First up in Warners' Controversial Classics collection is Richard Brooks' socially-conscious issue film Blackboard Jungle, a drama that opened a lot of eyes with its unflinching look at juvenile delinquency, school violence and racism. It made a lot of money for Dore Schary's MGM while attracting censorship problems and political denunciations. Along with the same year's Rebel Without a Cause, it practically invented the concept of the modern teenager and created a hot new movie subgenre - the Teenage Delinquent movie.
Bill Haley and the Comets' Rock Around the Clock blasts under the main titles of Blackboard Jungle like an anthem announcing a new force in the world: Teen power. The film helped initiate a wave of media attention on teenagers, who suddenly became the focus of everything problematical in modern life. School violence and youth delinquency had skyrocketed in the years since the war, when fathers were away fighting and mothers worked out of the house. Millions of unsupervised kids drifted into street gangs. The subject had already been addressed in a minor wartime Val Lewton production called Youth Run Wild but it was not until 1955 that Blackboard Jungle made juvenile delinquency the top issue of the day.
Richard Brooks' expert screenplay spells out the problem - adults have lost control and teachers are helpless against classrooms filled with insolent thugs who refuse to behave. Teacher Dadier is insulted, ignored and called "Daddy-O;" the minimal cooperation needed to teach anything is too much to ask. Shell-shocked, he turns to the veteran teachers for guidance and finds only indifference and denial. One teacher (Louis Calhern) openly mocks Dadier's professional concern.
Blackboard Jungle has the instincts of a tabloid exposé. The new music teacher (Margaret Hayes) becomes the target of a rape attempt on the first day of school. Dadier and the new history teacher Edwards (Richard Kiley, fresh from the noir vice epic Phenix City Story) are badly beaten, and Edwards' spirit is broken when the thugs destroy his precious record collection. Dadier tries to confront racial name-calling in the classroom and is accused of bigotry. Then his wife is plagued with malicious notes and phone calls.
Just when Manual High seems like Hell on Earth, Hollywood optimism steps in to provide a conventional happy ending. Sidney Poitier's surly class leader plans to drop out of school at the first opportunity. When he turns out to be a sensitive pianist (!) Dadier uses music appreciation to make personal contact. An audiovisual aid (a movie, naturally) spurs a discussion that allows Dadier to get a learning dialogue going in his classroom. The discipline problem finally distills down to a couple of "bad apple" pupils. With the incorrigible element - Vic Morrow's disturbed hoodlum - eliminated, the classroom situation turns around. Dadier has to risk getting his throat cut, but he wins the approval of his students.
Blackboard Jungle fell under more than normal censorship scrutiny, as Richard Brooks ignored the standard Breen office practice of keeping movies free of social controversy. Then as now, politicians saw the movies as a place to present positive enlightenment and not social criticism. Ambassador to Italy Clare Booth Luce used her clout to block the exhibition of Blackboard Jungle overseas. For her, America was engaged in an ideological Cold War and "our enemies" would seize upon images of schools in chaos as evidence of American decadence. Changes were made to the film even before it was finished. It starts with an apologetic disclaimer title of the kind not seen since Scarface and The Public Enemy. Brooks was forced in mid-production to add a sequence in a "normal" school to assure viewers that the mayhem at North Manual was an aberration.
After 1955, mainstream Hollywood dropped Juvenile Delinquency from their list of acceptable subject matter. Rock and Roll was sanitized in studio films and Elvis Presley was toned down to please church groups and grandmothers. But when the independents saw young audiences leaping from their seats to dance during the titles of Blackboard Jungle, they produced a flood of teen-oriented pictures that lasted for seven years: Teenage Doll, Dragstrip Riot, The Cool and the Crazy. The craze put American-International Pictures on the map.
Warners' DVD of Blackboard Jungle is a perfect enhanced transfer that faithfully reproduces Russell Harlan's moody B&W studio photography and lets us imagine how liberating it must have felt to first hear real Rock and Roll on a big screen. We expected more analytical content, but the disc's commentary touches only lightly on the film's impact. Actors Jamie Farr and director Paul Mazursky tell what it was like to work on the picture, helped by memories from Glenn Ford's son Paul and the film's assistant director Joel Freeman. Farr points out that Sidney Poitier was not allowed to live in the same motel as the other actors, and everyone notes the patriotic symbolism of the American flag in the last scene. The actors are good at pointing out obscure cast members but miss many of Richard Brooks' clever touches. One scene shows Richard and Anne Dadier's bedroom furnished with censor-imposed twin beds. But Brooks refuses to show the second bed, purposely cheating on established rules.
Besides a theatrical trailer, the disc offers a Droopy cartoon entitled Blackboard Jumble, which negates the main feature's theme by ridiculing the concept of progressive education.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Blackboard Jungle rates: