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.
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!
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.
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.