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As famous for its rocking theme song as for its gritty portrait of 1950s juvenile delinquency, Blackboard Jungle is one of those films, like Easy Rider (1969) in the next decade, that has come to define its era, at least as seen through the eyes of Hollywood. It belongs to a period when mainstream movies were no longer all about escapist entertainment and - heavily influenced by the low-budget, black-and-white techniques of documentaries - began to reflect harshly "realistic" accounts of a postwar society steeped in Cold War politics and a rebellion against traditional values and ways of life that would come to fuller fruition in the 1960s. But unlike films with similar themes and impact, such as Rebel Without a Cause (1955), this picture maintained a more moralistic tone, seeking not so much to understand and sympathize with the worst elements of society as to eliminate them. And unlike the antiheroes of 1930s crime films, the delinquents of Blackboard Jungle, especially the knife-wielding hoodlum portrayed by Vic Morrow, had more in common with the vicious sociopaths played by Richard Widmark in Kiss of Death (1947), Dan Duryea in Scarlet Street (1945), and Lee Marvin in The Big Heat (1953).
In Blackboard Jungle, Glenn Ford plays a teacher assigned to a tough inner-city school where the students make the rules and the staff meekly follows along out of fear and apathy. Ford's task is to identify the real leaders and troublemakers in his classroom and try to win them over to his side. There's little hope of this where the irredeemable Artie West (Morrow) is concerned. But another student, played by Sidney Poitier, whose badness seems more an extension of the racist abuse he has suffered, offers more hope, and a greater challenge.
Director Richard Brooks established his credentials for this kind of hard-hitting drama early on in his career as a writer. His novel The Brick Foxhole almost earned him a court-martial for its depiction of a sadistic Marine who kills a gay man. (It was filmed in 1947 as Crossfire, with the victim changed from gay to Jewish.) And his script for the prison movie Brute Force (1947) showed he was no slouch at creating raw, gutsy dramas for the screen. In addition to Ford, who, as in The Big Heat (1953), gives a solid portrayal of a decent, earnest man driven to the brink of violence, Brooks chose to complete his cast with a group of young, relatively unknown actors who went on to major careers. Poitier was already 31 by the time he took on his sixth film role playing the troubled high school student, but his work is no less believable for that fact. Morrow, who had a long, successful career in film and television before his accidental death on the set of Twilight Zone: the Movie (1983), made his debut in this picture, as did Jamie Farr (then under the name Jameel Farr), best known as the cross-dressing Corporal Klinger on the TV series M*A*S*H (1972-83). Another young punk was played by Paul Mazursky in his second film appearance (and last one for another 11 years). Mazursky occasionally acted in the coming decades, but confined himself largely to directing acclaimed films, among them Harry and Tonto (1974), An Unmarried Woman (1978), and Moscow on the Hudson (1984).
And then there's that song. It's hard for young people today to imagine the impact Bill Haley and the Comets had with their first big hit, "Rock Around the Clock" (arguably not the first rock song but the first to bring the musical form to the national conscience in a major way). Footage of Haley and his band from old TV shows and movies reveal a paunchy man fronting a bunch of guys in suits, not exactly the wild anarchistic image of rock rebels we've become used to. (Haley himself was 30 when this movie was released.) But in 1955, rock 'n' roll was underground, forbidden, a threat to the established order. And with the song accompanying the stark, violent images and language of Blackboard Jungle, it appeared to be every bit the threat people suspected. In fact, fights often broke out where the movie was running. In England, the "Teddy Boys" (as rebellious young teen gangs were then known) ripped seats right out of theater floors. It was a new world, and "Rock Around the Clock" brought that world to movie houses, radios, and people's homes. (To underscore the changes that had come about at the time of this picture's release, it's worth noting it was produced by Pandro Berman, the same man responsible for the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals of the 1930s.) There was no going back. Although parents, civic leaders, and preachers publicly railed against the music and movies like Blackboard Jungle, they were too powerful and too big at the box office to ignore.
Producer: Pandro S. Berman
Director: Richard Brooks
Screenplay: Richard Brooks
Cinematography: Russell Harlan
Editing: Ferris Webster
Art Direction: Randall Duell
Music: James Myers, Bill Haley
Principal Cast: Glenn Ford (Richard Dadier), Sidney Poitier (Gregory Miller), Vic Morrow (Artie West), Anne Francis (Anne Dadier), Louis Calhern (Jim Murdock), Richard Kiley (Joshua Edwards). Warner Anderson (Dr. Bradley), Rafael Campos (Pete V. Morales), Paul Mazursky (Emmanuel Stoker).
BW-101m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning. Descriptive Video.
by Rob Nixon