Blackboard Jungle (1955)

If you ask most people which movie the song Rock Around the Clock makes them think of, it will not likely be the movie of the same name made in 1956.  In that movie, a lifeless and somewhat ridiculous plot acts as a frame story to showcase some rock-and-roll bands when that kind of music was becoming popular in the 1950s. Young people in their rebellious stage like to shock their elders, so naturally we have a scene in which Bill Haley and the Comets perform at a prestigious and very proper girls’ school, which scandalizes the matronly chaperones. The Comets wear suits and are clean-cut, singing songs without suggestive lyrics or hip movements, but no matter, because the beat alone is indecent. So the movie has it both ways, allowing teenagers to enjoy the fantasy of shocking their elders, while the real elders watching the movie in the theaters would be reassured that rock and roll was quite harmless.

But there was another movie, made a year earlier, that most people associate with that classic number, and that was Blackboard Jungle.  The movie begins with an exculpatory prologue.  Such prologues were supposed to justify the depiction of immoral or degenerate behavior by the need to bring such matters to the attention of the public as a necessary first step remedy the problem.  These prologues were disingenuous, to say the least, about as convincing  as a statement expressing concern about the prevalence of pornography in our society and the need to make the public aware of the harm that it is doing, and then using that statement as a prologue to Behind the Green Door (1972).  These prologues disappeared after the Production Code was replaced by the ratings system in the late 1960s.

They are to be distinguished from the ex post facto prologues that now appear before the presentation of movies that never had them when first presented to the public.  The first one I recall seeing was for The Godfather Saga, which aired on television in 1977.  NBC added a prologue saying something to the effect that not all Italian-Americans are a bunch of gangsters. These prologues are not always in the form of the written word, but sometimes take the form of a discussion providing the proper social context and the obligatory denouncement of the attitudes and values embodied in these films.  TCM did this for The Birth of a Nation (1915) about twenty years ago.  Notably, HBO recently chose to do this for Gone With the Wind (1939).  This was brought about by an opinion piece penned by John Ridley, who wrote the screenplay for 12 Years a Slave (2013).  He felt it would be unseemly to allow people to watch an unvarnished presentation of Gone With the Wind when they should be watching his 12 Years a Slave for their enlightenment and moral improvement.  But you can’t talk people out of enjoying a great movie.  Ridley’s movie may have truth on its side, but people will still be watching Gone With the Wind long after 12 Years a Slave has been forgotten.

The prologue of Blackboard Jungle justifies the movie we are about to see by deploring the scourge of juvenile delinquency and by the need to make us aware of its existence.  But while the words on the screen are somber and serious, what we hear is an exciting drum solo.  And as noted above in discussing the movie Rock Around the Clock, just that rock-and-roll beat alone was enough to worry the chaperones at a high school dance.  The animal rhythm induces movement in our bodies, making us want to get out of our chairs and dance, just as teenagers did in the aisles when this movie first came out.  Before the prologue has even finished, juvenile delinquency has been glamorized.

Then the movie proper begins and so does the song.  It fades out a little with the end of the credits.  We see Richard Dadier (Glenn Ford), who has just gotten off a bus.  In the background, we see children in bathing suits playing in the water issuing from a fire hydrant that has been opened.  One child, in a bathing suit, who seems to be about six years old, sees his mother and runs toward her.  She is angry.  “Come here!  What’s the matter?” she says as she grabs him while shaking her other hand, upturned, hand at him.  “You wanna be a bum?  Come here!”

We can hardly think of this child as a juvenile delinquent.  But the scene is emphatic by position, the mother’s words being the first bit of dialogue in the movie.  There is a racist implication in her hand gesture and her use of the word “bum,” which let us know she is Italian.  This is the first indication that juvenile delinquency is partly an ethnic problem.

Dadier crosses the street, and we get our first glimpse of the vocational school where he hopes to get a job.  It is behind an iron fence, making it look like the bars of a cage.  The school is for boys only, but as the music picks up again, which has now become diegetic, we see two pairs of boys dancing what at that time was called “the bop,” but which is essentially jitterbug or swing.  In some movies, two boys dancing together would have effeminate or homosexual implications, but that is not the case here.

In fact, it is Dadier who is marked as effeminate, when Artie West (Vic Morrow) whistles at him as one would at a pretty girl.  That fact his name is presumably French, being pronounced \da-dē-ā\, doesn’t help, for it feeds into the prejudice, often seen in the movies, that anyone who is French cannot be a real man.  Even to be able to pronounce French words correctly is enough to create suspicion.  That is why John Wayne’s characters might be able to speak Spanish or the Comanche language fluently, but he always made a point of mispronouncing any word or name that was French.  It also doesn’t help that his name sounds like the slang expression “Daddy-O,” which makes his the butt of much humor later on.

All the other guys on the grounds are moving with the music, including those shooting craps.  They are an ethnically diverse bunch, consisting of whites (loosely defined here as those descending from northern European countries), Italians, Puerto Ricans, and a few blacks.  Except for the blacks, they all have greaser haircuts.  A pretty blonde comes walking down the street, passing by the iron bars of the fence, trying to ignore the students.  One student uses a trashcan lid to keep the beat of the music, while others leer, whistle, and gesture.  One guy in particular has a bottle of soda pop, which he holds at his crotch, as he might an erect penis.  As she walks by, he flips some of the liquid out, simulating an ejaculation.

Dadier enters the school and goes to the offices, hoping to get a job teaching English.  That’s another effeminate indicator.  Maybe things have changed by now, but back in the 1950s, most English teachers were women.  And this was a deliberate choice made by the screenwriter, or rather, Evan Hunter, the author of the novel this movie was based on.  He could have had him teach mathematics or one of the manual trades like carpentry, but he picked English instead.

Dadier is nervous and unsure of himself while being interviewed by Principal Warneke (John Hoyt), who notes that Dadier went to college at a “girl’s school,” which is another hint at his effeminate appearance and manner.  Dadier explains that exceptions were made for veterans after the war, his having served in the Navy.  It might be thought that Dadier’s masculinity is being redeemed somewhat by the fact that he fought in World War II, but if this were the point, the script would have had him say he was in the Army or the Marines.  Instead, there is an association of homosexuality with the Navy, so his service in that branch does nothing to counteract the suggestions of effeminacy.  Of course, Dadier is played by Glenn Ford, so we in the audience have no doubts about his manhood, but the people in the movie don’t know that yet.

Dadier speaks in a voice so soft that Warneke, speaking loudly and holding a ruler, almost as if he is going to swat Dadier with it, suggests he won’t be heard at the back of the class.  Dadier notes that he did some acting on the stage in college, and he could be heard on the back row.  As a demonstration, he quotes lines from Henry V:

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger….

That’s all Dadier quotes, but the rest of the speech goes on in that vein, encouraging the men to “Disguise fair nature with hard-favour’d rage.”  Warneke notes that the speech is apt for the job, and Dadier is hired.  When Dadier asks about the discipline problem in the school, Warneke bristles at the suggestion, saying there is no discipline problem.

Dadier goes to meet the other teachers, who have collected in the gymnasium, one of whom is Jim Murdock (Louis Calhern).  His twelve years of teaching at that school have dispelled any illusions he might once have had about education.  He is now the school cynic.  We see him idly hitting a punching bag, saying he’s getting ready for the fall term.  One of the other teachers sneers at Principal Warneke’s denial that there is a discipline problem at the school, to which Murdock replies that there is no discipline problem at Alcatraz either.  Another new teacher suggests instilling obedience in these students with a ruler, reminding us of the one Warneke was holding, but Murdock says if you try that on one of these students, he’ll take the ruler away from you and beat you to death with it.  When one teacher suggests the possibility of teaching in an all-girls school, Murdock advises him to think of those twenty-year jail sentences that go with it.  Apparently, he has as low an opinion of the moral character of the faculty, including himself, as he does the students.

This school, he says, and those like it are the garbage can of the educational system.  It’s the job of the teachers to keep a lid on that garbage can for a few hours a day so women can walk the streets without being attacked.  At this point, another new teacher, Lois Hammond, says there must be some students who want to learn.  She is good looking and wears a tight sweater.  Murdock says she’s just asking for trouble, being dressed like that.  When Dadier says to him, “Say, these kids, they can’t all be bad, can they?” Murdock replies, “No.  Why?”

Later in the movie, a teacher notes with surprise that these students don’t even know their multiplication tables, to which Murdock replies, “The only thing they know how to multiply is themselves.”  When asked how these students are ever graduated, Murdock says, “Graduated?  They just get to be eighteen.  Then they’re thrown out to make room for more of the same kind.”

As Dadier looks over the classroom he will be teaching in, he meets Josh Edwards, the exact opposite of Murdock.  He is naïve, idealistic, and excited about teaching the students he just knows will be eager to learn.  We feel a sense of dread, knowing that he is doomed.  And indeed, he is foolish enough to bring in his irreplaceable collection of swing records to play for the students, being sure they will enjoy them.  In a way, he is right.  They really enjoyed whirling the records around the room, smashing them into pieces.

That night, Dadier has dinner at a restaurant with his wife Anne (Anne Francis), who is four-months pregnant.  She is worried, since she already lost one baby.  He tells her that there is nothing to worry about, that the baby will have her looks and his brains.  It’s amusing to hear how innocently those sexist lines are delivered in old movies.  After dinner, they step outside, just as some teenagers come drag racing down the street, sideswiping a car and flipping it over on its side just feet from where Dadier and Anne are standing.  This is the first indication that it’s going to be a struggle getting her through her pregnancy in this neighborhood.

When school begins the next Monday, everyone assembles in the auditorium.  At the microphone is Mr. Halloran (Emile Meyer), the one teacher in the school that seems to belong there.  He comes across as being so tough that none of the students would dare mess with him.  To get things started in that noisy room, he yells, “Shut up!”  And when he says “first,” he pronounces it \foist\.  The joke is that he is the one that teaches public speaking.  But in that school, that is just the kind of public speaking that is needed.

Dadier escorts the students in his homeroom class, making the mistake of giving them orders, like, “No talking,” that they know they can flout with impunity.  Halloran would have yelled, “Shut up!” but Dadier is no Halloran.  A teenager of slender build comes out of the restroom with tears coming down his face.  When Dadier asks him what the problem is, he looks at all the toughs standing around and says, “Nothing.”  Dadier decides to go into the restroom to see what is going on.  Just before he walks in the door, we hear Gregory Miller (Sidney Poitier) asking another guy why he made the kid cry, so we know he is the good guy in this school.  But Dadier doesn’t know it yet, and he has an ambivalent attitude to Miller, not being sure what to make of him.  But he has no ambivalence about Artie West, with whom Dadier shares an increasing mutual animosity.

Murdock gave the new teachers two rules to live by:  Don’t be a hero, and don’t turn your back on the class.  But Dadier breaks the second rule as he writes his name on the blackboard, with an explanation as to how to pronounce it.  Suddenly, a baseball is thrown at him so hard that, though it misses him, it breaks the slate of the blackboard.

By the end of that day, Dadier violates Murdock’s first rule, the one about not being a hero when he saves Lois from being raped by one of the students.  Trying to get away from Dadier, he crashes through a window, but Dadier drags him back in.  His face is cut in various places.  By the next day, the story of how Dadier beat up that kid has lost nothing in the telling, leading all the students to become especially hostile to Dadier.  When he tells Anne about what happened, she says Lois was just asking to be raped, in apparent agreement with Murdock.  Apparently, Dadier had described that tight sweater.  The next day, West arranges for his gang to beat up Dadier and Edwards.  Dadier refuses to quit, however.  We understand that.  Dadier is the kind of man we expect to fight back.  What we don’t understand is why Edwards still ends up bringing in his collection of records.

The next day, Dadier is taken on a tour of another school by the principal, who was one of his professors in college.  What a bunch of polite, well-mannered, well-dressed students they are, attending to their lessons, right after singing “The Star Spangled Banner.” They are not all white (again, loosely defined and impressionistic), for I did spot one black student and maybe one that was Italian.  They are seen doing their Latin lessons and carrying out experiments in the chemistry laboratory.  But more important than the relative ethnic homogeneity of the students or their intelligence is the fact that it has both boys and girls in it.  That is why I always shudder when I hear people argue that students do better when they attend an all-boys or all-girls school. The girls may do better, but without girls around, boys become even more brutal than they already are.  I learned that everyday during the one hour of physical education, always the low point of my day.  Anyway, the principal offers Dadier a job teaching at that school.  I would have gotten on my knees and wept tears of gratitude, but Dadier does the manly thing and returns to his “jungle.”

Anyway, the problem is not solved by making the school go co-educational. Rather, the movie’s solution is to concentrate all the evil into Artie West, and then get rid of him. And the evil in West is explained in terms of alcohol. When he pulls out his switchblade knife, Miller warns Dadier, “Watch out Chief! He’s floating on Sneaky Pete wine.” The other students help subdue West, and once he is expelled, we discover that all the rest of the students are basically good.

That is about as realistic as when Dorothy throws water on the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz (1939), melting her, and we find out that the winged monkeys are basically good creatures, happy the witch is gone.

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