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The late 1960s saw a flowering of liberal moviemaking, especially in films about the classroom. Sidney Poitier made a notable appearance as an inner city kid ten years earlier in Blackboard Jungle but found himself teaching honesty and integrity in 1967's To Sir, With Love. Sandy Dennis struggled against entrenched incompetence in Up the Down Staircase. Both of these films celebrated or at least advocated new ideas and doing things differently. 1969's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie pulls a smart trick on its audience by presenting a vibrant, inspirational and liberated teacher to admire. Teachers like that are always heroic, right?
In the year of Easy Rider Fox had a big hit with a movie that takes the side of the stuffy old establishment. A really special character is required for the argument to stand up. This film's Jean Brodie thinks she's liberated, but is actually a poster girl for flagrant child endangerment. The film is the exact opposite of Jean Vigo's Zero for Conduct, the old French film about adolescent rebellion. Edinburgh in the 1930s is the last place we'd look for radical extremism... which says more about us than Edinburgh.
A major novel by Muriel Spark, then a play adaptation by Jay Presson Allen, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is now best known as a career peak for the great Maggie Smith. She won the Best Actress Oscar for this role, and a full forty-five years later is better known for the Harry Potter movies. She's still actively performing. The movie also represents the best work of the remarkable Pamela Franklin, who would certainly have become a major star had the British film industry not cooled off in the early 1970s.
Director Ronald Neame directs so well that we don't notice how closely the film follows the stage play. Schoolteacher Jean Brodie (Maggie Smith) prides herself on being a strong influence on her pupils; she fills their minds with her own passionate ideals and individualist attitude. As her racy lectures on art and politics are not considered appropriate for the conservative Marcia Blaine School, Jean enlists four special girls she's taken under her wing in resisting the conventional leadership of Headmistress Miss MacKay (Celia Johnson of Brief Encounter). Brodie is also carrying on affairs with fellow teachers Teddy Lloyd (Robert Stephens) and Gordon Lowther (Gordon Jackson). She encourages her brightest students to follow her extreme advice. Jean's most precocious and faithful disciple Sandy (Pamela Franklin) is the one to finally see how seriously her teacher has abused her position of influence and authority.
With the veteran Ronald Neame in charge The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a Last Hurrah for old fashioned - English filmmaking. But the adult storyline surely had to wait for the chloroforming of the old Production Code -- the 'new' rating on the film is the short-lived "M : Suggested for Mature Audiences".
Most everyone who attended school will recognize something in the strikingly original Jean Brodie, the teacher that feeds his/her ego by encouraging student adulation. That Brodie opposes the conservative Miss Mackay doesn't make her a 'dangerous liberal', for her philosophy is a crazy mess all across the spectrum. Jean is a sexual adventurer but also an ardent cheerleader of Mediterranean Fascists. She rhapsodizes over great art, extolling her favorites while dismissing famous names central to the curriculum, like Leonardo da Vinci. To embellish her personal legend, Brodie regales her impressionable charges with her personal romantic reveries, instilling daydreams of passion and doomed affairs. 1 In short, all this excitement elevates Brodie to the status of a celebrity, if not a goddess. She considers "her girls" her personal property to guide and shape as she sees fit.
Like her heroes Mussolini and Franco, Brodie uses the schoolroom as a pulpit. All attention must be focused on her and all appreciation filtered through her. She dictates every detail of the schoolroom experience, right down to how many inches the windows should be left open. Brodie mocks a girl interested in non-feminine pursuits. If something is good, it is not for its own sake but because Brodie says it is so.
Brodie's girls dote on her, notably the Brodie Four led by the precocious Sandy. Brodie molds them into extensions of her own personality, "assigning" them qualities as if they were born to fulfill predetermined roles. In Brodie's egoist world, Mary Macgregor (Jane Carr) is the dim but loyal foot soldier. Sandy is the dependable secret agent, good at covering for Jean's subterfuge. Things become perverse when Jean nominates Jenny (Diane Grayson) as a "lady of affairs," encouraging her to become the lover of the school's art teacher. These kids from sheltered backgrounds eagerly accept Brodie's authority. But as she matures, Sandy begins to think for herself. She first questions the status quo out of jealousy. Why should Miss Brodie decide that Sandy is 'unemotional', and nominate Jenny as the great lover?
Petty politics are the order of the day. Miss Brodie is clever and amusing so we naturally side with her -- at first. Meanwhile, Jean's personal life is a mess. Too egotistical to deal with a man on equal terms, Brodie toys with the adulterous art teacher and the foolish music master until they're both eating out of her hand. She's not after security, because the rich Mr. Lowther could provide that. She prefers that poor Mr. Lloyd suffer from afar, to better enrich her self-styled legend. Jean also looks down on Lloyd for being Catholic, and bourgeois. She's a charming, stylish prig.
Headmistress MacKay initially comes off as the enemy, someone to be fooled and derided. Mrs. MacKay gathers gossip against the teacher but needs proof, and Jean's outraged defenses have so far been effective. Overt politics enters in an episode involving the Spanish Civil War, which shows how dangerous a teacher's influence over her students can be. Sandy is the one to fully understand what a tragedy Miss Brodie has wrought. The exceedingly well directed finale held 1969 audiences breathless. In my small town Jean Brodie was offered as a second feature to the must-see film of the summer, George Roy Hill's Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Ronald Neame's picture made an equal if not better impression -- it's that rare movie that makes one feel like a thinking, sensitive adult.
Maggie Smith is a wonder as Jean Brodie. Her expansive personality easily leads the average viewer astray in the comedic early scenes. We're cheering for Brodie to put one over on the school authorities. Another actress would let the loud wardrobe and the Scots brogue do the work; Smith puts a spirit behind Brodie that is undeniably sympathetic. The woman is a victim of her own lust for life, for significance, for importance. She might describe herself as a secret warrior for women's liberation, but it's hard to believe that she would do anything for unselfish reasons.
With this film Pamela Franklin graduated from child actor to adult star, with honors. Her nude scene upstages that by Hayley Mills in 1966's The Family Way. Discreet and civilized, it won the approval of the rube audience I saw the film with. After an initial gasp, that is; the movie is a good example of nudity that was rightly given a lenient rating. Franklin covers a range from age twelve to eighteen quite convincingly, and delivers her dialogue with such precision and impact that it becomes obvious that she could play most anything.
Marcia Blaine School is a definite matriarchy. The male teachers Robert Stephens (The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes) and Gordon Jackson (The Great Escape) are the spineless men in Jean Brodie's life, one a reckless philanderer (but not a coward) and the other a sweet guy who would never understand Jean's brand of drama. The other staffers are also eccentrics, but seem to be getting along well enough without turning the school into Peyton Place. 2 When it comes time for poor Jean to be judged, there's little room for mercy. She's a menace to the workplace, and as Sandy asserts, should certainly not be allowed around impressionable little girls. Headmistress MacKay eventually wins our vote by default -- Brodie is a dangerous loose cannon, with Mary McGregor the final proof.
Among dramas and screenplays that make a case for informing, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is much more compelling than the self-absolving On the Waterfront. Just the same, we aren't shown the actual act -- for reasons right or wrong, betrayal is always betrayal. Brodie is indeed a menace and someone has to put a stop to her. But Brodie was right about Sandy, who proves herself quite capable of cold-blooded treachery -- followed by a sincere, "What will you do now?" Will this experience make Sandy equally unforgiving of other, less dangerous nonconformists? If we're talking about rigid rules, two or three more Marcia Blaine instructors might well fail a 'morals test'. 3
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is the expected fine-quality Blu-ray encoding of this class-act favorite. Its hues have always looked a little metallic, perhaps because the source for the original release was a dupe negative imported from the U.K.. But that's just a guess. The Edinburgh locations really sparkle, and contrast with the gloomy grey-blues inside the Marcia Blaine School. The audio is also more stable, with Rod McKuen's romantic score coming across strongly. The film's soundtrack album was a big seller, with McKuen's vocal on the main theme seeing a lot of radio play.
The disc almost serves as a soundtrack album, but the Isolated Track included is a theatrical M&E with sound effects. Ronald Neame passed away in 2010. His commentary from ten years ago is a good listen. He remembers holding auditions by having hundreds of girls giggle, twenty at a time. Sharing the track is Pamela Franklin, who concentrates on this movie and not her kiddie career in weird films like The Innocents ("I became typecast as the evil child!"). She remembers the relative tyranny on the set, with assistant directors entreating her not to speak to the director unless spoken to, even though she had third billing as well as plenty of experience.
There's also a theatrical trailer. A second 'teaser' trailer looks like more of a follow-up incorporating positive review comments. The color insert pamphlet contains Julie Kirgo's liner notes, which point up the film's literary pedigree -- the author, playwright and screenwriter are all women. Kirgo's appreciation for Dame Maggie Smith is as good as any I've read. About the only thing not delightful in this disc presentation is the art chosen for the cover. Could this have been what was used in 1968? It either stresses the sex angle too much, or makes the show look as if a mystery redhead is creating a race of sinister Stepford Schoolgirls.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. The romantic title song would seem to be a valentine from "Hugh of Flanders Field," Jean's lover-for-the-ages. He's right where Brodie's aura seems to need him to be, six feet under. Do you think Hugh is real, or a convenient invention of Jean's imagination?
2. One reason we don't root for Miss MacKay is that she uses her secretary Miss Gaunt (Ann Way) as a spy. Gaunt is one heck of a weird character, a constantly alert woman with strange eyes - all pupil, no iris - and who never blinks. It's hard to tell if the actress is like that or if they gave her false contact lenses. She could be the sister of Roger Corman's weird Dr. Xavier.
3. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is intelligent and insightful, but I can see it being used to rationalize harsh management tactics. When Brodie casts herself as an innocent and Sandy as the assassin, she's of course over-dramatizing. But Miss MacKay wanted Brodie gone from sheer intuition, based on rumors. Did Mackay have knowledge of Jean's adulterous affairs, or did she object to Brodie's dismissive, insulting attitude?
I had teachers I thought were mediocre, and we of course have all had teachers that trumpeted their political attitudes. But a couple of my high school teachers did me a favor by exposing me to ideas that I'm sure would not have found favor with the administration -- not to mention my own parents. I wish they had been brave enough to wise me up some more - I would have listened to them.
Jean Brodie is an excellent movie -- it would be interesting to change it around to make Brodie less obviously guilty on all counts. We've already seen a radically opposite story in Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour.
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T'was Ever Thus.