Blackboard Jungle (1955)
September 6, 2019 | by Shannon
I’m so excited to write about Blackboard Jungle (1955) today! I really wanted to watch and review this film in July when Glenn Ford was our Star of the Month, but unfortunately it didn’t work out. When I saw Blackboard Jungle was on the schedule this month, I knew it would be one of the Sidney Poitier films I would focus on!
If you missed Blackboard Jungle on Tuesday, it’s available on tcm.com through Monday. Just log into your cable provider through TCM’s website, and you can watch it online! If you don’t have access to the film online, you can also purchase or rent Blackboard Jungle on Amazon here.
Starring both Sidney Poitier and Glenn Ford, this film was quite revolutionary in its time, focusing on the growing youth culture and fear of juvenile delinquency in the 1950s. Due to this shocking (for the time) subject matter, Blackboard Jungle was actually banned in several states and countries until certain scenes and/or language were edited out!
Though the film in its entirety is extremely tame by today’s standards, at the time of its release in 1955, adults worried that teens would be inspired to do no good after watching the delinquents in Blackboard Jungle, and feared youths would be unable to control themselves when Bill Haley and His Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock” played in the film. Different times, right?! Blackboard Jungle is definitely a part of film history, and you don’t want to miss it!
Glenn Ford plays Richard Dadier, a young World War II veteran who gets his first teaching job at an inner city school. We get the idea right away that Dadier is not going to have an easy time at this all-boys school. This diverse group of kids is a rough bunch: they are used to not being cared about, aware that their futures at the bottom of society are all but set it stone, and as such, don’t much care about their education.
An attitude of “what’s the point?” pervades as Dadier enters the school grounds, both from the students and the teachers. As one particularly jaded teacher says to Dadier before his first class,
“This [school] is the garbage can of the educational system… Don’t be a hero, and never turn your back on the class.”
Despite the cynicism (and foreshadowing!!!) of this warning, Dadier begins his first English class with the belief that he can get these boys excited about the subject matter and their futures.
The Hard Truth
Dadier soon realizes his naivety in thinking he could inspire the students in his first class: a baseball is thrown at Dadier as he introduces himself and writes his name on the chalkboard, almost smashing his head. The boys taunt and joke throughout class, making it near impossible for him to get a single point across.
Outside of the classroom, things are even worse. In the school library, Dadier witnesses an attractive female teacher being harassed by a student, and he luckily saves her just before a rape occurs. On another night, Dadier and a fellow new teacher are assaulted on their way home. Dadier knows the perpetrators of the attack are boys from his own English class, but decides not to take police action against them.
A Ray of Hope
Dadier notices that one student seems more intelligent, more mature, and perhaps a little more engaged in his lectures than the rest of the class. That student is Gregory Miller, played by our Star of the Month, Sidney Poitier!!
Miller has leadership qualities that are immediately apparent, and Dadier tries to make him an ally, hoping that doing so will encourage the rest of the class to behave and listen—if Miller is respectful to Dadier, maybe the other boys will follow suit? More importantly, Dadier genuinely cares about Miller’s future, and wants him to aspire to a brighter future, and get the education he needs to achieve it.
With Miller’s help, the students in Dadier’s class begin to respect him, and he begins to effectively engage them in his lessons. With the exception of two or three boys, Dadier sees some real progress, enough to keep him optimistic about the future. (Sounds like a precursor to Dead Poet’s Society (1989) in a few ways, doesn’t ???!)
The Wild One
The one student Dadier just can’t reach is Artie West (Vic Morrow). Artie is the leader of a street gang, and really has it out for Dadier—Artie is the one who initiates the assault on Dadier and his fellow teacher Josh Edwards on their walk home. After Artie destroys Josh Edwards’ jazz record collection, and Dadier learns Artie has been sending threatening notes to his wife, Dadier calls Artie out.
Artie pulls a knife on Dadier in class as revenge. To Artie’s surprise however, the rest of the boys don’t back him up: they’re on Dadier’s side. With Miller’s help, Dadier has gained their respect. When the one student who decides to stick with Artie pulls out a knife and charges at Dadier from behind, Miller comes to Dadier’s aid, and saves his life. It cements their friendship, and promotes even more unity in the classroom.
The film ends with things looking bright for both Dadier and Miller, with each promising the other to stick to school and never give up. Yeah it’s a bit of a corny ending, but when played by such pros and Sidney Poitier and Glenn Ford, it’s a really effective and touching scene.
Looking for Gregory Miller
If you read my post on Sidney Poitier last week, you know that Blackboard Jungle was his big break. Sidney came to Hollywood in October of 1949 to film No Way Out (1950). It was his first film and his first leading role. The following year he had another leading role in Cry, the Beloved Country (1951). Sounds like these two roles should have established him in Hollywood, right? WRONG. Even though Sidney received great reviews for both films, there just weren’t many roles in Hollywood for African American actors at the time, and, he struggled to find work. How terribly unjust and devastating is that?
A 27-Year-Old Teenager
By 1954, Sidney was 27 years old, married, and the father of two daughters. When an MGM casting director called him about the casting of the students in Blackboard Jungle, Sidney assumed the guy was asking for names of younger actors he could recommend for these classroom scenes. So Sidney gave the rep a few names, and that was the end of the call.
And then a month later the same guy called Sidney back, only this time, it was to ask Sidney himself to audition for the role of Gregory Miller. Sidney auditioned, knocked everybody’s socks off, and got the role! In my opinion, Sidney walks away with the film. Don’t get me wrong, Glenn Ford gives a stellar performance, one of the best of his career, but I do think Sidney is the standout in Blackboard Jungle. It’s no wonder the film led to so many opportunities for him.
Taking Care of His Family
Remember how I mentioned last week that growing up with next to nothing made Sidney very wise with his money? Well, with the $3,000 he earned for making Blackboard Jungle, Sidney moved his young family to a modest apartment in a better part of New York City, and invested the rest of his earnings in opening a few restaurants.
Sidney already had one restaurant to his name, Ribs in the Ruff, and though the restaurant didn’t make him rich, it did help Sidney pay the rent when acting jobs were sparse. Little did Sidney know, with the success of Blackboard Jungle, he’d never want for film roles, or financial security, again!
Still No Contract
Despite his amazing performance in Blackboard Jungle, MGM did not offer Sidney a studio contract after the completion of filming. They signed Vic Morrow, who plays Artie West in the film (and is the father of actress Jennifer Jason Leigh!), but MGM opted not to sign Poitier.
At the time, it looked like this was Sidney’s loss, and he suffered from ulcers as he worried, in Sidney’s own words,
“about my future, my family’s future, the future of my race.”
But… then Blackboard Jungle was released, and it was a runaway hit! Suddenly, not being bound to MGM was an asset for Sidney: as a freelance actor with a hugely successful film under his belt, Sidney found himself in high demand, and able to choose which roles he wished to pursue, and what filmmakers he wanted to work with. Sidney shared that he was ultimately grateful he never signed with MGM. If he’d been offered a contract,
“the temptation would have been to accept. That’s guaranteed salary, you know?”
I think I can confidently say that had Sidney been under contract to MGM, he would not have broken down the barriers in Hollywood for African American actors that he so eloquently did. Sidney made history and changed the way Hollywood and America at large viewed African Americans, and that was largely because Sidney had the artistic freedom to refuse roles that he believed did not showcase African Americans accurately, and accept roles that he knew would be a credit to his race.
The roles Sidney chose to play had greater and further reaching consequences than on his career alone. How incredibly neat that Sidney recognized and respected that. He was aware that many viewed him as the representative of an entire race in his films, and Sidney did not take this responsibility lightly. Now that’s a classy guy.
Rock Around the Clock
Before I close, I have to share this awesome anecdote about how Bill Haley and His Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock” came to be chosen as the reoccurring song in the film. Blackboard Jungle is about teens and delinquency, and director Richard Brooks knew teenagers would be an important viewing demographic for his film. He needed a song that would attract youths, and perfectly capture the cultural shift of the 1950s. What better way to achieve these goals than choosing a song from that new, up and coming music genre, rock n’ roll?
Brooks turned to Glenn Ford for advice on the proper song to choose. Glenn in turn told Brooks that he knew the perfect person to help them find the song for Blackboard Jungle: Glenn’s nine-year-old son, Peter!
Peter’s mother was tap dancing savant Eleanor Powell, so is it any wonder that Peter knew how to pick a good song? Young Peter recommended his father and Brooks choose “Rock Around the Clock” for the film. Glenn and Brooks listened to the song, and agreed.
The familiar “One, two, three o’clock, four o’clock rock!” is the first thing you hear in the film as “Rock Around the Clock” plays during the opening credits, and you are immediately drawn in! Peter could not have recommended a better song. Looking back, Peter shared that after seeing the film with his parents for the first time at a preview screening,
“I loved the whole movie and thought Dad was great, of course, but I couldn’t stop thinking about that credit sequence and the music I loved playing front and center. There wasn’t a happier kid than me in the whole world just then.”
How sweet is that??!!
Interesting side note, MGM bought the film rights, meaning the rights to use the song in the film, for $5,000. For this price, they were allowed to play the song at three different times during Blackboard Jungle. For an additional $2,500, MGM could have bought complete ownership of the song. But they didn’t!!!!!!!
Remember, “Rock Around the Clock” wasn’t a hit yet—in fact, it was the “B” side of the record—meaning the music producers didn’t expect it to amount to much, and just kind of threw it on the back of the record as sort of a freebee for the buyer. I can imagine how foolish the powers that be at MGM felt when the song became a national phenomenon after the release of Blackboard Jungle!
No More, I Promise!
Ok, that’s it! Don’t forget to check my calendar as our month celebrating Sidney Poitier continues next week! Soooo many good ones, including his Oscar winning performance in Lilies of the Field (1963). You don’t want to miss it!
Have you seen Blackboard Jungle? Do you find Sidney’s performance as captivating as I do?