Great Movies: 'Blackboard Jungle' and the Underappreciated Career of Glenn Ford
Teacher Mr. Warneke: "There's absolutely no discipline problem here."
Teacher Jim Murdock: "There is no discipline problem in Alcatraz either."
Teacher Mr. Dadier: "I said bring your paper up here."
Student Artie West: "And I said what for."
Artie West: "You going to make me, Dadio?"
Mr. Dadier: "Come on, let's go."
Artie West: "How'd you like to go to hell?"
One of the first films to portray the decaying urban school systems that plague cities all over the nation, Blackboard Jungle (1955) directed and written by Richard Brooks, was a shocking wake up call. The film’s depiction of an out of control school with juvenile delinquents challenging teachers had few precedents. It was released a few months before another plea for understanding of the plight of teens, Rebel Without a Cause.
Glenn Ford (1916-2006), an underrated star of the era, was cast in the role of a new teacher, Richard Dadier. Just out of the service, he is idealistic, not equipped to deal with the hostility and verbal abuse he receives from his students when he starts his job as a teacher at a vocational high school.
The film’s black and white documentary style, with the theme song “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley and the Comets, was very popular with audiences. The film generated much controversy and was called un-American by some right-wing groups because it dared to question the conditions in urban high schools.
Bosley Crowther in The New York Times described the film this way: It “is no temperate or restrained report on a state of affairs that is disturbing to educators and social workers today. It is a full-throated, all-out testimonial to the lurid headlines that appear from time to time, reporting acts of terrorism and violence by uncontrolled urban youths. It gives a blood-curdling, nightmarish picture of monstrous disorder in a public school…
“In telling how one young teacher goes into a vocational school and pits himself against a classroom full of nothing less than hoarse and heartless ‘hoods,’ this picture begins with the feeling that the class-room is a bloody battleground, and then proceeds to present a series of episodes that bear out this grim anxiety. As a straight melodrama of juvenile violence this is a vivid and hair-raising film.”
Peter Ford, Glenn Ford’s son, in his excellent book, Glenn Ford—A Life (University of Wisconsin Press), writes, “It is hard to understand nowadays...how shocking Blackboard Jungle was in the 1950s. No one had ever dared to present such an uncompromising account of juvenile delinquency and violence within the walls of a modern American high school.”
Ford's book is a rare and honest glimpse into the life of a Hollywood star. It is painful but revealing to learn of the ups and downs of the personal relationship between father and son. The last years of Glenn Ford had some tragic aspects. Peter Ford tells the story in a low-key, straightforward fashion that does not exploit the story or turn it into the trash we some times read in celebrity biographies by the off-spring of a star.
Douglass K. Daniel in his book: Tough as Nails: The life and Films of Richard Brooks writes, ”The story’s power comes through teacher Richard Dadier’s crisis of conscience as he tries to find his way in a school where neither students or faculty seem to care if anyone actually learns anything. Two generations later, with multiple deaths from school shootings and ongoing suburban blight, the violence in ‘Blackboard Jungle’ appears mild.’”
Director-writer Brooks said, “It wasn’t about kids with knives. It was a film for teachers. I was trying to say to them, ‘Don’t give up—your student’s need you and either don’t know it or are too embarrassed to tell you.”
MGM executives were worried about the reaction to the movie. They were also concerned about the climactic scene when one of the students uses an American flag to disarm a knife wielding thug.
Brooks said, “I was asked, ‘Do you have the right to show America in this light? And I said, ‘The point is not ‘Do I have the right?’ but ‘Is it the truth?’ What do we do about the truth? If you don’t want to tell the truth, that’s when you are in trouble.”
Glenn Ford was picked for the role after Jimmy Stewart turned it down. Pandro Berman, the film’s producer, said a number of well-known actors said no.
Sidney Poitier, in his first breakout role, played a student who is capable of being reached by Mr. Dadier’s sincerity. He was joined by a group of rough around the edges young actors—not the usual contract players-- who give the film an unusual authenticity, a street feel that resonates to this day. They included: Poitier as Gregory Miller, Vic Morrow as Artie West, Dan Terranova as Belazi, Rafael Campos as Pete V. Morales, popular director Paul Mazursky as Emmanuel Stoker, and Jameel Farah as Santini (now known as Jamie Farr of “MASH” fame).
Poitier, the son of Bahamian immigrants, was born in the U.S. although he grew up in the Bahamas. At the age of 15 he was sent to Miami to live with his brother. At the age of 17, he moved to New York City and held a string of menial jobs. He then decided to join the United States Army after which he worked as a dishwasher until a successful audition landed him a spot with the American Negro Theater.
When asked about Blackboard Jungle, he said, “When I stepped in front of the camera I brought my life. I brought me. I brought what I feel and what I have experienced in my life on a day to day basis...”
Others in the stellar cast included: Anne Francis as Anne Dadier, Louis Calhern as Jim Murdock, Margaret Hayes as Lois Hammond, John Hoyt as Mr. Warneke, Richard Kiley as Joshua Edwards, Emile Meyer as Mr. Halloran, and Warner Anderson as Dr. Bradley.
The film helped launch the rock and roll culture by featuring Bill Haley & His Comets' "Rock Around the Clock," over the film's opening credits, as well as in the first scene, as an instrumental version in the middle of the film, and at the close of the movie. The record had been released the prior year, but had not sold well.. But, popularized by its use in the film, "Rock Around the Clock" reached number one on the music charts, and remained there for eight weeks. Peter Ford says his dad, and director Richard Brooks asked him for some suggestions on what music to use in the film, and he suggested a record in his personal collection, “Rock Around the Clock.”
The music helped create a huge teenage audience for the film, and their response sometimes turned into violence at screenings. When shown at a South London theater, the teenage audience began to riot, tearing up seats and dancing in the aisles. After that, riots took place around the country wherever the film was shown.
Thanks to “Blackboard Jungle,” the song hit number one on the music charts, eventually selling 25 million copies and becoming what Dick Clark called 'The National Anthem of Rock ’n’ Roll.'"
Although never nominated for an Academy Award, Glenn Ford was a very popular actor. In 1958, he was the No. 1 box office star in the U.S. His best films included Gilda (1947), one of the most impactful film noirs of the era, The Big Heat (1953), Human Desire, (1954), Blackboard Jungle, (1955), The Teahouse of the August Moon (1956), Don’t Go Near the Water (1957), Imitation General (1958), Experiment in Terror (1962) and The Courtship of Eddie’s Father (1963), which later became the basis of a television series with Bill Bixby.
He was very effective in action films especially Westerns. Some of his best included: Secret of Convict Lake (1951), The Man from the Alamo (1953), Jubal, (1956), The Fastest Gun Alive (1956), 3:10 to Yuma (1957) and The Rounder’s (1965). He made five films with Rita Hayworth. Another great co-star was Gloria Grahame.
”Later in life he starred in several television series (“Father Holvak” and “Cade Country”). He also made many movies for television, among them Punch and Jody (1974), The Greatest Gift (1974), The Disappearance of Flight 412 (1975), Evening in Byzantium (1978) and The Sacketts (1979). In 1978, he appeared in the film, Superman II.
According to a Los Angeles Times interview with Peter Ford, "The image of my dad is that he is like Jimmy Stewart, an Everyman. He was that on film. He wasn't that in private life," said Ford, whose mother was Ford's first wife, tap-dancing legend Eleanor Powell, whom he describes as a 'saint.' Powell was married to the actor for 16 turbulent years. He began the book the year before his father died.
"We worked on it together," Ford said. After his father's death he also was able to quote from Glenn Ford's extensive diaries, which he began writing in 1934, plus many audio tapes he made.
Though being Ford's son was difficult, he admires his father's talent. "To me, he's one of the greatest actors and one of the most under-acknowledged ones."
Peter Ford describes his father’s womanizing in his book and discusses his many loves: Rita Hayworth, Joan Crawford, Hope Lange, Geraldine Brooks, Maria Schell, Judy Garland and Brigitte Bardot.
Ford believes that his father is under-appreciated because he was under contract for years at Columbia Pictures, which was considered a step down from MGM, 20th Century-Fox and Warner Bros. Studio chief Harry Cohn put Ford in "B" pictures early in his career and then promised him such films as From Here to Eternity, only to renege on his promise. Ford also turned down the unforgettable Joe Gillis role in Sunset Boulevard.
Peter Ford said his dad made the decision after the failure of The Loves of Carmen, in which he felt emasculated wearing tights. In Sunset Boulevard. he would be playing a kept man to an aging silent-screen star. "So he looks at the role in Sunset Boulevard and reads the script and he said, 'Here I go again. I am going to be an also-ran.' "
His father played it safe by staying at Columbia for more than a decade. "He was very insecure about money," he said. "He would rather stick with Harry. And in a nutshell, he never had the chance to work with quality directors other than Fritz Lang and Delmar Daves. There were no Howard Hawks, George Cukor’s there." However, Ford also worked with Frank Capra, Blake Edwards, Delbert Mann, Richard Brooks, Anthony Mann, George Marshall and other respected directors of the era.
The 2006 movie Superman Returns includes a scene where Ma Kent (played by Eva Marie Saint) stands next to the living room mantel after Superman returns from his quest to find remnants of Krypton. On that mantel is a picture of Pa Kent (as played by Glenn Ford). This "cameo" of sorts was Ford's last screen appearance. It is fitting tribute to an excellent actor whose presence helped elevate many films.
Trailer from Blackboard Jungle (YouTube).
Visit your local library for these resources:
Blackboard Jungle (DVD)
Glenn Ford A Life
by Peter Ford, (2011).
Tough as Nails: The Life and Films of Richard Brooks
by Daniel Douglass, (2011).
Rock Around the Clock: The Record that Started the Rock Revolution!
by Jim Dawson, (2005).
"The 50-year-old song that started it all"
Todd Leopold, at CNN.com.