Up the Down Staircase (1967)

Warner

 

Earnest and well-intentioned but not a very likeable melodrama about the problems of a schoolteacher in one of New York’s tough regions, Robert Mulligan's “Up the Down Staircase” could be described as the female version of such solemn and preachy male teacher melodramas as “The Blackboard Jungle” with Glenn Ford in the 1950s and “To Sir With Love,” starring Sidney Poitier a decade later.

 

Scribe Tad Mosel based his big-screen narrative on “From a Teacher’s Wastebasket” Bel Kaufman's article in the Saturday Review in which she described the bureaucratic paperwork and authoritarian idiocy of overcrowded and outdated urban high schools.

 

At the center is neophyte teacher Sylvia Barrett, played by Sandy Dennis right after winning the Supporting Actress Oscar for “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf”  This literal picture depicts Sylvia's struggles to reach her pupils.  Idealistic, she both loves and desires to teach her multi-ethnic students, a bunch of ghetto youngsters with mixed motivations some to learn, while other to play and mark time.

 

Predictably, there are confrontations between Barrett's dedication and the brutal realities of the system, which go beyond the tough, unmotivated pupils in Calvin Coolidge High School.  The physical conditions, such as deafening noise, also present obstacles. 

 

Most of the characters are types we have seen in other melodramas, such as the McHabe (Roy Doyle), the British-born administrator bent on law and order, the harassed principal (Sorrell Booke), and so on. The teaching staff (inevitable in movies about schools), a collection of over-familiar types, including the overly emotional woman (Eileen Heckart), the hopeless ignoramus (Elena Karam), the cynical poseur (Patrick Bedford), the pompous theoretician (Florence Stanley).

 

The students also represent a statistical aggregate, including the problem boy Joe Ferone (Jeff Howard), who misunderstands Barrett’s interests and almost attacks her, the embittered Ed Williams (John Fantauzzi), who feels that no black can ever get a break; the shy Jose Rodriguez (Jose himself), who despite rough beginnings blossoms into self-confidence, just in time to convince Sylvia that she has reached at least one of her pupils.

 

Among the females is Alice Blake (Ellen O’Mara), the poignant incarnation of every unattractive, neurotic adolescent who has had a crush on her teacher and was rebuffed by him.   Alice’s attempt to kill herself, after Mr. Paul Barringer (Patrick Bedford) corrects the grammar of her love letter to him, is not very convincing.  At school dance, when she looks adoringly at him, the elegant and cynical instructor dances with her out of pity, but the next day, he cuts her to ribbons in the composition lesson

 

Sandy Duncan, who won the Best Actress award at the Moscow Film Festival, gives a mannered, charmless performance that makes her part less likable than it must have been on paper.

 

But in the end, you don't learn much about the real reasons why mass education has become so hopeless or how it might be improved.  Both Alan Pakula, who here serves as a producer, and Mulligan, have made better pictures as directors.

 

Cast

 

Paul Barringer (Patrick Bedford)

Henrietta Pastorfield (Eileen Heckart)

Beatrice Schacter (Ruth White)

Alice Blake (Ellen O’Mara)

Sadie Finch (Jean Stapleton)

Dr. Bestor (Sorrell Booke)

McHabe (Roy Poole) – British disciplinarian

Ella Friedenberg (Florence Stanley)

Joe Ferone (Jeff Howard)