Blackboard Jungle (1955) was revolutionary for its time.
Starring Sidney Poitier and Glenn Ford, the film uniquely focused on the growing youth culture and fear of juvenile delinquency in 1950s America. Due to its “shocking” subject matter, Blackboard Jungle was banned in several states and countries until certain scenes and/or language were edited out.
Though tame by today’s standards, at the time of its 1955 release, adults worried that Blackboard Jungle would inspire teens to do no good, and feared that youths would be unable to control themselves when Bill Haley and His Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock” played in the film.
Today, these fears sound comical. At the time, they were anything but.
Let’s go through the plot of the film. Then I’ll cover the difficult early years of Sidney Poitier’s film career, as Sidney juggled his acting dreams with what he admirably viewed as his duty to provide for his young family.
We’ll also cover MGM’s missed opportunity to own one of the hit songs that epitomized the era.
Blackboard Jungle: The Plot
Glenn Ford plays Richard Dadier, a young World War II veteran who gets his first teaching job at an inner city school.
We get the idea right away that Dadier is not going to have an easy time at this all-boys school. This diverse group of kids is a rough bunch: they’re used to not being cared about, and believe that their futures at the bottom of society are all but set it stone. As such, they don’t much care about their education.
This careless attitude is expressed not just by students, but by the other teachers as well. As one particularly jaded teacher warns Dadier before his first class:
“This [school] is the garbage can of the educational system… Don’t be a hero, and never turn your back on the class.”
Despite the cynicism–and foreshadowing–of this warning, Dadier begins his first English class with the belief that he can get these boys excited about the subject matter and their futures.
The Hard Truth
Dadier soon realizes his naivety in thinking he could inspire the students in his first class: a baseball is thrown at Dadier as he introduces himself and writes his name on the chalkboard, almost smashing his head. The boys taunt and joke throughout class, and make it near impossible for Dadier to get a single point across.
Outside of the classroom, things are even worse. In the school library, Dadier witnesses an attractive female teacher being harassed by a student, and he luckily saves her just before a rape occurs. On another night, Dadier and a fellow new teacher are assaulted on their way home. Dadier knows the perpetrators of the attack are boys from his own English class, but decides not to take police action against them.
A Ray of Hope
Dadier notices that one student seems more intelligent, more mature, and perhaps a little more engaged in his lectures than the rest of the class. That student is Gregory Miller (Sidney Poiter).
Miller’s leadership qualities are immediately apparent, and Dadier tries to make him an ally, hoping that doing so will encourage the rest of the class to behave and listen. More importantly, Dadier genuinely cares about Miller’s future, and wants him to aspire to a better things, and get the education he needs to achieve them.
With Miller’s help, the students in Dadier’s class begin to respect him, and he begins to engage them in his lessons. With the exception of two or three boys, Dadier sees some real progress, enough to keep him optimistic about the future.
The Wild One
The one student Dadier just can’t reach is Artie West (Vic Morrow). Artie is the leader of a street gang, and really has it out for Dadier—Artie is the one who initiates the assault on Dadier and his fellow teacher Josh Edwards on their walk home. After Artie destroys Josh Edwards’ jazz record collection, Dadier learns that Artie has been sending threatening notes to his wife.
So Dadier calls Artie out.
Artie pulls a knife on Dadier in class as revenge. To Artie’s surprise however, the rest of the boys don’t back him up: they’re on Dadier’s side. With Miller’s help, Dadier has gained their respect. When the one student who decides to stick with Artie pulls out a knife and charges at Dadier from behind, Miller comes to Dadier’s aid, and saves his life. It cements their friendship, and promotes even more unity in the classroom.
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Blackboard Jungle: A Corny Ending
The film ends with things looking bright for both Dadier and Miller, each promising the other to stick to school and never give up.
It’s a bit of a corny ending, but when played by such pros and Sidney Poitier and Glenn Ford, it still manages to be an effective and touching scene.
Blackboard Jungle: Looking for Gregory Miller
Sidney Poitier came to Hollywood in October of 1949 to film No Way Out (1950). It was his first film, and his first leading role. The following year, Sidney had another lead role in Cry, the Beloved Country (1951).
Even though Sidney’s reviews for both films were excellent, neither made him a star. Sadly, there weren’t many roles in Hollywood for black actors at the time, and Sidney struggled to find consistent film or stage work.
It would still be another three years before Sidney got his big break in Blackboard Jungle.
A 27-Year-Old Teenager
By 1954, Sidney was 27 years old, married, and the father of two daughters. When an MGM casting director called him about the casting of the students in Blackboard Jungle, Sidney assumed the guy was asking for names of younger actors he could recommend for these classroom scenes. So Sidney gave the casting director a few names, and that was the end of the call.
Sidney was surprised when, a month later, the same casting director called him back. Only this time, it was to ask Sidney himself to audition for the role of Gregory Miller.
Sidney was surprised he was even under consideration. But he auditioned, and got the role.
Sidney Poitier Takes Care of His Family
Growing up with next to nothing made Sidney exceptionally careful with his money. So, with the $3,000 he earned for Blackboard Jungle, Sidney moved his young family to a modest apartment in a better part of New York City. He then invested the rest of his earnings in the opening of a few restaurants.
By this time, Sidney already had one restaurant to his name, Ribs in the Ruff. Though the restaurant didn’t make him rich, it did help Sidney pay the bills when acting jobs were sparse. So investing his remaining earnings from Blackboard Jungle into a few more restaurants seemed a wise way to keep his young family financially secure.
Little did Sidney know, with the success of Blackboard Jungle, he’d never want for film roles, or financial security, again.
Still No Contract
Despite his amazing performance in Blackboard Jungle, MGM didn’t offer Sidney a studio contract after the completion of filming. They signed Vic Morrow, who played Artie West in the film (and is the father of actress Jennifer Jason Leigh), but MGM opted not to sign Sidney.
At the time, this worried Sidney. So much so that he developed ulcers. In Sidney’s own words:
“[I worried] about my future, my family’s future, the future of my race.”
When Blackboard Jungle was released in March 1955, it was a runaway hit.
Suddenly, not being bound to MGM was an asset for Sidney: as a freelance actor with a hugely successful film under his belt, Sidney Poitier found himself in high demand. Now, Sidney could choose which roles he wished to pursue, and what filmmakers he wanted to work with. This enviable situation now made Sidney grateful that MGM had never offered him a contract, for if the studio had:
“the temptation would have been to accept. That’s guaranteed salary, you know?”
This freedom from any studio contract would allow Sidney to create inspiring portrayals of educated, moral, and eloquent characters, and help him achieve his stated goal of making feel-good films that both uplifted audiences, and promoted messages of unity.
Blackboard Jungle & Rock Around the Clock
A fascinating tangent on “Rock Around the Clock” before closing:
Director Richard Brooks knew teenagers would be an important viewing demographic for Blackboard Jungle. As such, Brooks needed a song for the film that would attract youths, and capture the cultural shift of the 1950s.
Choosing a song from that new genre called “rock n’ roll” seemed like a no brainer.
Brooks turned to Glenn Ford for advice on the proper song to choose. Glenn in turn told Brooks that he knew the perfect person to help them find that song: Glenn’s nine-year-old son and music aficionado, Peter.
Peter’s mother was tap dancing savant Eleanor Powell, so it’s no wonder that Peter knew how to pick a good song. Young Peter recommended his father and Brooks choose “Rock Around the Clock,” still not very popular and a B-side track no less, by Bill Haley and His Comets for the film.
After listening to the song, Glenn and Brooks agreed.
The familiar “One, two, three o’clock, four o’clock rock!” is the first thing we hear in Blackboard Jungle as “Rock Around the Clock” plays during the opening credits. The song effectively sets the tone for the rest of the film.
And it was all thanks to the musical ear of young Peter Ford, who was beyond excited to attend a preview screening of the film with his parents:
“I loved the whole movie and thought Dad was great, of course, but I couldn’t stop thinking about that credit sequence and the music I loved playing front and center. There wasn’t a happier kid than me in the whole world just then.”
What an amazing experience for this lucky, and musically savy, kid.
MGM Misses Out
Unfortunately for MGM, the $5,000 the studio allotted to spend on “Rock Around the Clock” only purchased the film rights to the song–meaning MGM only had the rights to use the song up to three different times in Blackboard Jungle.
For an additional $2,500, MGM could have bought complete ownership of “Rock Around the Clock.” But they didn’t.
Some studio executive must have lost his job over that mistake.