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A huge hit in 1967, To Sir, With Love was seen by practically everyone -- it was the least challenging of Sidney Poitier's three big hits that year. Guess Who's Coming To Dinner? and In the Heat of the Night chose to wave the race issue like a flag, while this adaptation of a black teacher's true account of working in a London school fronted a 'soft' conflict between young delinquents and a dedicated teacher. Poitier initiated this smart package for success. It's also essentially an update of the situation from Sidney's breakout picture Blackboard Jungle, which in 1967 was only twelve years old yet already seemed a relic from some bygone era. This time Poitier is the teacher instead of a slum kid.
Engineer Mark Thackeray (Poitier) can't find a job in his line of work, so takes a chance teaching in a depressed area of London. Colleague Theo Weston (Geoffrey Bayldon) is cynical about the job, but Grace Evans (Faith Brook) and new teacher Gillian Blanchard (Suzy Kendall) wish Mark luck. The kids are so insolent and disruptive that teaching is impossible, so Mark puts the books aside to connect with them. They're shocked to find that he's poor as well ("But you talk so posh!") and slowly respond to his demands that they show each other respect. The kids begin to think of themselves as adults. Smart-mouthed Babs Pegg (Lulu) comes around, as does cute Pamela Dare (Judy Geeson). She overcomes family problems while forming a strong crush on Mr.Thackeray. The only holdout is tough kid Denham (Christian Roberts), who refuses to accept Thackeray as a role model.
A magnetic personality and a more versatile performer than he's given credit for, Sidney Poitier is pretty much the whole show in To Sir, With Love. The entertaining film comes off not as a template for 101 perfectly dreadful later movies, sentimental soapers about teachers that overcome classroom resistance by being 'cool'. 1 The movie sugarcoats E.R. Braithewait's autobiographical novel and gives us some entertaining, fresh talent to enjoy, in particular Judy Geeson in her first film. Miss Geeson had the swinging London look and a fresh smile reminiscent of Julie Christie.
Poitier's natural charm and authority overrides the film's sentimental simplifications, but I'll mention them anyway. First, we never see Thackeray really teach his kids a school lesson, or even give a test. He gets the kids' attention and wins their confidence by talking about their problems, but we scarcely see him motivating anyone to open a book or learn anything. I suppose that boring stuff is all taken for granted, but the film makes a class with Mr. Thackeray look like an eternal Free Discussion period. Second, Poitier may be dissed as the 'magic negro' but these are definitely magic kids. A couple of them have serious home problems but everyone shows up bright, sober and alert every day. None are starving, infested with lice or some chronic disease. As soon as Thackeray levels with them, they respond. Give them a field trip, and they turn into perfect ladies and gentlemen. To Sir, With Love surely gave a million teachers an inferiority complex.
Third up is the romance angle, which is tangled in with the race angle. The movies felt that audiences weren't ready for interracial relations, even as shown in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner where the engaged couple are barely seen kissing (if at all). But the filmmakers knew that the tease was exciting. Thackeray arrives in a run-down London neighborhood that already has a Utopian viewpoint toward race. Nobody gives him a hard time, anywhere. The market sellers make him feel special. None of his fellow teachers gives his black skin as much as a double take. Judy Geeson's Pamela Dare falls madly in love with "Sir", but he handles the situation so well that her crush doesn't even have to come out in the open. The respected head teacher is impressed with Thackeray's level-headedness about this. But the biggest tease comes from gorgeous teacher Suzy Kendall, who at every opportunity shoots furtive glances at Thackeray. Once or twice Kendall looks as if she's about to rip his shirt off. But it's no sale. Thackeray isn't sexless, only principled. In fact, everybody in the film is studiously principled, including the kids. Just a brief contact with Mr. Thackeray causes their uncivilized outer shells to melt away. We didn't see To Sir, With Love double-billed with The Wild Angels.
To Sir, With Love's writer and director James Clavell wrote sprawling novels (Shogun) and did fine adaptations of work by others (The Great Escape, The Satan Bug). But he also wasn't a bad director, and this show is a sharp commercial concoction. All attention is focused on Poitier to the exclusion of the other teachers. We never have a clue as to how Thackeray's colleagues handle their un-teachable hoodlums, especially Suzy Kendall's rather gentle Gillian. There are also no attractive adult males in the film to compete romantically with Thackeray.
Mature themed entertainment -- for the whole family! Somebody at Columbia possessed The Right Commercial Stuff, as the film promotes the minor singer Lulu in both acting and singing capacities. Her song hit the airwaves in '67 and quickly hit the #1 spot. Both its title and lyrics primed listeners for the fantasy of a teacher having sex with a pupil: "How do you thank someone who has taken you from crayons to perfume?" We were accustomed to pop songs being shoehorned into movies but To Sir, With Love really sells this one -- the entire tune is heard tree full times, and a FOURTH TIME is sung by Lulu on screen. As I recall, the audience didn't mind a bit.
Some critics now evoke the concept of 'magic negroes' as a slam against on certain well intentioned civil rights- themed movies. Back in the day the oft-repeated word was tokenism, which was used to claim white hypocrisy, but also to infer that blacks in good jobs hadn't earned them (as if every white job holder had). Sidney Poitier was in every way exceptional. While dozens of ambitious black actors (even stars) complained about the lack of decent film roles, Poitier carved out his 'magic' career playing characters that white stars would die for. Yes, many of Poitier's characters were sanitized, and the morally conflicted characters he played somehow came out sanitized as well. His detective Mr. Tibbs and the man who came to dinner, and the 'mister perfect' who did things For Love of Ivy are idealized characterizations. But Poitier's choosing to play them doesn't need defending. He opened doors for minorities by breaking down resistance in the 'silent majority' white consensus that could previously only accept blacks on very limited terms. Racism is such an ingrained thing in our society that whites raised on fear and loathing needed the unthreatening black figure presented by Poitier. Everybody likes Poitier. Poitier was magic in the same way Clark Gable or James Stewart was magic. The man's a pioneer.
The producers of To Sir, With Love hired a great group of young performers to play the students, and director Clavell kept them on task. In 1967 we Americans accepted them as 100% authentic, and the script does contain bits of reality, as when the kids quote Cockney Rhyming Slang as something their parents used. The film and Poitier placed a sentimentalized hero in a realistic environment, which was all that was needed to win the approval of every critic and pundit looking for wholesome entertainment to champion. By the last scene Mr. Thackeray must choose between the engineering job he was trained for and his new magic career inspiring young students by... by... by being inspiring. We didn't want Poitier to teach our kids, we wanted him to save our society.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of To Sir, With Love is an excellent HD encoding of this school daze epic that scored as one of Columbia and Sidney Poitier's biggest hits. The scan is exceptionally good, even in the grainy opening titles and the 'field trip montage', a fairly limp parade of still photos. The excellent audio puts added oomph into Lulu's vocals.
Some of the extras were produced in 2011 but all are being seen for the first time. Nick Redman and Julie Kirgo welcome Judy Geeson to a new commentary. The personable Ms. Geeson praises her co-stars and shares production details, such as the fact that all the kids were asked to bring their own clothes for the sake of realism. Author R. R. Braithwaite shares a second commentary with another teacher/author, Salome Thomas-El, who together discuss an intermingled menu of topics -- education and opportunity, poverty and racism, and 'how things have changed'. Braithwaite appears on camera in a featurette to outline his experience in a more concise form -- he was in the RAF during the war and like his character Thackeray, became a teacher because he could not find work in his own field. Lulu looks young enough to be her own daughter. She tells her story on a second featurette, explaining how her hit single was originally relegated to the B-side of a 45rpm release. The singer remembers complaining to the producers that it was under-produced. She also recalls cheating when asked to wear 'ordinary clothes' for the film... she bought her outfits in Paris.
The Isolated Score Track gives us Lulu's song clean, along with Ron Grainer's music. The trailer highlights Lulu's song as well.
Other featurettes are given to ex-teen actor (and rock veteran) Michael Des Barres and teacher Salome Thomas-El, along with a testimonial to Poitier by his agent. Julie Kirgo's liner notes remind us that the film's theme emphasizes the class barrier over the race barrier; Thackeray's economic background is very much in line with that of his students. The students go with the program because their 'posh toff' of a teacher tells them that they can aspire to better things too, that the opportunities are there for all. Few films afterwards would continue that argument, and be taken seriously.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
To Sir, With Love Blu-ray rates:
1. The worst offender in the 'Hey teacher!' sub-genre is surely Dangerous Minds (1995) with Michelle Pfeiffer. I got talked into seeing Dangerous Minds. I sat through Dangerous Minds. I squirmed, sweated and thought I would die at Dangerous Minds. After that ordeal, it took two viewings of Married to the Mob to get me to remember how much I like Michelle Pfeiffer movies.
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T'was Ever Thus.