Blackboard Jungle (1955) and Lean on Me (1989)

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, 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, scandalizing the matronly chaperones. The Comets wear suits, 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 to 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 seen by 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 were 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 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 while reading them 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 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 this movie.  Her hand gesture and her use of the word “bum” lets us know she is Italian.  This is the first indication that juvenile delinquency is an ethnic problem.

Dadier crosses the street, and we get our first glimpse of North Manual High School, a vocational school where he hopes to get a job.  It is behind an iron fence, looking like the bars of a cage.  The school is for male teenagers only, but as the music picks up again, which has now become impossibly diegetic, we see two pairs of male students 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 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.  The fact his name is presumably French, being pronounced \dah-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 about someone’s manhood.  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 Dadier’s name sounds like the slang expression “Daddy-O,” which makes him 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 Irish, Italians, Puerto Ricans, and African-Americans.  Except for the black students, most of them 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 in high school were women.  And this was a choice made by the screenwriter, or rather, Evan Hunter, the author of the novel this movie was based on.  He could have had Dadier teach mathematics or one of the manual trades like carpentry, but he deliberately picked English instead.

Dadier is nervous and unsure of himself while being interviewed by Principal Warneke, who notes that Dadier went to college at a “girls 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 as a safer alternative, Murdock advises him to think of those twenty-year jail sentences that go with it. He apparently has a dim view of any man’s ability to resist the advances that would inevitably be made by those love-starved girls.

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.  This recalls the earlier scene where a student repeatedly banged the lid down on the garbage can to the beat of the music while the pretty blonde walked by, just outside the iron bars of the fence.  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, his opposite in terms of the masculine-feminine dimension.  For one thing, his name tells us he is Anglo-Saxon, not French.  For another, he teaches mathematics.  Again, things may be different now, but in the 1950s, most mathematics teachers in high school were men, just as most English teachers were women.  Finally, his reference to landing in Salerno tells us he was in the army during the war, as opposed to Dadier’s being in the navy.  And yet, he comes across as weak.  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 enjoy it when Artie West starts 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 were 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 to the classroom, 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 Miller is the good guy in this school.  But Dadier doesn’t know it yet, and he has an ambivalent attitude toward Miller, not being sure what to make of him.  He has no ambivalence about Artie West, however, with whom he 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.  The student’s face is cut in various places.  That night, when he tells Anne about what happened, she says that Lois was just asking to be raped, given the way she was dressed.  Dadier must have described that tight sweater.  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.  West arranges for his gang to beat up Dadier, with Edwards as collateral damage, causing Dadier to miss a week from teaching class.  He 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.

Dadier is taken on a tour of another school by its 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.” Now, I’m not going to say that all these students had ancestors that came over on the Mayflower, because I did spot one black student and maybe one that was Italian.  The students are seen doing their Latin lessons and carrying out experiments in the chemistry laboratory.  But more important than the fact that most of the students are white and intelligent is the fact that the school has both boys and girls in it.  Girls are a moderating influence on boys.  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 in an all-girls school, but without girls around, boys become even more brutal than they already are.  I learned that every school day during the inevitable 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.”

A police detective tries to get Dadier to identify the students that beat him up, wanting him to press charges.  We don’t know whether he really couldn’t see who it was in the dark, as he says, or whether he has decided to handle the situation himself.  In either event, he doesn’t seem up to it, for he starts losing his temper, even to the point of snatching the ruler out of Warneke’s hand when accused of using racial epithets in the classroom.  It was in the context of a discussion about insulting others with ethnic slurs, in which he gave explicit examples. We believe his protestations of innocence when he claims that he has no prejudices, but was only trying to make a point.  And yet, when he unfairly accuses Miller of reporting him to Warneke, he says, “You black…,” before catching himself, horrified to realize that he harbors those deep-seated prejudices that he thought he was free of.  As a further indication that he is losing it, he berates the other teachers for being more concerned with avoiding trouble than with actually teaching, though he admits he isn’t doing any better than they are.

There is a whole subplot concerning Lois, who wants to have sex with Dadier.  She is rather obvious about it, and West makes use of this by sending letters to Anne and calling her on the phone, telling her that her husband is having an affair with Lois, which isn’t true.  She becomes so stressed out, she goes into labor, and the baby is born premature.  While Anne is in the hospital, Dadier finds out about the letters, making him so angry that he wants to quit.  He vents his spleen to Murdock, who tries to argue him out of quitting, saying Dadier was finally getting through to the students, that they were even doing better in his class.  And there is a similar reversal with Anne, who is still in the hospital.  She wanted him to quit and get a job teaching at the good school, but just as he’s trying to tell her he is going to quit, she tells him she’s glad he didn’t quit, that she was wrong. Then the doctor comes in and tells them their baby son will be fine.  It is New Year’s Eve, and we sense that Dadier, having reached bottom, is now on his way back up.

I noted above that there were several indicators that Dadier was effeminate.  Had the baby been a girl, that would have been another such indicator.  I knew a guy once whose wife had a baby girl. Upon hearing about it, a woman he worked with said to him, “You mean you weren’t man enough to have a boy!”  Not many would admit to having the prejudice this woman did, but deep down, a lot of people regard the sex of a baby as a reflection on the father’s manhood.  There is even a crazy theory to rationalize these feelings, based on a study of rats. It goes something like this:  alpha males will tend to have male offspring, since they will also be alpha males, and thus get access to all the females; beta males, on the other hand, will tend to have female offspring, since females will get pregnant no matter what.  That way the reproductive potential of a male rat’s offspring will be maximized regardless of whether he is an alpha or a beta.  Whatever the validity of that study, when it comes to humans, the sex of a baby is just a matter of chance.  But in a movie, the sex of a baby is a choice made by the screenwriter.  The fact that the screenwriter chose to make the baby a boy is another indication that things are about to turn around.

The problem is not solved by making the school go co-educational like the good school. Rather, the movie’s solution is to concentrate all the evil into Artie West, and then get rid of him.  The detective that tried to get Dadier to press charges after he was beaten up gives a sociological explanation for juvenile delinquency, saying that these teenagers were just little children during the war, when their fathers were in the army, and their mothers were working in the defense plants.  No home life, no church life.  So, they formed gangs as a kind of family.  The result was that the gang leaders have taken the place of their parents.  And in this school, that means West.

It turns out that West wouldn’t have been bothered by Dadier’s pressing charges anyway.  The way West sees it, if he obeys the law, he’ll get drafted and maybe get his head blown off in some war; if he breaks the law and spends a year in jail, the army won’t want him.  That’s the way to stay alive.

When Dadier returns to school with the beginning of the new year, the moment for the showdown has arrived.  When West flagrantly copies answers from another student’s paper, Dadier tells him to bring the paper to him.  West refuses.  Miller tells him to bring Dadier his paper, as if to say, it’s not worth making a fuss over.  West calls him “black boy,” telling him to mind his own business.  They both rise out of their chairs, ready to fight.  This is the first time we have see a break between the two of them.

Up till this point, we have been hearing the buzzing of the machine shop in the class above them. But now things become silent.  You would think that silence in a movie would best be represented by the absence of sound, but it is best represented by sounds we ordinarily would not hear.  The most well-known example is that of crickets, which is often employed humorously.  Here it is the slow tick of a clock, one tick every second.  The tension builds as Dadier, having indicated to Miller that he should let him handle things, moves toward West, telling him they are going to the principal’s office. West pulls out a wicked-looking, six-inch, switchblade stiletto and flicks it open.  This is just another way that this movie, while supposedly condemning juvenile delinquency, is actually glamorizing it.  There probably wasn’t a male teenager in the audience at that time who didn’t wish he had a knife like that.  In any event, the students get out of their chairs, moving toward the periphery of the room, trying to stay out of the way.

Miller warns Dadier, “Take it easy, chief!  He’s crazy.  He’s high.  He’s floating on Sneaky Pete wine.”  Another student, Morales, says with alarm, “He’s going to kill him.”  It is at this point that most of the students in the class realize things are going too far.  One exception is Belazi, who tries to sneak up on Dadier from behind, but Miller punches him in the gut, taking him out.

Suddenly, we see another black student standing next to Miller, as Miller tells someone in West’s gang that he can have a gang fight, if he wants one.  If you weren’t playing close attention, you wouldn’t have noticed that there were two other black students in the room other than Miller.  The view of the classroom never had them in the frame, except in this scene.  But now it occurs to us that, though there are several black students in the school, yet none of them are bad.  Before the Christmas show, which Dadier was in charge of, we saw a group of them singing “Go Down Moses,” also known as “Oh!  Let My People Go,” a spiritual expressing a connection between the slavery of blacks in America and the slavery of the Hebrews in Egypt.  But that was about all we see of them. None of them were part of the gang that beat up Dadier and Edwards, for example.  This should not surprise us. Perhaps starting with The Negro Soldier (1944), the movies began portraying African-Americans in a more positive light, giving them roles of people with the same intelligence and moral character as whites, allowing them to break out of such categories as coons, bucks, and toms.

Let’s take another look at the four ethnic groups in this movie.  Each one has a representative character:  for the Irish, West; for the Italians, Belazi; for the Puerto Ricans, Morales; and for the African-Americans, Miller.  The order in which I have listed these four groups corresponds to increasing degrees of discrimination experienced by them during the 1950s.  Because the Irish and the Italians were experiencing the least amount of discrimination at this time, the movie felt safe in having all the juvenile delinquents come from these two groups.  The converse is not true, however. Not all the Irish and Italians are bad students.  Santini, for example, is Italian, but he is a nice guy, and he is the one that takes out Belazi with the flag pole when Belazi picks up the switchblade after Dadier knocks it out of West’s hand.  And the kid that was crying on account of being bullied, early in the movie, appeared to be Irish.

As the representative of the Puerto Ricans, Morales is likeable, harmless, and funny.  And he is the one that, after picking up the switchblade when dropped by Belazi, drives it into the top of a desk and then breaks off the blade.  In general, as with the black students, none of the Puerto Ricans are portrayed as juvenile delinquents.

Belazi aside, not even West’s gang wants anything to do with him once West pulls out that switchblade.  Realizing he is alone, West begins to show fear.  When Dadier gets hold of him and starts banging him against the blackboard, right near the spot where the baseball West threw at him broke the slate, West says repeatedly, “Not here!” for he feels humiliated and doesn’t want the other students to witness this.  When it is over, Dadier takes West and Belazi to the principal’s office.  As they leave the room, West puts his thumb to his mouth, an infantile gesture.

That’s a little too much. Leave the poor guy some dignity!  I would rather West have taken his beating like a man, but I suppose the movie needed to put him down in a big way.

In the final scene, we see Dadier and Miller outside North Manual High School, having a friendly conversation.  Dadier has decided to keep teaching there, and Miller has decided to stay until he graduates.  Then we hear “Rock Around the Clock” start up again as we watch Miller walking on down the street, looking cool.  Dadier smiles and then heads for home.

Another movie about a tough school is Lean on Me.  It was made in 1989, long after the term “juvenile delinquency” had become quaint.  There is a prologue at the beginning of this movie too, but it is not exculpatory, just a statement to the effect that what we are about to see is a true story.  When the movie proper starts, we see Joe Clark (Morgan Freeman) teaching class at Eastside High School in 1967. His students are intelligent, well-groomed, and well-behaved. The boys wear dress shirts with neckties.  This could easily be the good school that Dadier went to visit right after he was beaten up.

Clark quits because the teachers union has sold out to the school board or something vague like that. Twenty years later, he is the principal of a grade school, where gum stuck under the desk is what passes for a discipline problem.  Back at Eastside High, however, the situation has become so bad it makes the one in Blackboard Jungle look like the blackboard tropical rainforest. The students are the meanest, most vicious bunch of high-school hoodlums ever displayed on the big screen.  So, whereas in Blackboard Jungle, there was a contrast between two different schools at the same time, here the contrast is between the same school at two different times.

Oh yeah, I almost forgot to mention one more difference:  much like the good school in Blackboard Jungle, all the clean-cut, intelligent students in Eastside High in 1967 were white; most of the students in the school twenty years later are black, many are brown, and a mere handful are white.

When I first started watching this movie, I wondered if it had been produced by the Ku Klux Klan, because it comes across as a racist’s worst nightmare, a depiction of what happens when you let the you-know-what take over. But since the story is true, I guess those were the facts, and the people making the movie just went with it. And it helped that Clark was African American himself, which offset the racist implications. And while we are on the subject, you know that grade school with the chewing gum problem?  All those children were white as well.

Anyway, when Clark is asked to become the principal to help improve the students’ test scores, I wondered how he could possibly do anything with them. Well, I don’t want to take anything away from Clark, but not only does he have a bunch of burly security guards with him when he arrives, but on the second day, he also expels all the troublemakers, about three hundred of them.  And he carries around a baseball bat like some kind of Buford Pusser from Walking Tall (1973), which is definitely a step up from Warneke and his ruler.  Anybody could straighten out a school with dictatorial powers like that. Think how much Dadier could have accomplished in Blackboard Jungle if, backed up by his own goon squad, he could have expelled West and his gang on the second day of class.

And teachers that don’t do exactly what Clark tells them to do are suspended or fired at will.  By the time he is through, this school doesn’t even have a chewing gum problem.  In the end, the remaining students, who are still mostly black and brown, are seen to be basically good students that end up doing well on their test scores.  This counteracts the initial impression that Eastside High was having problems because the student body no longer consisted of white students only.  But if the movie has ceased to be an argument for white nationalism, it has now become an argument for fascism.

Toward the end, a girl tells him she is pregnant, and he tells her he will talk to her about it later. We never hear that conversation or find out what she did about it. That way those who are pro-life can imagine her keeping the baby or giving it up for adoption, and those who are pro-choice can imagine her having an abortion. Hollywood has always known how to have things both ways.

By the way, just in case you are wondering what happened to all those students that were expelled by Clark, they all got themselves enrolled in North Manual High School.

One thought on “Blackboard Jungle (1955) and Lean on Me (1989)

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