07 September 2008

Film Journal: Blackboard Jungle (1955)

(I am currently taking a class called "Three Directors" focusing on Richard Brooks, Mike Nichols, and Arthur Penn and their films from the late fifties to early seventies to see how their work reflects changing attitudes in American society. Every week I am assigned to write a journal reflecting on the film viewed. I figured I'd share it here as a weekly update.)

Glenn Ford in Blackboard Jungle (1955) dir. by Richard Brooks

Though I have never seen Blackboard Jungle before, I was familiar with its movie poster and DVD cover featuring the floating head of a tough-looking Glenn Ford between two women with their hips to the side and their faces towards him. Under Ford's name and to the right there is a line up of people including Ford in a trench coat. The whole feel of the poster is that of a noir film, with Ford as the P.I. and his two femme fatales on either side of him. I was then surprised to find that while the film did have a sort of grittiness to it - with backalleys, slang-talking hoods, and even some street fog at night - the film is atypical to the more dark and macho noir.

Firstly, there is the central character, Dadier. When he is first introduced to the movie he is nervous, soft-spoken, and clutches his briefcase to his chest as if it were a lifesaver. We then learn that he is familiar with Shakespeare, has a background in drama, and is ready to have a baby with his wife, to whom he is especially sweet and affectionate. These traits are completely opposite of the typical tough guy male lead of the '40s noir films such as Bogart's Sam Spade or even Ford's earlier role as Sgt. Bannion in Lang's The Big Heat. These men typically take law into their own hands, are usually loners (I suppose Bannion is an exception since he is married at first), and are sexually charged. Not only is Dadier gentle, he almost seems asexual. He loves his wife with a type of purity that seems devoid of lusty sexual desire and there is almost no sexual tension between himself and the attractive female teacher who aggressively flirts with him. Had it been Bogart I feel it would have been a different story.

Secondly, there is a humanistic optimism and idealism in Blackboard Jungle that usually disappears into the shadows of the streets in most noirs. This optimism is played out mostly through the ending in which Miller, a black, rebellious youth, and Dadier, the white, adult authority figure, are united in friendship and understanding. The ending suggests a union that transcends generational, racial, and social gaps to issue in a new age. It would be hard to imagine a noir detective restoring order in the crime underground in such a way or finding humanity and kindness in a crook. In the end of Blackboard Jungle it seems the problem of the rebellious youth could be rooted out simply by picking out the bad apples and investing with love and patience.

Unlike the grim conditions and feeling of despair of the World War II expressed in noir films, the social issues of the ‘50s seem to suggest that there are certainly solutions. I wish I knew more about or have seen more social problem films to be able to compare with Blackboard Jungle, but I suppose the suggestion at least through this film is that the problems of the post-war age are in our means to remedy. It seems that Sidney Potier always has a part to play in that remedy – in the Blackboard Jungle, The Defiant Ones, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, etc. Even earlier social problem films such as Crossfire seem bleaker than this. Is this part of a new era of hopefulness or a cover up of the lack of substantial solutions to persisting problems? The youth delinquency in this film was portrayed through acts of violence, theft, rape, racism, lack of regard for authority, and a general nihilism. In the film the and the microcosm of that particular school, the problem seems to have been solved and the suggestion of the solution made through Dadier and Miller, but how much of this reflects America in 1955 and how much of it reflects Hollywood or even just Richard Brooks?

1 comment:

den nc usa said...

" In the end of Blackboard Jungle it seems the problem of the rebellious youth could be rooted out simply by picking out the bad apples and investing with love and patience."

First, good analysis of the film. I am a long-time film fan, and am 60 years old, lived in NYC, am a student of culture/pop culture, so I want to say that the JD, Juvenile Delinquent, theme is what this film is about.
As is (to me) its remake, To Sir With Love. In both, as your quote above so "naively" states, the thug with "a heart of gold" is the theme, and the idealistic "do-gooder" which is both the sheriff and the teacher, and of course the mother, forms the motif. (forgive my mixing of messages here). The films of the 50's were concerned with the "other", whether from outer space, communists, delinquent juveniles (Rebel Without a Cause, The Wild One, The Bad Seed) ... the eternal conflict of good and evil.

As for the designation Naive in this case, I don't get it. I thought Naive Cinema was by definition inept, outside the mainstream of Hollywood production, and essentially bad dialogue and made for the sake of money, not art. Good examples are the horror films of the 50's made for drive-ins, and the goofy flicks by offbeat directors such as Ed Wood, Ray Dennis Steckler and the "King of B-Movies", Edgar G. Ulmer. It's sometimes said that the B in B Movies stands for BAD.
Naive Cinema to me is a step above that, but still B movies...
I will read more of your entries as I just got here, and so, I may have blundered into a new diversion of film criticism.
By the way, Lillies of the Field. Naive Cinema?
Jules and Jim? Naive seems more fabulous (as in fable) than Blackboard Jungle aspires to. Unless the Naive part is that you can help people be nice.
The recent films Totsi and City of God might be viewed to cure that. They are powerful, tough and dare I say it, True to Life.
Thanks for reading, and nice graphic design on your site! I like that Naive Cinema image!

Hillsborough NC USA