Aug. 3, 2006
Blackboard Jungle (1955)
Grade: 54/100

Director: Richard Brooks
Stars: Glenn Ford, Sidney Poitier, Vic Morrow

What it's about. Idealistic Glenn Ford takes a teaching job at a tough mixed race inner city high school. Ford tries to get through to the troubled (and dangerous) "kids," many of whom are played by actors in their mid-twenties. The students are led by hoodlum Vic Morrow and streetwise Sidney Poitier. Ford has a pregnant, clinging wife (Anne Francis), who is threatened by Ford's friendship with foxy teacher Margaret Hayes.

How others will see it. This film is centered around Glenn Ford, with an occasional perspective from Francis. We are to identify with Ford, and his seemingly impossible mission of transforming budding young criminals into responsible, educated young adults. Good-guy Ford has his moments of doubt, but these are not turning points. Instead, he waits for his audience (his wife, a teacher, a pet student) to tell him, "Gosh, don't quit now!" As if.

How I felt about it. It's too difficult not to like Ford, who carries gravity well and can't really be blamed for the melodramatics of the script and direction. The film's endless little crises (Francis' faith in her husband, the fate of the premature unnamed son, the fate of the jazz nut's record collection, the motivation and support of student Poitier) are never really in doubt, except that even rare jazz records are disposable after all.

But some of the "kids" are too far gone to reform. The film at least faces that reality. The problem is that the students end up taking the side of the teacher during a class, while Ford is as calm, heroic, and forthright as Sgt. York when he captured the entire German army.

It's not credible, just as it's not credible that hottie teacher Hayes would return to the school the next day after she was assaulted by a bad "teenager" on her first day of class. And, after Ford and the jazz nut teacher are both jumped and beaten, it's not credible that not only would both return, but the jazz nut would bring to school with him his prized collection of breakable 78's.

It also seems unlikely that Vic Morrow (an actor best known for his death on the set of Spielberg's The Twilight Zone from a freak helicopter accident) would think to begin a letter-writing campaign to Ford's wife. I doubt Ford gave him a business card with his address on it.

We also doubt the transformation of deeply cynical teacher Louis Calhern, who believes that the students are violent animals for most of the movie, until his mind is changed by Ford's Christmas play (which we see nothing of).

But, let's give The Blackboard Jungle some credit. It doesn't shirk from the horror (in the eyes of suburban parents) of a gang-territory high school, in ways that Rebel Without a Cause could only hint at. And, the movie did help usher in the Rock 'n' Roll era, featuring the then little-known "Rock Around the Clock" in the opening and closing credits.