Classroom dramas are a dime a dozen, and lets face it, they’re mostly the same. We all know that classic story of an idealistic teacher sweeping in to nurture a mob of unruly students before proving them to be important contributors to society. The formula is tried and true, and the fact that there are countless interpretations of it proves that it is a crowd-pleasing trope. Some of the incarnations include To Sir, With Love, Dead Poets Society, Lean on Me, Stand and Deliver, Dangerous Minds and The Emperor’s Club.
Some may argue that the blueprints for the formula were mapped out by Goodbye, Mr Chips (1939) and there is some truth to that argument. However, it was the 1955 film Blackboard Jungle that truly paved the way for so many to follow. The film starred Glenn Ford as a young hot-shot school teacher who takes on a position at an anarchic and multi-cultural inner-city high school. There he is faced with a motley crew of students led by a rebellious African-American gang-leader, played by Sidney Poitier. What ensues is the all-too familiar story that we’ve come to know and love, however with the context of cinematic history, it was ahead of it’s time and was controversial around the time of its release. It provided an important social commentary and depicted a rebellious youth culture that the establishment was seeking to silence.
Ford gives a captivating and poignant performance that binds the film. He was 40 years old at the time and known to most audiences as a gun-toting star of Hollywood westerns. By removing his six-shooter and carrying a briefcase in its place, he immediately brought a gruff and authoritative presence to the screen. And yet from the moment he spoke his first line, it was clear that he was a performer with great range and vulnerably. His supporting cast included an ensemble of future stars such as Vic Morrow, Paul Mazursky, Jamie Farr and the aforementioned Sidney Poitier. All were consummate in their portrayal of juvenile delinquents, with Morrow and Poitier commanding the screen by counteracting Ford’s performance.
The context of time is an important factor in understanding the film’s potency and ultimate legacy. It was made at a time when racial tensions were extremely high (although, some may argue still are) and segregation was still an everyday factor of life in North America. Blackboard Jungle sprung onto the screen with all of its vigour and dared to challenge social norms. It put teenage stories on the screen and – in the eyes of older generations – undermined many of America’s “values” and virtues. Portier would later find himself assuming Ford’s role in To Sir With Love, a reimagining of the same story with a stronger emphasis on sentimentality.
There will always be new, contemporary additions to the pantheon of classroom drama films. And with each one comes a new generation of teenagers with a new disregard for authority. Many of these films will be good, and some will act as an important voice for disenchanted youth. Yet no matter how many come our way, none will bare the significance of Blackboard Jungle. It is quite simply a bold, audacious and confronting piece of cinema that has as much social relevance now as it did then.