My Favorite School Movie

(Not Counting That One With John Belushi)

Posted In: Arts & Entertainment, Movie Reviews,   From Issue 643   By: Chris Miller

23rd August, 2007     0

The one that instantly leaps to mind is The Blackboard Jungle.  Released in 1955 when I was 13, it hit me and my friends with the force of a beating from a gang of high school hoods.  For, indeed, this was who it presented: a pack of the very kind of motorcycle-jacket-wearing, working-class tough guys we were most afraid of. 

Well, actually, it's about nice, first-time teacher, Rick Dadier (Glenn Ford), who is trying to "reach" a classful of such guys.  Needless to say, he has a hell of a rough time doing so, yet eventually succeeds. 

But we were less involved with the teachers than we were with the hoods.  They fascinated us.  The two main ones were Artie West (Vic Morrow, since decapitated) and Gregory Miller (Sidney Poitier).  It was Morrow's first film and he brought all his method acting to bear in creating an extremely convincing gang leader.  As for Poitier, it was electrifying that he was black.  You didn't see a lot of black guys in movies then, and Poitier was handsome, charismatic and cool.  Of course, his character eventually does the right thing and sides with Mr. Daddy-o (as the students call him) in the final showdown.  The movie was a real thriller, too, featuring a knife fight and wanton destruction of property.

But the thing that most excited my friends and me was the movie's opening.  Glenn Ford is walking up to the inner city high school for the first time.  Manual Arts, it was called.  A bunch of the tough guys are hanging out in the schoolyard in their black jackets.  And the soundtrack plays "Rock Around the Clock!"  This great Bill Haley and the Comets cover record of Joe Turner's immortal r & b song was the first rock 'n' roll number ever featured in a movie. 

And they played it loud.  In those days, we mostly listened to our music on dinky little record players with fat, 45-RPM spindles that we kept in our rooms.  The volume only went so high.  But here was this great record being played through actual, professional-level speakers at ear-splitting volume.  It was stunning, a revelation. 

Paired with the sight of these scary-looking guys in the schoolyard, the impact was huge and the sense of danger palpable.  I remember getting a chill, and my skin breaking out in goose pimples.

So forget your Grease, your Happy Days, and your High School Musical 2.  The Blackboard Jungle was the real deal.  In fact, it wouldn't be taking things too far to say that, along with Mad Comics, it was one of the earliest cultural outbursts to help create the sixties.

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