Blackboard Jungle (1955)

blackboard jungle poster

Ten years ago Larry Clark released his controversial film, Kids (1995), about teens having sex, doing drugs, and generally acting like delinquents. The world was shocked (SHOCKED, I tell you) that a film would depict teenagers behaving so badly. Surely, it was an exaggeration. There were exposes on the national news shows, and lines formed outside the theatres picketing and boycotting the pictures.

I had just graduated from high school a few months before I saw the film, and while I found the picture to be a good one the only shock I felt was that of disbelief that parents were so unaware by their children’s behavior. Those kids seemed a lot like the ones I went to high school with. Of course, kids were, and are, having sex and doing drugs. The quarterback of our football team bragged about having sex on the 50-yard line. Another used to tell us about having sex underneath the soundboard in the light booth of the auditorium (sorry Mrs. Patton). The headbangers used to make bongs out of stolen beakers from the chemistry lab.

They say similar reactions came from screenings of the 1955 classic Blackboard Jungle, and its depictions of juvenile behavior in an inner-city high school. After watching the film all I can say is that parents seem to be as unaware of their children then as they are now.

It’s not that the film is a bad one, in fact, it is rather good, it just seems strange that anything appearing in the film was controversial at one time. It feels tame by today’s standard.

It’s like Rock Around the Clock, the Bill Haley song that opens and closes the film, apparently caused quite a stir amongst moviegoers and critics alike. With songs by shock rockers like Marilyn Manson and Trent Reznor filling up the airwaves and movie soundtrack it’s hard to imagine how such a tame “oldie” could ever create the smallest wave of shock.

What we get from the actual film is a story about a high school teacher who takes his first job in an inner city school filled with all kinds of hoodlums. The teachers and staff that have been there for years are all content with simply maintaining some type of order. Of doing little more than surviving, and certainly not trying to do any actual teaching.

The new teacher, Richard Dadier (played superbly by Glenn Ford) actually cares about his students and wants them to succeed both academically and as fellow humans. Though he takes more than one beating (both philosophically and literally) he never gives up his task of being a teacher, of being a guide to those students.

The always impeccable Sidney Poitier, in one of his earlier roles, plays Greg Miller, an obviously intelligent student who acts as a leader for one of the school gangs. Dadier sees in Miller a chink in the student’s resistance and attempts to pull him into his side. Miller resists at first, but in a move that must be obvious to even the most half-hearted filmgoer, he eventually proves a powerful ally to the teacher.

It is here that my biggest complaint about the film lies. Much of the plot turns are telegraphed to the viewer way in advance. There is no doubt about how the film is going to end, nor even much of how it is going to get there. The film could use some real surprises, or at least bring to the table something deeper, or more original in terms of story.

That being said it is still an interesting ride to ride out, by the means in which the story is told. The acting is filled with fine, nuanced performances highlighted by Ford and Poitier’s scenes together. Director Richard Brooks adds some real tension to scenes in which we already know the outcome.

It is interesting to see films seeking to enlighten an audience by turning a blind eye to juvenile delinquency. It becomes preachy at times even beginning the film with a card noting the problem of the unruliness of the nation’s teenagers and that this must be stopped. That, along with some of the more trite plot points, it can sometimes feel like you’re attending a sermon, not watching a movie. It is to the director’s credit and the fine performances that the film mostly rises above the material and presents a solid piece of filmmaking.

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