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Up the Down Staircase

Up the Down Staircase
Warner DVD
19 / B&W / 1:85 anamorphic widescreen / 124 min. / Street Date November 6, 2007 / 17.99
Starring Sandy Dennis, Patrick Bedford, Eileen Heckart, Ruth White, Jean Stapleton, Sorrell Booke
Cinematography Joseph F. Coffey
Art Direction George Jenkins
Film Editor Folmar Blangsted
Original Music Fred Karlin
Written by Tad Mosel from the novel by Bel Kaufman
Produced by Alan J. Pakula
Directed by Robert Mulligan

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Also available as part of the Leading Ladies Collection-Volume 2 with I'll Cry Tomorrow, A Big Hand for the Little Lady, Rich and Famous and Shoot the Moon for 49.98

To Kill a Mockingbird is always listed as the high point of the Robert Mulligan / Alan J. Pakula directing-producing team effort, but Savant prefers the less didactic Up the Down Staircase. It's still the best film yet about the trials of teaching in an inner-city school. Tad Mosel's script of Bel Kaufman's novel carries just enough sensationalism to remind us of the old champion, Blackboard Jungle. Young Sylvia Barrett has an MA in English lit but finds that her dreams of teaching are buried in bureaucracy and a school policy that treats her students like caged animals. Sharply drawn characters and believable students make Barrett's ordeal very, very believable.

General audiences that had previously avoided 'problem school' movies flocked to Up the Down Staircase, intrigued by the film's advertising that showed the vulnerable Sandy Dennis walking a dangerous New York street like a sacrifice thrown to the lions.


Bright Sylvia Barrett (Sandy Dennis) reports to Calvin Coolidge High, which operates more like a prison than a school. The students are unruly, her co-workers pushy and exhausted and she has difficulty just getting the attention of her class. Soon she's taking an interest in the problems of individual students and is appalled at the actions of the school disciplinarian. Convinced that she's a failure, Sylvia asks for a resignation form. But it takes weeks for one to arrive.

We've all seen how the 'committed teacher' subgenre has devolved into formulaic mush. Often tried out by actresses wishing to stretch their portfolio, the stories follow this general outline: The naïve teacher is shocked by the disorderly behavior of her students and discouraged by the impossibility of getting any teaching done. The school administrators are incompetents or slaves to higher ups. The crummy bureaucracy insults teachers and students alike. The teacher makes failed attempts to reach her students by affecting an attitude or 'trying to get into their mindset.' Most of the supposed teens are played by actors in their early 20s, and look it. The teacher may have to fend off a serious rape attack, and is ready to quit. But then her disproportionate attention to one student results in a breakthrough, often by focusing on a glitzy musical or stage production. Now accepted and honored by her charges, the teacher is the toast of the school and the musical/show is a huge success. The finale is a big party.

I don't need to name names; if you haven't seen a movie like this in the last 20 years, you haven't been watching. Up the Down Staircase breaks fresh ground, with director Robert Mulligan putting the emphasis on the interior problems of his characters. Some of Sylvia's students are scary, and the movie never pretends that a teacher's attention can make angels out of wounded birds. Dangerous Joe Ferone (Jeff Howard) remains a menace, misinterpreting Sylvia's concern for something else. Lovesick Alice Blake (Maureen O'Mara) is a nervous breakdown waiting to happen. The other kids aren't arrayed for comic effect or variety; Sylvia has to deal with multiple forms of immaturity and anxiety. She teaches without chalk, asks repeatedly for someone to return her stolen desk blotter and collects 'suggestion' notes, most of which tell her to take a hike. But Sylvia latches on to the one note that offers anonymous support and encouragement. Or is it a cruel joke?

Up the Down Staircase has an even better take on Sylvia's co-workers, played by a terrific set of actors. The principal Dr. Bester (Sorrell Booke) raises his eyebrows at Sylvia's qualifications and wishes her luck. Cocky would-be poet Paul Barringer (Patrick Bedford) is the only person Sylvia knows how to handle. He responds by recklessly toying with a student's affections and bringing about disaster. Gregarious Henrietta Pastorfield (Eileen Heckart) seems well balanced but shows her own lack of sentimental judgment in regards to a student. Annoying office secretary Sadie Finch (Jean Stapleton) is also not above making a romantic mistake. And older teacher Beatrice Schacter (Ruth White) calmly tries to acclimate Sylvia to the rougher aspects of the job, like how to walk down a dangerous street without being molested.  1

Throughout it all we watch Sylvia's reactions as she deals with humiliations great and small. She refuses to be provoked by her students' rude behaviors, and doesn't explode at the intolerable attitudes of some of her colleagues. But we see the vulnerability through her eyes and trembling lips. It's a great performance. Broadway star Sandy Dennis received some okay film roles in the next few years but nothing to match her proven talents. The killing blow was the obnoxious wife she had to play to Jack Lemmon in Neil Simon's one-joke The Out-of-Towners. By 1970 she was doing TV movies and bits in horror pix.

Mulligan's favorite strategy was to downplay dramatics at a time when movies hyped big scenes with big music and showoff acting. The only theatrical outburst in the film is from the Patrick Bedford's teacher, who shows his regret by lashing out at the profession he previously thought was no big deal. The understatement puts Up the Down Staircase on a very high level of drama. Sylvia receives a tiny bud of encouragement to keep on trying, and that's all she needs.

Also in the cast are Florence Stanley (Barney Miller), Frances Sternhagen and reportedly, Bud Cort as a student. Vinnette Carroll has an effective scene as a mother who expects Sylvia to ignore her son's failing grades (he sleeps in class) because he works all night. Sylvia is interrupted before she can show her concern for the situation.

Warners' DVD of Up the Down Staircase shines in a sparkling widescreen presentation with clear sound to highlight Fred Karlin's eccentric music score. Colors are good. The only extra is a trailer with many alternate takes, especially coverage and close-ups Mulligan didn't use. Mulligan prefers over-the shoulder and wider masters. I like older films that aren't made exclusively from 'coverage', that trust scenes to play in one or two angles.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Up the Down Staircase rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 19, 2007


1. The only really offensive stereotype in the show is the school librarian. From the silents to Star Wars, librarians remain a persecuted species. Up the Down Staircase is even more offensive than usual. The librarian is an anal-retentive idiot, harping about keeping books straight on the shelf and demanding the return of a book from a student that jumped out of a third-floor window. I've never met a librarian like that, and quite the opposite is truer. I think that writers commonly use librarians for easy scapegoats ... everybody remembers being told to be quiet in a library.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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