picks him out as the leader of the class, the one the other boys look to and follow. He never says "even though you're black" or "because your black," he just sees that Miller has the charisma and attitude of a leader. While Miller refuses to help Dadier by leading the class to cooperate with him for much of the film, in the end, he chooses to support the teacher against Artie West and rallies the classroom to do the same. I find that pretty remarkable for a film made in the 1950s.
Yes, racial tension gets addressed in Blackboard Jungle. Dadier, when lecturing his class on things NOT to call each other, uses several racial slurs. A student then reports him as being racist and bigoted. Dadier vehemently denies it, then goes right out and has a big argument with Miller, in which he starts to blame Miller's incooperativeness on his race, then realizes what he's saying, and apologizes. So don't think they entirely sidestep this issue in a "La la la, racism doesn't exist here" way.
Both Poitier and Morrow turn in startlingly nuanced performances -- their characters could have been cliches, a black "uncle tom" helping the white teacher and a white "angry boy" striking out at authority figures. But Poitier brings a dignity laced with resignation that makes us root for his character even when he isn't cooperating at all with the protagonist. And Morrow puts so much feral, sly desperation into Artie West that you can't take your eyes off him whenever he's in the frame.
This was Vic Morrow's first film, but he knows already how to own a scene, and more than holds his ground with the big-name star, Glenn Ford. In fact, I've read that Morrow beat out Steve McQueen for the role, both being relative unknowns at the time. Way to go, Vic!
This was the first movie I ever saw Sidney Poitier in, and possibly the first I ever saw Glenn Ford in as well. I didn't initially watch it for either of them, but this film made me a fan of both actors. If you've ever seen To Sir, With Love (1967) and think this sounds a lot like that, you're not wrong. To Sir is not a remake of Blackboard Jungle, but the two films share many similarities, and I personally like to imagine that Poitier's character in the later film is his character from this one, all grown up and following in the footsteps of the teacher who reached out to him many years earlier.
I watched this for the first time twenty-one years ago, when I was fifteen and freshly in love with the TV series Combat! (1962-67). I'd stumbled across an article in Reader's Digest about a person reminiscing about their own teenhood in the mid-50s and this movie they went to see, the first major motion picture to play real rock 'n roll right in the film. Not just in the film, but over the opening credits: Bill Haley and the Comets' "Rock Around the Clock" blasted loud and clear for all the audience to hear. What interested me particularly about this article was a tiny picture of one of the actors in the film, a very young and very delinquent-looking Vic Morrow.
I latched onto the idea of this film, Blackboard Jungle, with Vic Morrow in a black leather jacket and brandishing a switchblade. I desperately wanted to see it. I had no idea who else was in it, or what it was about other than '50s JDs, but I had a thing for juvenile delinquent movies already then -- I was in the middle of a West Side Story (1961) phase, you see. I was fifteen, full of hormones and emotions, starting to figure out my identity, and realizing I could like things my parents didn't, and not like things they did. Typical early teen stuff.
And like I said, I had recently fallen in love with Combat! (it's still my favorite show). Vic Morrow played my favorite character on it, Sgt. Saunders. I knew he had acted in lots of other things, but this was 1996. You couldn't just watch movies and clips on YouTube, rent a movie on Netflix or Amazon, or find cool stuff on Hulu. You had to find movies on TV or on VHS. If you had cable and a great channel like AMC used to be, you could eventually get lucky if they decided to play whatever movie you were hungering to see. Or, if you had a really cool entertainment store that stocked kinda obscure old stuff, you might be able to find what you were looking for there, or get them to order it.
We didn't have cable TV at my house, but we did have this store called Media Play that fed my burgeoning entertainment appetite. And on February 15, 1996, I found Blackboard Jungle on VHS at Media Play. I spent my carefully-hoarded and hard-earned money on it -- I didn't have a "real" job yet, but a friend and I made money painting faces at various local festivals, so I could buy a video now and then if it was something I wanted to see and my parents didn't.
But I didn't rush right home to watch Blackboard Jungle. I waited. I was afraid, to be honest. I knew, from the synopsis on the back, that Vic Morrow was going to play the bad guy. At that point in my life, I had a really hard time dealing with actors I liked playing Bad Guys. I'm a little calmer about it now, but witness how annoyed I am right now at Luke Evans for playing Gaston in the upcoming Beauty and the Beast -- I want MY actors to play Good Guys, I just do. So I worried about watching Vic Morrow be the Bad Guy in Blackboard Jungle. What if he was horrifying? What if he played a character so awful in this, I would somehow stop loving his character on Combat!, Sgt. Saunders? Worse, what if the whole movie was awful? What if my parents hated it and banned me from ever watching it again? That wouldn't be so bad if it was awful, but what if I liked it and they didn't?
For three days, I waited. Waited for my parents to go somewhere and leave my brother and I home alone so I could watch this movie in peace and the relative security of no parents judging me and my movie choices. And finally, on February 18, 1996, they left us home alone for a Sunday afternoon. I've kept a journal since I was fourteen, so I know exactly when I bought and watched this movie, and exactly what I thought of it after that first viewing:
"Then Mom and Dad went to Hickory, so John and I watched Blackboard Jungle!!!! We loved it!!! WOW! There was only, like, one swearword in it. Vic Morrow played a knife-toting Artie West, Glenn Ford was a teacher named Richard Dadier, and Sidney Portier [sic] played Gregory Miller. It was great! Most Excellent!"Um, yes, fifteen-year-old me was not the most coherent movie reviewer. But I liked Blackboard Jungle so much, I watched it again the next day and declared it one of my second-favorite movies ever. (It's still in my top 100 now.) My instincts were correct, though -- neither of my parents cared much for this film at all. Such is life.
I didn't realize until I looked up my first viewing in my journals the other day that I would be posting this two days after the 21st anniversary of my first seeing Blackboard Jungle, but I absolutely love that coincidence. This film has been a big part of my life for a long time, and I'm glad I've gotten the chance to reminisce a bit about it. Especially because I usually post something special in honor of Vic Morrow's birthday, which is February 14, and this year my Jane Austen blog party kind of took over the whole blog for a week, so this post is also my Happy Birthday to Vic moment, just a few days late.
This is also my entry into the 90 Years of Sidney Poitier Blogathon -- Mr. Poitier is 90 years old today! Astonishing. Please follow this link or click on the button below to read lots of reviews celebrating this legendary actor and his film legacy.
One last thing -- is this movie family friendly? It does have two curse words, several violent fistfights, a tense moment where a student pulls a switchblade and threatens people with it, and an attempted rape scene that is non-graphic but still too much for younger children. Also, a teacher flirts openly with Richard Dadier and asks him to leave town with her, then grumbles because he's married and won't cheat on his wife.