Friday, May 27, 2011

No More Teacher’s Dirty Gab

Wise: What’s up, Werth?

Werth: Shhhh!  I’m studying.

Wise: Jesse Tyler Ferguson’s homepage?

Werth: While everyone else is gearing up for the Memorial Day Weekend, I’m studying for college finals. And they can’t happen soon enough.

Wise: Would talking about a school-themed classic film make the time go by faster for you?

Werth: You know me too well, Wise. One of my favorite school movies gives new meaning to the words “School House Rock”. When MGM’s Blackboard Jungle came out in 1955, much ado was made over its gritty depiction of a new teacher literally fighting to teach at an inner city boys’ school. The opening credits were underscored by the unthinkable—a rock-n-roll song.

Wise: Max Steiner must have been appalled.  

Werth: Bill Hailey and the Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock” shot to number one, and legend has it that teenagers tore up movie theaters across the country. Director Richard Brooks uses the song as a rough, musical symbol of a young generation lashing out at a  society obsessed with conformity. He shot Blackboard in dark tones with low lighting and sparse studio sets, cleverly neglecting to mention which city it was set in to remind us this failing high school could be anywhere. There are no great cinematic flourishes here as Brooks went instead for raw, emotional intensity. The scenes of violence (including an attempted rape in a library) are remorseless, bloody and ugly. 
These no-good-niks aren’t your father’s Dead End Kids. Instigated by Artie Wilson (a truly menacing Vic Morrow), they are a lawless, arrogant, sadistic crew that make us question whether Richard Dadier’s (Glenn Ford) goal of teaching them is a misguided pipe dream.

Wise: Having pipe dreams about inner city youth seems like it might get you into trouble.  

Werth: Aside from the stylistic choices, this movie works because of the performances of its two stars—Ford and, in his first major role, Sidney Poitier. Through great films like Gilda (1946) and The Big Heat (1953), Ford had crafted a handsome, intelligent, masculine screen persona that seemed to flow naturally. Like Gary Cooper and Gregory Peck, Ford embodied simple traits and translated them to the big screen to serve the wide variety of films he made. In Blackboard Jungle he is optimistic and strong, not in a saccharine, “Aw shucks, we can do anything” way. He reminds us instead of a tough, flawed, but ultimately well-meaning father figure. And in his moments of doubt Ford really makes us wonder if he believes the convictions he’s been spouting. 
One student he focuses his “you too can learn” philosophy on is Gregory Miller, played by Poitier. Poitier’s electric charm and quick-fuse fury create a performance that portended the great actor this young man would become. He is sleek, angry and gives tantalizing hints of the grace and pride that would become hallmarks of his career.

Wise: Sort of like, Guess Who’s Coming to Detention?  

Werth: Blackboard Jungle may seem a little dated with it’s “Daddy-o’s” and use of the word “stinkin’” instead of another word that ends with a ‘k’, but the issues of social inequality, racism and impenetrable bureaucracy in our schools are as topical today as they were when juvenile delinquents threatened the ‘50’s American Way. And where else will you see an early walk-on from Richard Deacon (Mel Cooley from the Dick Van Dyke Show) and a very young Jamie Farr (Klinger of M.A.S.H fame) as a constantly-grinning hoodlum?

Wise: The hoodlums in The Trouble with Angels (1966) are of the more girlish variety. Angels is something of an anomaly in Hollywood: a slapstick comedy about the lives of teenage girls, written and directed by women and starring an almost all-female cast.  It’s certainly not overburdened by a heavy feminist message, but it does take its characters quite seriously and uses the daily lives of women as fodder for the hilarity that ensues.  Haley Mills, in an attempt to overcome the good-girl image of her Disney past, plays Mary Clancy, a rebellious teenager with a penchant for hijinks, sent to staid St. Francis Academy where she teams up with the morose Rachel Devery (June Harding), and together they run afoul of the Mother Superior (Rosalind Russell).  

Werth: Rosalind Russell—the smokiest Catholic baritone since Joan of Arc burned at the stake.

Wise: It’s also something of a departure for her.  Long after her run in classic screwball comedies and just past her outsize roles in Gypsy and Auntie Mame, Russell still gets to show off her comic chops, but she’s also doing something a bit more subtle.  Amid the pratfalls and double-takes, she exudes wisdom and gentleness and really makes the audience believe that she is a woman with a religious calling and not just a dame in a habit.  

Werth: It probably helped that Russell was a devout Catholic—or as biographers like to say, “deeply religious.”

Wise: That deep humanity runs through the entire film, largely thanks to the direction by Ida Lupino who began her career at Warner Bros. as their second-string Bette Davis and grew into the most prominent female director in 50’s and 60’s Hollywood.  She did a lot of TV (including several episodes of Gilligan’s Island) and B movies, and although a lot of that was genre work, she was consistently able to subvert the conventions of formula work and examine the inner lives of women within the confines of the Hollywood system. 

Werth: Subverting the dominant paradigm is a hoot!

Wise: The Trouble with Angels is one of the rare movies that makes me laugh just as much as an adult as it did when I was a kid.  The timing is so spot-on, but there’s an undercurrent of seriousness that grounds the comedy and makes it not just a picture about jokes, but one about wit. 

Werth: Jesse Tyler Ferguson is very witty.

Wise: What happened to studying for finals?

Werth: Jesse’s ginger-ness is very distracting.

 Wise: Tune in to next week’s Film Gab for more cinematic distractions!

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