Archive for the ‘Blackboard Jungle’ Category

Sunday, May 4th, 2014


Blackboard Jungle is cited so often in rock bios (Keith Richards, Bill Wyman, Ron Woods, Bobby Keys) that I simply had to see it. Sure, after a long scrolling introduction set to wild rock drumming you do get the opening sounds of Bill Haley and his Comets doing “Rock Around The Clock”, which is good fun, but you really don’t hear much more rock music in the film after that at all – once more in the middle, in an instrumental piece, and once at the end (the producers had paid $5,000 to use it three times), although there’s a bit of jazz at one point a propos of the book, which cites jazz as the music of the film. The film shows a bunch of creepy juvenile delinquents in class getting tough and nasty, tough yet naïve new teacher (played by Canadian actor Glenn Ford) learning the ropes as a new teacher (and walking them through awful top-down lessons), young thug nastiness, knife fights, and sympathetic character turnarounds who oppose the bad-to-the-bone villains, with the teacher Mr Dadier (daddy-o!) using a Jack and the Beanstock cartoon to impress his students and win them over! Sydney Poitier is good as the only black kid in the class (it seems – a few are seen later on), who’s also the most handsome, and the natural leader (Vic Morrow, as the drunken, crazed gang leader is less “leaderly”). Plenty of tinges of racism, which even back then they were pretending was an old-fashioned way of thinking. Ford, of course, has a winging, scrawny wife who gets frantic and is generally no fun. Jamie Farr, who plays Corporal Klinger in M*A*S*H, credited here with his real name Jameel Farah, played the smiley Santini in the film. Some good action, some great ideas, and some great in-class dialogue! A blockbuster and revolutionary social realism film that really busted things open, and not just about rock ‘n’ roll!

For the 2005 50th anniversary DVD edition there’s great commentary from Paul Mazursky, Jamie Farr, the film’s assistant director Joel Freeman and Glenn Ford’s son Peter Ford (Glenn was probably too weak to attend, having suffered a series of strokes at the end of his life – he died in 2006). The commentary starts off with Jamie Farr’s tale of how he came to be cast in the film, Paul Mazursky pitches in, explaining mechanics like how it was all filmed on back lot, gives lots of names, tells studio stories, identifies Jim Baccus’ wife Henny Baccus, talks about how there was dancing in the aisles in Boston when the movie started, had to show the film without the music of the opening, giving personal anecdotes like how the New York actors were picked up from the airport in a limo although they had never seen a limo before, director Richard Brooks was an ex-Marine and very tough, “get my gun, where’s my gun, shoot that man, get him out of here.” Mickey Rooney was wanted for Glenn Ford’s role, but nobody thought it appropriate. Took four hours to convince Glenn Ford to lose his long hair (which he never grew back after that!). Steve McQueen was considered for the Artie West role that went to Vic Morrow – now that would have been great! The boys were excited to see Erroll Flyn, Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck in the commissary! American censorship offices like the Legions Of Decency and others were against so many parts of the film, especially the adulterous hints, or how bad the film made American schools look. They wanted to film a school in Moscow to provide negative contrast (!!!), eventually putting in a superfluous scene of a wretchingly “good” American school to provide positive American contrast. Was nominated for Directors Guild awards, but not for an Oscar. After Blackboard Jungle, Bad Day At Black Rock, The Next Voice You Hear, MGM made more stark films with serious themes, less family fare. Mazursky can’t bear to watch the gratuitous “good school” scene, which was not in the book and had to be written in by Richard Brooks at studio urging. Film shot over four weeks for close to $1.5 million (more that what Mazursky paid to do “Harry And Tonto”, he adds) from November 15th to December 20th 1954, and they worked on Saturdays. The film was banned in 15 countries anyway. “This is emboldening the Communists and is making us look bad,” were some of the things said at the time. The movie seemed revolutionary, nobody had made a movie about bad behavior in schools, although  Mazursky knew all of this was real as he was from a tough school in Brooklyn, and his wife worked in a school in East Brooklyn, Maruzrsky had just gotten married, went to the school and did some research. The guy from Naked City, Horace MacMahon, plays the detective in the film also. Rafael says “stinkin’” instead of “fuckin’”, like they did in the book. “Anytime you wanna come by, just come over,“ the guys say to each other in the commentary. “He’s high on Sneaky Pete.” They wanted to film it in colour, but didn’t. Wanted to film it in Chicago, but didn’t have the budget. In the film they used Jack and the Beanstalk, in the book it was the allegory 51st Dragon. Ford was in demand as an actor, but badly needed for this film – he finished Interrupted Melody on a Friday, Blackboard Jungle started on a Monday. When asked who the modern-day Glenn Ford is, Mazursky says it must be Tom Hanks, Farr backs this up by mentioning the Jimmy Stewart stutter and the likability. Paul Mazursky hinted at hanky panky happening at Trader Vics during the shooting, but didn’t give details, pissing everybody else off. Talked about memoirs that everyone’s writing. Had to change the detail about Ann losing the  baby, as in the book, and it’s born premature. The school was named Manual Trades School, changed to North Manual High School for some silly reason, although it’s referenced earlier in dialogue. Had submitted it to Venice Film Festival, but US ambassador to Italy Claire Booth Lewis said she would not attend because she objected to the film, and it was pulled. The guys laugh hard over the following lines from the Jack and the Beanstalk scene:

“The cops would have kept the loot for themselves.”

“Not the FBI!!”

Extras were from a tough school, they needed policing. The crying kid with the tie was Tommy Ivo, who went on to be a famous race car driver. Jamie Farr asks Paul Mazursky if he thought about ever being a writer/director/producer at the time, while he was working in a health food store, and if Richard Brooks influenced him as an artist, says that Brooks helped him get his start with his first agent. In the scene when someone threw a ball at the blackboard, the ball actually hit Glenn Ford in the throat, he didn’t flinch – ex-Marine. Mazursky was close to Vic Morrow. Poitier was 27, Vic was 25, although they were mostly cast to look the same age. MGM was able to make Ben Hur on the profits from Blackboard Jungle. They tell the story of how Rock Around The Clock was chosen for the soundtrack – Brooks and Ford would have planning meetings, they hadn’t picked music for it, because although jazz is mentioned in the book they wanted something more contemporary. They’d heard lots of albums and records from Ford’s son, Brooks brought in Rock Around The Clock, and they both agreed on it. Someone mentions that Glenn Ford got his stage name after the town of Glennford. On other sound stages Doris Day was filming Love Mr Or Leave me with Jimmy Cagney, and It’s Always Fair Weather on the same lot.

Extras include also “Blackboard Jumble”, a 6:30 MGM Hanna Barbara cartoon by Droopy, “cease fire, man!” Hilarious triple apple bomb! Trailer of 2:50 that prominently features “Rock Around The Clock,” incorporates all of the action shots!