Tuesday, August 2, 2022

Blackboard Jungle (1955)

On the first day of school in the Blackboard Jungle, two new teachers, Richard Dadier (played by Glenn Ford) and Josh Edwards (played by Richard Kiley), express apprehension about starting their first year of teaching at North Manual High School. The school’s violent reputation has preceded it. Edwards likens his first day to the day that he and his fellow service members “hit the beach at Salerno” in Italy during World War II. Dadier, a navy veteran of the war, responds, “At least they’re not shooting at us.” An older teacher, already a seasoned pro at North Manual High, tells them, “Not yet.” His response is oddly and disturbingly prescient.

The students at North Manual High are capable of inflicting physical and psychological harm without guns. The film depicts several instances of crime and aggression by high school students. Here are some examples:

Joy riding and causing an accident (hitting and overturning a parked car)

Attempted rape of a teacher in the school library

Assault and battery of two teachers

Hijacking of a newspaper truck

Assault and battery of a truck driver and delivery person

Prank phone calls and anonymous letters to a teacher’s wife alleging an affair, causing psychological stress severe enough to induce premature birth of an infant

After he gets the teaching job at North Manual High, Richard Dadier meets his wife Anne for a celebratory dinner at an Italian restaurant. She is four months pregnant, and her celebratory mood is clouded by the memory of her miscarriage. She is worried it will happen again with this current pregnancy. Their discussion of the new job and Anne’s pregnancy sets up the harassment that she will experience later in the narrative, when one of Richard’s students does all he can to sabotage any good that Dadier tries to achieve.

(This article about Blackboard Jungle contains spoilers.)

Richard Dadier rescues Lois Judby Hammond from the attempted rape in the school’s library by Joe Murray, one of the students. The students in Dadier’s class are upset with Dadier because Murray is charged with the crime and goes to jail. They give Dadier the silent treatment, even though Murray was caught in the act. After school, Hammond asks Dadier to walk her out to her car, and he does, under the watchful gaze of some of the students. Josh Edwards meets them at the end of the small schoolyard and, after Hammond gets into the car, he asks Dadier to go across the street for a drink.

On the way home from the bar, Dadier and Edwards take a shortcut through an alley, where they are jumped by several students. Artie West, who is in Dadier’s class, is one of them. Josh Edwards is beaten nearly unconscious. The police arrive to take him to the hospital. Dadier goes home to Anne with his face beaten and his suit torn. This latest incident shakes Dadier’s faith in his ability to get through to the students or to make any progress in their formal education.

Dadier consults one of his university professors about continuing to teach. The professor teaches at an orderly school, the complete opposite of North Manual High. The professor’s students do all their schoolwork and sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” during an assembly. He convinces Dadier to return to North Manual High. There is a hint that teaching is a civic duty, that Dadier will be doing more for his country by continuing with his chosen profession. Leaving the military was apparently not the end of his service.

This theme of patriotism and duty comes up again between Dadier and Artie West. The scene contrasts Dadier’s idealism with West’s resigned cynicism. Dadier suspects that West is involved with the hijacking of a newspaper truck and tries to convince him to avoid illegal behavior. He warns him of the consequences, but West sees a prison term as an asset. He tells Dadier, “You know, a year from now, when the army comes by and they say, ‘Okay Artie West, you get in a uniform, and you be a soldier, and you save the world, and you get your lousy head blowed right off. Well, maybe, maybe I get a year in jail, and maybe when I come out, the army, they don’t want Artie West to be a soldier no more. Maybe what I get is . . . is out.” Nothing that Dadier says in response can dissuade West from his point of view.

Dadier does return to his classroom after the attack in the alley. He is accompanied on his way through the school corridors by a police detective investigating the assault on him and Josh Edwards. The detective wants Dadier to press charges. Dadier insists that he couldn’t see any of the attackers because it was too dark and that the incident wasn’t that serious anyway. The detective disagrees; he thinks the fact that Dadier couldn’t return to the classroom for a week is proof that his injuries were serious. He tries one more time to convince Dadier to help the police investigation:

Police detective: “Dadier, I’ve handled lots of problem kids in my time. Kids from both sides of the tracks. They were five or six years old in the last war. Father in the army. Mother in a defense plant. No home life. No church life. No place to go. They formed street gangs. It’s way over my head, Mr. Dadier. Maybe the kids today are like the rest of the world. Mixed up, suspicious, scared. I don’t know. But I do know this: Gang leaders have taken the place of parents. If you don’t stop them—”

Dadier: “Class is starting. Do you mind?”

Police detective: “Then you won’t help us?”

Dadier: “I’m sorry.”

The police detective ends by warning Dadier that violence will happen again.

My last blog article was about a film called Larceny (1948). The DVD for that film comes with commentary by film historian Eddy Von Mueller, who gives a lot of information that grounds that film in its time period: postwar U.S. society struggling to come to terms with the effects of World War II. Some of the young boys who were left alone during the war because their fathers were fighting and their mothers were working in the wartime defense industries contributed to the rise in juvenile crime after the war. Juvenile delinquency was a real-life issue in the postwar years; it is a subtheme in Larceny, and it is the main theme—almost seven years later—in Blackboard Jungle. In fact, the police detective talking to Richard Dadier repeats these same ideas to Dadier in an effort to convince him to help the police arrest the violent offenders in North Manual High. Dadier has some other ideas that he would like to try. His ideas do work—to a point. But he realizes that violence cannot go unpunished, and he reaches his limit by the end of the film.

I wrote about another example of juvenile delinquency in film noir: Crime in the Streets. Click here for my article about it.

The opening credits of Blackboard Jungle, which appear on a blackboard in white chalk-like text, are accompanied by “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley and His Comets. Blackboard Jungle was one of the first films to use rock ’n’ roll on its soundtrack. It also uses jazz, which was not new but was used frequently in film noir to emphasize crime and dislocation. Rock ’n’ roll is a new way to achieve the same effect. After the opening credits, the film starts with text, a disclaimer of sorts:

We, in the United States, are fortunate to have a school system that is a tribute to our communities and to our faith in American youth. Today, we are concerned with juvenile delinquency—its causes—and its effects. We are especially concerned when this delinquency boils over into our schools. The scenes and incidents depicted here are fictional. However, we believe that public awareness is a first step toward a remedy to any problem. It is in this spirit and with this faith that Blackboard Jungle was produced.

The studio and filmmakers were right to worry. Blackboard Jungle created both positive and negative reactions both at home and abroad. Riots and violence by teenage viewers were blamed on the film. It was banned in some U.S. cities because of its violent content.

For a 2015 scholarly review about the domestic and international distribution of the film and reactions to its story, click here.

The first time that I saw Blackboard Jungle many years ago, I don’t think I would have called it a film noir. It’s quite possible that I saw it on television, where it would have been heavily edited. Seeing it again more recently on DVD, however, I’d say that it’s easy to categorize it as noir. It’s a great film that doesn’t sugarcoat the 1950s the way that some films and television sitcoms from the same period do.

Sidney Poitier is one of the students in Dadier’s class, Gregory Miller, a role of his that I particularly admire. It’s one of Poitier’s earliest film roles, and he and fellow classmates must address racism in addition to the violence all around them. Prejudice against all the groups represented in the class becomes the basis for a lesson for them and Dadier. It’s a lesson that Artie West takes out of context to try to smear Dadier’s reputation.

Glenn Ford is wonderful as Richard Dadier. Ford has always been one of my noir favorites and he doesn’t disappoint. His character is a bit idealistic throughout, but he does become more pragmatic by the end of the film. The students aren’t the only ones to go through a transformation.

March 19, 1955, release date    Directed by Richard Brooks    Screenplay by Richard Brooks    Based on the novel The Blackboard Jungle by Evan Hunter    Music by Max C. Freedman    Edited by Ferris Webster    Cinematography by Russell Harlan

Glenn Ford as Richard Dadier    Sidney Poitier as Gregory Miller    Vic Morrow as Artie West    Anne Francis as Anne Dadier    Louis Calhern as Jim Murdock    Margaret Hayes as Lois Judby Hammond    John Hoyt as Mr. Warneke    Richard Kiley as Joshua Y. Edwards    Emile Meyer as Mr. Halloran    Warner Anderson as Dr. Bradley    Basil Ruysdael as Professor A. R. Kraal    Dan Terranova as Belazi    Rafael Campos as Pete V. Morales    Paul Mazurdky as Emmanuel Stoker    Horace McMahon as the police detective    Jameel Farah (aka Jamie Farr) as Santini    Danny Dennis as DeLica

Distributed by Loew’s Inc.    Produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

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