You really can’t write about high school films without writing about 1955’s Blackboard Jungle. While the film is often cited as being the first movie to feature a rock song on its soundtrack (Bill Haley’s Rock Around The Clock is played at the opening and the end of the film), Blackboard Jungle should also be remembered for being one of the first and most influential examples of the dedicated-teacher-in-the-inner-city film genre.
Blackboard Jungle tells the story of Richard Dadier (Glenn Ford), a newly hired teacher at an inner city high school. As soon as he arrives for his first day at work, he meets his co-workers. Josh Edwards (Richard Kiley) is another new teacher and is convinced that he can reach the students by talking to them about his valuable collection of jazz records. Mr. Murdock (Louis Calhern) is a burned out old cynic who believes that none of the students at the school have a future. As Dadier quickly discovers, most of his fellow teachers have more in common with Murdock than with either him or Josh.
At first, Dadier struggles to reach his students, the majority of whom don’t see why they should waste their time in English class. The head troublemaker, psychotic Artie West (Vic Morrow) sees the new teacher as being a rival and Dadier’s attempts to reach another student, Gregory Miller (Sidney Poitier), are made difficult by the racial animosity that dominates the entire high school. Soon, Dadier is being targeted by his students and his pregnant wife (Anne Francis) starts to receive anonymous letters that imply that Dadier is having an affair. It all leads to a violent classroom confrontation in which Dadier’s students are finally forced to pick a side in the battle between the forces of education and the forces of chaos. (If that sounds melodramatic — well, it is kinda.)
It’s a little bit difficult to judge a film like Blackboard Jungle today. We have seen so many movies about idealistic young teachers trying to make a difference in the inner city that it’s pretty easy to guess most of what is going to happen here. In order to appreciate Blackboard Jungle, it’s necessary to understand that the only reason why it occasionally seems predictable is because it’s such an incredibly influential film. And there are still moments in Blackboard Jungle that can take the viewer by surprise. The scene in which Ford lists off all of the racial slurs that he doesn’t want to hear is just one example. It’s hard to imagine that scene appearing in a movie made today. (If it did, it would probably be played for laughs.)
That said, the performances in the film hold up surprisingly well. Glenn Ford is a compelling hero and he and Anne Francis make for a likable couple. Despite being 28 years old and having already played several adult roles, Sidney Poitier is a convincing high school student and, not surprisingly, he makes for a convincing leader. However, for me, the film was dominated by Vic Morrow.
As played by Morrow, Artie Turner is a truly frightening villain. In previous films about juvenile delinquency, the emphasis was always put on why the delinquent went bad and usually, the blame was put not on the teenager but instead on the environment around him. He had bad parents or maybe he listened to too much jazz but, ultimately, he was not lost. He was merely damaged. However, Artie Turner has no convenient excuses for his behavior. His parents go unmentioned. When he’s exposed to jazz, he responds by breaking all of Mr. Edwards’ records. Among all of Dadier’s students, Artie is unique in that he cannot be reached. He’s a force of pure destruction and ultimately, Dadier’s success as a teacher depends less on reaching Artie and more on convincing his other students to reject Artie as a role model.
Blackboard Jungle may be a film that feels very familiar but it’s still one worth watching.