Movie Cycles: Youth Movies and Rock ‘N Roll

Probably the deepest trouble of the contemporary U.S. is its inability to produce a reasonably accurate image of itself. In plays, movies, novels, it cruelly caricatures its life, parades its vices, and mutes its excellence. This tendency far more than Communist propaganda, is responsible for the repulsive picture of the U.S. life in the minds of many Europeans and Asians
Time, September 2, 1955

When Richard Brooks’s “The Blackboard Jungle” was released in 1955, just several months before the James Dean starrer, “A Rebel Without a Cause,” it was perceived as shocking and scandalous, but by today’s standards, the film seems rather tame. At present, it’s best-known as the first studio film to use rock ‘n’ roll as its music, thus signaling the birth of youth music and culture.

The distinctive sounds of the new youth-oriented music were at first ignored by the general public. However, the high-pitched sound was an integral part of a new environment. So when Hollywood decided to film Evan Hunter’s gutsy study of current youth’s lifestyles, they were wise to realize that a traditional musical score would be inappropriate. Subsequently, “Blackboard Jungle” became the first major film to use rock ‘n’ roll as background music.

The story unfolds from the point of view of Richard Dadier (Glenn Ford), a dedicated young teacher who accepts a job in a major urban high school only to learn, on the first day of classes, that his students are uninterested in studying English and Social Studies. They answer his questions rudely and sarcastically, and communicating among themselves in jive talk, they refer to him as “Daddy-O,” a line that sounds like his name.

Jim Murdock (Louis Calhern), a fellow teacher who has grown cynical and indifferent from watching the changes in teenage styles during the last few years, tells Dadier that he’d better understand the students are nothing more than animals, perfectly willing to commit acts of violence against the teachers.

At first, Dadier resists such a notion. However, when an attractive young instructor, Lois Hammond (Margaret Hayes), is almost raped by some of the boys, he begins to change his mind. The film clearly indicates that the gangs are not to be taken as symbolic of all American teenagers, when Dadier visits another school and finds its students to be well mannered and eager to learn. But he turns down the opportunity for a transfer there, deciding that this would mean an admission of his own failure to deal with the problem directly; Dadier is not a quitter.

Dadier concentrates his efforts on breaking through to Greg Miller (Sidney Poitier), a gifted black teenager with strong leadership abilities. But Dadier’s dedication is sorely tried, when he learns that one of the boys has been making threatening phone calls to his wife Anne (Anne Francis), forcing her to the edge of a nervous breakdown.

“Blackboard Jungle was the first film in which the school was depicted as a jungle. In one film’s most harrowing scenes, Glenn Ford saves a woman teacher from being raped. Finally, a classroom confrontation erupts between Dadier and Artie West (Vic Morrow), the ringleader of the troublemakers. Disarming the hoodlum of his switchblade, the teacher earns the respect of the class through his physical prowess.

The movie raised the difficult but unavoidable question: do movies imitate life, or does life imitate the movies

Shocked by the film’s contents, many argued that “Blackboard Jungle” exaggerated the problems of public education with its story of a big city vocational training school. The conservative Bosley Crowther wrote in the “N.Y. Times,” “It leaves one wondering wildly whether such out-of-hand horrors exist.”

In retrospect, the charges of sensationalism seem to be a form of denial of the film’s real issues. When critics saw the classroom problems portrayed on the big-screen they could not believe what they saw. As William Hoffman noted, “Blackboard Jungle” was “the cold breath of prophecy in those smug Eisenhower years, an augury of what was to come” According to Hoffman, “Blackboard Jungle sent waves of fright rolling through American suburbs. Who was safe in the inner city if teachers were not”

Upon the film’s release, gossip columnist Hedda Hopper deemed “Blackboard Jungle” the most brutal film she had ever seen. Clair Boothe Luce, then Eisenhower’s ambassador to Italy, had the film withdrawn from the Venice International Film Festival, claiming that if screened, “the greatest scandal in motion picture history” would ensue.

To understand the volatile reaction, we have to remember that the picture was made during the McCarthy era. The “L.A. Times” believed that it would be dangerous if Blackboard Jungle fell into Communist hands! “Time” magazine wrote that “far more than Communist propaganda,” movies like “Blackboard Jungle” were responsible for the repulsive picture of U. S. life” internationally. However, the American public saw “Blackboard Jungle” as being about social injustice, and accepted this subject matter.

A foreword to the film, which carefully stated: “The scenes and incidents depicted here are fictional,” was added to counteract negative reactions.” Based on Evan Hunter’s sensational novel, published in the fall 1954, the film caused a controversy in public education. Educators and social workers were disturbed, perceiving it as their first report card from society. While school boards insisted that the film was scandalous, many teachers stood up for the film’s honesty. One of the film’s serious issues is that the faculty of Manual High School are underpaid, their incompetence perhaps the result of low wages.

In another scene, the principal compares himself to a prison warden. This was enough to make the film subversive in 1955. There were real concerns over the effect of the film on young viewers since the film both glorified and castigated its hoodlums. A scene in which an ideal school, where the “Star Spangled Banner” is the school song, was seen as absurd.

One point of the educational controversy centered on the way Glenn Ford finally solves his classroom problem. This occurs in the film’s climactic scene, when Ford is attacked with a knife, and has a big showdown with Vic Morrow. This was the first time in Hollywood’s history when a teacher went into a classroom and had to pit himself against a class of “bad” students. The teacher can’t control them, and he can’t even interest them, much less gain their respect. Ultimately, the use of physical force wins: Ford gains the students’ respect by physically disarming the strongest hoodlum. Bosley Crowther wrote, “This seems to be a bitter and superficial solution for the problem at hand.”

Typical of the era’s social problem films, where happy endings belied serious issues, “Blackboard Jungle” seemed vaguely voyeuristic and protected by the certainty of its ultimately positive but utterly unrealistic resolution.

Critics were quick to point out Sidney Poitier’s outstanding performance, particularly his impressive ability to project human dignity beneath a brooding and uncertain exterior, which helped launch him on the road to stardom.

“Blackboard Jungle” made Sidney Poitier, who was 30 when playing a high schooler, a certified movie star. He was the first actor to show that black stars and films could be bankable in white-dominated Hollywood. Up until then, Poitier had been seldom employed and was thinking of giving up acting as a career. With a friend he had recently gone into the restaurant business, opening “Ribs in the Ruff” in Harlem. In an interview around this time, Poitier commented, “Hollywood as a rule still doesn’t want to portray us as anything but butlers, chauffeurs, gardeners, or maids. They just don’t want to make us part of contemporary American life”

Crowther’s review of the film takes on the typically racist condescension of those days in describing Poitier’s character as “a Negro student, who happens to be able to sing,” and of Poitier’s performance, “As the approachable Negro, Poitier is exceedingly sharp and alert.”

Poitier’s character, Gregory Miller, was an unusual role for a black. Presented as an equal human being, he’s the only student who would rescue Ford from the bad white kids. Poitier became Hollywood’s first black anti-hero. The character’s unequal opportunities, however, were made explicit in the film. In one scene, Poitier talks of how life “is nothing but a long corridor with its door shut fast at the end”

Yet most reviewers were unkind to Vic Morrow, complaining that he merely imitated Brando in “The Wild One” (1953). Reflecting many of the mannerisms and styles of the new breed, Brando had unwittingly provided the street punks with a model that they copied scrupulously. Morrow’s ‘Brandoisms’ were a necessary part of his portrayal of a typical hoodlum.

“Blackboard Jungle” was also the first Hollywood film to mix together successfully “rock n roll” music and juvenile delinquency. During the film’s opening credits, Billy Haley and the Comets sang “Rock Around the Clock,” which became a smash hit.

A year later, the film “Rock Around the Clock” (1956) would go much further in combining “rock n roll’ and movies, but “Blackboard Jungle” should be credited as the first picture to do it effectively. The song caught audiences’ attention, and by July of 1955, “Rock Around the Clock” was the country’s best-selling record. Thus, rock n’ roll was born at the movies. Later, in the 1960s, as scholar Robert Ray notes, rock n roll replaced the movies, “as a social unifier, providing both stimulation and release for rebellious emotions”

The film’s lingo displayed some of the first “rock and roll” language in Hollywood film. Glenn Ford is called “Teach” and “Daddy O.” Vic Morrow (Jennifer Jason Leigh’s father, who died in a tragic accident on the set of the “Twilight Zone”) played a sneering punk who shocked audiences when asking Ford, “You talkin’ to me, Daddy-o” Twenty years later, Robert De Niro would repeat this sentence–“You talkin’ to me”–in “Taxi Driver,” and make it part of American movie lore.

“Black Jungle” showed a new imagery of American adolescents. America’s youth were no longer innocent and naive children; they were troubled Vic Morrows and Sidney Poitiers. And the adult world, represented by Glenn Ford, was running out of ways to control America’s children.

The Production Code of American (PCA) forced the filmmakers to eliminate scene where students ripped a teacher’s shirt and exposed her bosom. The Code also suggested a kiss instead of a rape. The Legion of Decency went even farther, when it declared: “This film, purporting through the medium of entertainment, to expose a sociological problem of our times, contains morally objectionable elements (brutality, violence, disrespect for lawful authority) and tends to negate any constructive conclusion.”

Additionally, there were regional objections to specific scenes. In Pennsylvania, for example, officials of Public and Parochial school systems, the city police, the clergy, the Crime Prevention Association, and the Council of Churches opposed the film, which received a reluctant seal of approval. In Massachusetts, the line “Then you call him a nigger” had to be excised.

Shot in grainy black and white by Russell Harlan, “Blackboard Jungle” was an extremely successful film, in large part due to its controversy. The movie grossed $5,459,000 at the box-office (ranking 14 among the year’s top money-makers), thus proving to Hollywood that there was a market for films about youth and the seamier side of life.

“Blackboard Jungle” opened the way for other Rock N’ Roll movies (including “King Creole,” a kind of Elvis Presley musical version of Blackboard). Equally importantly, the movie inspired a durable cycle of High School films, demonstrating that American High Schools could be a sociologically interesting–and commercially profitable–setting for movies.

Included among the film’s later descendants are: “High School Confidential,” “I Was a Teenage Werewolf,” “The Breakfast Club,” “Rock ‘n Roll High School,” “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” “Sixteen Candles,” “Carrie,” “Risky Business,” “Reckless,” “Grease,” “American Graffiti,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” and “Pretty in Pink,” among others.

“Blackboard Jungle” also spawned a cycle of films about reality-defying idealistic teachers, such as “Conrad,” with Jon Voight, “Dead Poet’s Society” with Robin Williams, and most recently the Michelle Pfeiffer’s star vehicle, “Dangerous Minds.”