Posts Tagged ‘Sidney Poitier’

My Classic Movie Pick: Blackboard Jungle

As a former teacher, I am a complete and utter sucker/fan of movies that revolve around  a teacher trying to save the world by getting through to their unruly, bratty, world of crime-leaning students.  In 1954, writer Evan Hunter wrote a novel, The Blackboard Jungle, that got a lot of buzz from the reading public and it caught the attention of Hollywood.  Movie Studio MGM bought the rights of the novel and Richard Brooks, not only directed the film, The Blackboard Jungle, he also wrote the screenplay.   The movie did exceedingly well at the box office and it also was nominated in 4 categories at the 1956 Academy Awards: Best Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Art Direction, and Best Cinematography.

Blackboard Jungle

The movie opens with that famous song that was used 20 some years later as the opener for the ABC sitcom Happy Days, Rock Around the Clock, performed by Bill Haley and His Comets.   We then meet our protagonist, Richard Dadier(Glenn Ford), a WWII veteran who went to college on the GI Bill and earned a degree to teach English.  He arrives at his very first teaching job, at North Manual High, an all-boys high school in inner city New York.  Dadier soon learns that there are a lot of discipline problems at this school and that many of the students are juvenile delinquints.  Still, he is optimistic that with his hard work and encouragement, his students will learn and will go on to success in life.

His students, which most of the focus of the film is on one of his classes, were portrayed by some of the best up and coming actors of the 1950s and 1960s: Sidney Poitier as Gregory Miller, Vic Morrow as Artie West, Dan Terranova as Belazi, Rafael Campos as Pete Morales, Jamie Farr(cast credits list him as Jameel Farah) as Santini, and Paul Mazursky as Emmanuel Stoker.

The faculty and staff of North Manuel: Louis Calhern as Mr. Murdock, Margaret Hayes as Miss Hammond, John Hoyt as Principal Warnecke,Richard Kiley as Mr. Edwards, and  Emile Meyer as Mr. Halloran.

Rounding out Didier’s life is his sweet wife, Anne, played by Anne Francis, and a former professor he seeks out for advice, Prof. A.R.Kraal, played by Basil Ruysdael.

Dadier soon realizes his work will be tough when an object is thrown at the blackboard while he writing his last name on the board and explaining to his students how to pronounce his name.  When Miss Hammond, who is a very stylish new teacher, is cornered after school in the library and about to be assaulted by a student, Dadier luckily happens to be walking by and hears her cries for help.  Dadier rushes in and saves Miss Hammond and rightly gets some punches thrown at the student before he runs away.  Later, Dadier and Mr. Edwards, a new math teacher who loves jazz, visit a bar after work one day, have a few drinks, and then on their walk to their apartments, a gang of hoodlums who attend North Manuel recognize their teachers and brutally mug them.  When Dadier’s wife sees his beaten face at his arrival home, she insists that he give up this job and teach at a different school, one in a much better neighborhood or community.  A side plot is that Anne is expecting and she’s worried about this pregnancy as she miscarried their first baby.  It doesn’t help Anne’s stress levels when she begins to get horrible phone calls implying that her husband is cheating on her!

Anne receiving one of those disturbing phone calls

Anne receiving one of those disturbing phone calls

Object thrown at the blackboard

Object thrown at the blackboard

Dadier coming home after being mugged

Dadier coming home after being mugged

Dadier hangs in there, and he is able to appeal to Greg Miller, to show Miller that he has natural leadership qualities.  When Miller states that because he’s black and that there’s not a lot he can do as many doors will be shut to him due to his race, but Dadier doesn’t accept that reasoning and tells Miller that blacks can succeed in the modern world and that there are teachers who care.  He encourages Miller not to drop out, which he had been considering.

Artie West, as Dadier discovers, is one of the main bullies of the school, and a gang leader.  Shortly after West destroys math teacher Edwards jazz record collection in the classroom, Dadier decides enough is enough and there is a climactic confrontation in Dadier’s English class between him and West.

Dadier starting to have success with his class

Dadier starting to have success with his class

A young Jamie Farr

A young Jamie Farr

West about to break Mr. Edwards Jazz records

West about to break Mr. Edwards Jazz records

The climactic fight scene between Dadier and West

The climactic fight scene between Dadier and West

See this film for the performances: Glenn Ford, always a capable and sincere actor, shines here as the new teacher who wants to impact his students for good.  Vic Morrow is excellent as the evil Artie and Sidney Poitier believable as Greg Miller, learning that he can succeed and that he does have leadership skills.  Great supporting performances by Louis Calhern, Anne Francis, and Richard Kiley.

The Blackboard Jungle will air on Turner Classic Movies on Valentine’s Day, Feb. 14th, at 2:45 am est/1:45 am cst, so set that dvr!  The film is available to buy or instantly rent through Amazon.    Over on Youtube, someone has put the main scenes of Blackboard Jungle together in a montage set to the film’s iconic opening song, Rock Around the Clock. Here’s that cool montage.  Also on Youtube, is this  charming interview with actor Jamie Farr, more famously known as Cpl. Klinger on the hit tv series Mash, about being in the movie Blackboard Jungle.

My Classic Movie Pick: Lilies of the Field

Lilies of the Field (1963 film)

Lilies of the Field (1963 film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In October of 1963 a simple film, a drama,  was released in theaters that earned its  lead actor  the Best Actor Oscar at the Academy Awards.  That film was  Lilies of the Field, and that actor was Sidney Poitier.  Directed and produced by Ralph Nelson, the movie was based upon a novel that had been published in 1962, with the same title, written by William Edmund Barrett.  Poitier’s  co-stars in the film were  Lilia Skala,Stanley Adams, Dan Frazer, Lisa Mann, Isa Crino, Francesca Jarvis, and Pamela Branch.   The title of both film and book were  borrowed from the Bible, found in the book of Matthew, Chapter 6, verses 27-33.  It is in this section of Matthew that Christ gave his famous Sermon on the Mount.  There is also a parallel scripture passage found in the book of Luke, Chapter 12, verses 27-30.  The film is an interesting character study, showing two strong -minded people who meet  by chance and work together for the good of all.   It is a picture about faith, kindness, charity, respect, and love.  Not romantic love, but the love one should have for one’s fellow man.

Poitier plays Homer Smith, a handyman.  He is bright, has had dreams of being an architect, but has never had the finances to pursue that goal.  He was raised in the Baptist church.  As he is driving across Arizona (where the movie was filmed) his car breaks down.   Needing water for the radiator,  he walks to a nearby farm to ask for some water for his car when he notices a group of middle-aged women trying to repair a fence and doing a bad job of it.  The women introduce themselves to Smith,  they are a group of nuns from Austria, Hungary, and East Germany.  Their English speaking skills, he discovers, are very limited.  The Mother Superior of this group of nuns, Mother Maria(Lilia Skala) speaks much better English, and she asks Smith to do a small roofing repair for them.  Smith agrees to stay overnight and fix the roof in the morning because he figures he’ll be paid for the small job and money is a good thing to have when driving across a state.  The next day, Smith fixes the roof, and then approaches Mother Maria about his fee.  He tries to get her to pay him by quoting from the book of Luke 10:7:” The laborer is worthy of his hire.”  Mother Maria, replies with a scripture passage of her own:” Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin.  And yet I say unto you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.”

Smith soon learns that Mother Maria is one tough lady who likes things done her way and when she gets an idea that something needs to be done, she goes about getting it done, often in unconventional ways.  He also learns that this group of nuns is very poor and that the land their convent is on was inherited by their order.  The nuns are trying to live on what they can coax the land to grow, and the milk and eggs that they gain from their dairy cow and chickens.  Smith decides to stay at the convent that day until he gets his pay for the roofing job, and against his common sense, he reluctantly agrees to stay for a meal and to stay at the convent to do other small repair jobs that have been needed to be done.  He does all of this in the hopes that he will be eventually paid by Mother Maria.

The nuns secretively study Smith’s skills and strengths while he works at the convent and they become convinced that he is the one, sent to them by God, to make their dream of building a chapel for the townsfolk, who are poor also, as the closest Catholic church is many miles away.   When Sunday morning arrives, Mother Maria tells Smith that he will be driving the nuns to that distant Catholic church so they can attend Mass.  He is invited to also attend the Mass, but he declines citing his Baptist faith.  While the nuns are at Mass, Smith goes to a nearby trading post for a heartier breakfast than what he gets from the nuns’ kitchen.  While he is at the post, the owner, Juan(Stanley Adams), tells him about the hardships the nuns overcame to emigrate from Eastern Europe, including getting over that Berlin Wall.  By now, Smith realizes it is very unlikely that he will be paid and partly due to the respect he has for the nuns in overcoming their hardships in Europe, he stays longer at the convent and decides to at least clear the land where the nuns have said they would want the chapel to be built.   As he works on clearing the land, Smith shares his dream of being an architect and decides that he will undertake the building of the chapel for the nuns.

To provide more food for the nuns meager diet, Smith also gets a part-time job with a local construction company and impresses the owner with his skills at handling all of the heavy equipment.  Smith also delights the nuns with the new foods he is bringing back to the convent’s kitchen, including lollipops!  In the evenings, the nuns usually gather to sing hymns and choruses from older Gregorian Chants.  Smith decides to use this time to help the nuns gain in their English speaking skills and he also joins in with their singing.  He teaches them some of his favorite gospel hymns, including the call and response song, “Amen”, written by Jester Hairston(who also dubbed Poitier’s singing voice in this movie.)

Smith is determined to build a lovely chapel for the nuns, and that only he will build it.   The nuns write letters to various philanthropic groups for donations in order to buy the needed construction materials, but the letters only receive resounding No’s from those groups.  Word gets around to the townsfolk as to what Smith(or Schmidt, as the nuns call him) is trying to do, and they begin showing up at the construction site with offers to help and even Smith’s boss at his part-time construction job shows up to donate  materials.  At first, the offers of help and the donated  materials irks Smith, as he alone wants to build the chapel,  but he soon realizes he can’t do it alone and he accepts the townsfolks help, the materials, and he slowly becomes the construction site manager.  After weeks of work, the chapel is complete and Smith insists that he will place the cross on the spire himself and sign his work where only he and God can see it.

The movie ends on Saturday night;  the next morning, Sunday, the new chapel will have its dedication service.  Smith is exhausted and he realizes that there is no more work to keep him at the convent.  Mother Maria, too proud to ask Smith to stay on does insist that he attend the dedication service so that he can be recognized for all of his efforts by the congregation.  She tells Smith about all of the other projects he can work on for the betterment of the town, including building a proper school.  Smith mulls all that she has said while he is teaching the nuns their English lesson in the evening, and during this lesson he tricks Mother Maria into saying “thank you” to him; before this, she had only thanked God for the work, gifts, and help that Smith gave to the nuns.  Later on in the evening, as he leads the nuns in singing “Amen”, he sneaks out the door and takes one last look at the chapel.  Then he gets in his car and drives away.  Mother Maria hears the car engine start but stays seated, singing along with the nuns.

The movie was filmed in Arizona on the northern edge of Tucson.  It won  nominations  for not only  the Best Actor category, but also in the following categories: Best Supporting Actress for Skala, Best Cinematography-Black and White, Best Screenplay, Best Writing, and Best Picture.  It is available through Amazon, and Netflix.  As I said earlier, it is not an action flick, no romance, but a fine drama about people working together for the betterment of all.

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