Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Teenage Wasteland, Oh Yeah

The Blackboard Jungle
Warner Bros. // 1955 // 101 Minutes // Not Rated

Reviewed by Steve Evans

“A shock story of today’s high school hoodlums!” ~ From the Promotional Poster.

Opening Shot
Glenn Ford deals with juvenile delinquents in this milestone ’50s film featuring a cast of rising stars and the first use of rock-and-roll on a film soundtrack.

A Bit of Plot…
Idealistic English teacher Richard Dadier (Ford, Dear Heart) joins the staff at North Manual High School, an inner-city hellhole where the punks terrorize the teachers as a matter of tradition. On the first day of school Dadier thwarts a student rapist attacking a new teacher in the library. Dadier’s students immediately start mispronouncing his name, taunting him with "Daddy-O" and petty insolence. A Navy veteran, Dadier can handle himself in a fistfight, but he prefers to hit his antagonists with kindness and respect. With an eye toward teaching these hooligans, he earns the reluctant respect of the young thugs led by Vic Morrow (God’s Little Acre) and Sidney Poitier (In the Heat of the Night). Of all the toughs in school, Morrow, especially, is a right rotten little bastard with a switchblade and a foul attitude (at right, menacing Ford). A natural leader, Poitier has greater aspirations, but after years of parental indifference and teachers who couldn’t care less, he has virtually given up on himself.

At home, Dadier shares only the bare details of his classroom war stories with his wife (Anne Francis, Forbidden Planet, and seen at left), a delicate woman undergoing a difficult pregnancy. By midterm, Dadier will face two threats on his life, allegations of infidelity and bigotry, and enough petty torments in class to rile even the most patient teacher into a murderous rage.

Historical Context and Significance
Written and tautly directed by Richard Brooks, who based the screenplay on Evan Hunter’s novel, Blackboard Jungle virtually invented the juvenile delinquent genre in the mid-1950s. It received Oscar nominations for writing, editing, black-and-white art direction, and cinematography. By bookending the action with Bill Haley and the Comets’ then-fresh "Rock Around the Clock," the film also became the first mainstream picture to feature rock music on the soundtrack. Blackboard Jungle was an obvious influence on Rebel Without a Cause, as well as many lesser, imitative efforts. The genre flourished for a few years at the old studios like MGM, which produced Brooks’ film, and in the hands of exploitation hacks such as William Morgan. Working from a script scribbled by Edward D. Wood, Jr., Morgan directed The Violent Years just a few months after Blackboard Jungle earned a bundle for MGM. Morgan’s little exploitation quickie is the antithesis of Brooks’ high-minded and morally complex film. As such, it would make a marvelous companion to Blackboard Jungle as a double feature for the cinema buff with a wry sense of humor.

Ford is perfect as the quiet veteran who just wants to teach English. But Morrow, in his film debut, nearly steals the show as a hoodlum so venomous and menacing (by 1955 standards) that some viewers will feel their blood begin to boil every time the creep opens his mouth. Poitier radiates star presence and the quiet dignity that would later earn him an Oscar for Best Actor in Lilies of the Field. Anne Francis was always a lightweight, although her vulnerability is put to good use — even if the character’s fate is telegraphed early and often. Sharp-eyed film buffs can spot future director Paul Mazursky (Down and Out in Beverly Hills) and Jamie Farr (the cross-dressing Klinger on the television series M*A*S*H) among the gang members. Both made their film debut in Blackboard Jungle. Farr is listed in the credits under his birth name, Jameel Farah. (Above left, Mazursky, Poitier, Ford. Below right, Jamie Farr in foreground.)

What’s on the Disc, Steve?
I’ll tell ya. No qualms about the video or audio; both are as clean as the source materials, which remain in great condition. Extras include a commentary track featuring the recollections of Mazursky and Farr, plus insights from Glenn Ford’s son Peter and assistant director Joel Freeman. Much of their conversation centers on the controversial aspects of the film, its surprising success, and its lingering influence. Perhaps it’s no surprise that Farr, who plays a relatively minor character and has not been seen on film or television for years, would sign on for the commentary. Ford died in 2006. Morrow was killed in a horrific on-set accident during the making of The Twilight Zone (1983). Poitier is too successful at this stage of his life to pick up a few pennies dishing on a film that was made when he couldn’t even book a room at the same hotel as his white costars.

The DVD also comes with an original theatrical trailer and a Droopy Dog cartoon, Blackboard Jumble, that spoofs the film.

The Contrarian View
Occasionally quaint by contemporary standards of cinematic nastiness, the picture still packs a bruising punch in its violence, realistic dialogue, and a sense of alienation and helplessness that was often missing from the sunny films of the 1950s.

Blackboard Jungle remains an energetic and absorbing film experience — gritty, vital, hugely influential.

Copyright © 2009 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

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