US Release Date: 03-25-1955
Directed by: Richard Brooks
- Glenn Ford, as
- Richard Dadier
- Anne Francis, as
- Anne Dadier
- Louis Calhern, as
- Jim Murdock
- Sidney Poitier, as
- Gregory W. Miller
- Vic Morrow, as
- Artie West
- Margaret Hayes, as
- Lois Judby Hammond
- John Hoyt, as
- Mr. Warneke
- Richard Kiley, as
- Joshua Y. Edwards
- Emile Meyer, as
- Mr. Halloran
- Warner Anderson, as
- Dr. Bradley
- Basil Ruysdael, as
- Prof. A.R. Kraal
- Rafael Campos, as
- Pete V. Morales
- Paul Mazursky, as
- Emmanuel Stoke
- Jamie Farr as
Glenn Ford and Sidney Poitier in Blackboard Jungle.
When Blackboard Jungle was first released, it was no doubt a shocking film. A segment of American male teenagers was graphically shown as being dangerous, unruly, disrespectful and otherwise detrimental to society. It also shows what a dangerous job being an inner city teacher can be. One teacher gets sliced with a knife and a female teacher almost gets raped.
Ford stars as a World War II veteran whose wife is expecting. He just left a job teaching at an all girls prep school. His new assignment at North Manual High School in the inner city is like nothing he expects. On his first day he informs his class that his name is Dadier. Obviously symbolic of these kids needing a Daddy. The students imediately make fun of his name. The first thing to notice about Dadier is that he is a bit scared of his students.
For some reason, that the movie skims over fairly quickly, Dadier is determined to get through to them. Even after some of them beat him up, and one sends notes to his wife claiming he is having an affair, he still tries to do his job. He even stays on after complaining that he only makes $2 an hour.
Blackboard Jungle is quite blunt for the time. Dadier gets bloodied a couple of times. There is a conversation in class where Dadier mentions several derogatory terms such as spic, mick and nigger. An early scene has a girl walk by the all-boys school as the boys all make gestures through the fence. One boy holds a pop bottle at groin height and waves it back and forth at her, while liquid drips out of it. Rape was a taboo subject on film at the time. John Wayne talked cryptically about it happening to his niece, in The Searchers. A year earlier, Blackboard Jungle shows a student attempt to forcibly unbutton a woman’s blouse as he drags her away.
This is the movie where Sydney Poitier gained stardom. I have to write that although I am not a big fan of his, he does do a decent job here, even if he is some 10 years too old for the part. He is even three years older than Anne Francis, who plays Ford’s wife. The other cast member that caught my eye is Vic Morrow, who plays the worst of the students. Twenty years later he played the part of the coach who slaps his son in The Bad News Bears.
Today, Blackboard Jungle is still a great watch as it shows that teen violence is hardly something new. It is also worth noting that the makers of this film made a point to include all ethnic backgrounds in the student body. They also make some suggestions that one student is gay. He is very flamboyant and dances while holding hands with another boy, but maybe that was just the times?
Vic Morrow and Glenn Ford in Blackboard Jungle.
Eric, I'm surprised you didn't mention this film's biggest legacy. It gave the world rock-n-roll music. The song “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley and the Comets had been released the previous year but failed to make an impact until it was chosen to play over the opening credits of Blackboard Jungle. It can also be heard during the first scene, in an instrumental version in the middle of the movie, and again during the end credits. It quickly climbed to number one on the charts and the rest, as they say, is history.
Eric, the scene you mentioned at the beginning is symbolic in more than just sexual terms. The students are behind the fence like animals in a cage meant to be kept away from the rest of society. The teachers are more like guards than educators in this blackboard jungle. The veteran teacher, played by the great Louis Calhern, warns Dadier not to turn his back on his class.
Glenn Ford does a good job of showing Dadier's initial fear of his students. But more than that he is taken aback by just how in your face their unruly behavior is. Still he seems genuinely up to the challenge. I think they explained the reasons he doesn't quit quite satisfactorily. He is a self-proclaimed dedicated teacher. Once he gets physically attacked it makes him even more determined to succeed, as a matter of pride. He explains it in his own words, “Yeah, I've been beaten up, but I'm not beaten. I'm not beaten, and I'm not quittin'.” Eric, he doesn't find out about the notes being written to his wife until near the end of the movie.
Sidney Poitier was clearly too old for the part but he's not the only one. He was 28 and Vic Morrow was 26 at the time. But even to this day Hollywood often casts adults in the roles of high school students. Poitier is quite good here as the bad kid with a heart of gold. Although with hindsight it made me chuckle thinking of how his character must have grown up, become a teacher himself, and moved to a bad area of London to take on his own class full of juvenile delinquents in To Sir, with Love.
The diversity of the students was certainly as groundbreaking as the theme of violent antisocial behavior among inner-city juveniles. If you look closely among the students in Dadier's class you can spot future director Paul Mazursky and a very young Jamie Farr making his movie debut.
Blackboard Jungle was taken from the novel of the same name by Evan Hunter, which was based on his experiences teaching in the South Bronx. Although the fashion, music and lingo of the students is incredibly dated today it remains a powerful depiction of one man's struggle to make a difference in the lives of his students, even at great personal risk.
Vic Morrow, Glenn Ford and Sidney Poitier in Blackboard Jungle.
Hollywood does have a history of casting adults as teenagers and most of the time you just have to accept it. The film version of Grease is the classic example of middle-aged high schoolers, but other movies have done the same. This movie is no more guilty than others, but it suffers more for it because while the behavior of the students is still shocking, it would be even more so if actual teenagers had played the parts. It's one thing to see a grown man try to assault a female teacher with the intent to rape, but it would be quite another to see a sixteen year-old try it.
There's also a long history in Hollywood of making movies about teachers in schools in rough neighborhoods. This has to be one of the toughest schools ever put on film. Patrick mentioned To Sir, with Love, which Poitier would go on to star in 12 years later. The students in that movie are pussycats compared to the ones here. These guys rob, rape, assault and persecute without compunction. Many of them are such hoodlums that I couldn't help but ask why they would even turn up in school in the first place?
I think Dadier's reasons for staying are pretty clear. He's a dedicated teacher who really does want to make a difference. Glenn Ford is terrific in the lead role. You can see the fear in his face everyday when he enters school, but he keeps going back anyway. He's brave, not because he isn't scared, but because he is.
Poitier is the other stand-out. I've always thought he was too stiff and wooden in some of his later performances, but early in his career he had a much more natural, relaxed acting style. It's not so much that he has a “heart of gold”, but simply that he's a decent guy trying to get by in a dangerous school. He's just putting in his time until he's released.
One aspect of the student's lives that is never dealt with is their parents. Not once, no matter what their behavior, are the parents ever called. One teacher mentions that the students are used to getting hit at home, but no one ever suggests that the parents should take responsibility for their behavior.
Although some aspects of the story are very dated, its central theme is a timeless one. A solitary man tries to make a difference. In this case, by teaching and not giving up on a bunch young hoodlums and misfits.
Photos © Copyright Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) (1955)