Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)

1955

The Blackboard Jungle, first Hollywood movie on school violence 

The novel The Blackboard Jungle caused a great deal of controversy surrounding the state of education in the United States during the 1950’s.  It paints a less than bright picture of inner-city education as it focuses on a young teacher teaching at a trade school filled with young, violent juvenile delinquents.  The book was soon made into a film by MGM studios, bringing the story to a larger audience, while sparking debate on the “crisis” of juvenile delinquency, and whether or not the film was representative of American education, or as Adam Golub (2004) writes, “a work of sociology or sensationalism – a work of fact or fiction” (p. 105).  I will discuss these ideas by giving a summary of the novel, showing some major differences between the novel and the film, and looking at how both the novel and the film had a substantial impact on the dialogue surrounding the current state of American education.   

      Evan Hunter’s first novel, The Blackboard Jungle, released in 1954, is the story of Richard Dadier, a young man who shortly after finishing his time in the military and graduating from college gets his first teaching job at North Manuel Trades High School, an inner-city, vocational school. He is excited about the position not only because it is his first job after leaving college, but because it allows him to provide security for himself and his young, pregnant wife.  Before starting school he meets the rest of the staff.  There is Josh Edwards, another new young teacher excited as much about the job as he is about swing music, who, during their first meeting exclaims, “damn, if I don’t feel good” (p.46), Solly Klein, a veteran twelfth year member of the cynical and apathetic staff, who describes the school as “the garbage can of the educational system” (p. 86), and Lois Hammond, a seemingly shy, but very attractive young female teacher.   

      Dadier enters the school with a passion to teach and filled with romantic ideas. Unfortunately, his classes of culturally diverse students are aggressive, unmotivated, and disrespectful, calling him “Daddy-oh,” (p. 98) and asking him, “Think you’ll make it, teach” (p. 101)?  He particularly has issues with two students in his upper level class, Gregory Miller; an intelligent African American student whom he believes is a leader (in both a positive and negative way), and Artie West, a white student who he describes as, “not as smart, but just as dangerous” (p. 218).  Things continue to deteriorate on his first day when he prevents the attempted rape of Lois Hammond by one of the students.  In the process, he punches the boy and takes him to the principal’s office, causing him to get expelled, and thus making Dadier an instant enemy of the rest of the student body.  Shortly afterwards, while walking down an alley with Josh Edwards, he is attacked and beaten by an unseen group of students in retribution for his heroics.  Making things worse, the young, attractive, Lois Hammond begins making attempts to seduce him and turns his thoughts toward infidelity. 

      Rick struggles with quitting the job, but knows he needs the money to support his soon to be growing family.  His problems increase Josh Edwards quits after his students smash the irreplaceable collection of swing records he brings in to play for them in class, he nearly loses his temper and hits Gregory Miller in the hallway, and he is chastised by the principal after trying to prove a point in his classroom using racial epithets as negative examples (the principal was told the comments were intolerant by a nameless student). To make matters worse, the advances of Lois Hammond become less subtle, and unbeknownst to Dadier, his wife begins receiving anonymous letters saying that her husband is having an affair. 

      The situation improves when he is put in charge of the Christmas Pageant, and is surprised because Gregory Miller shows talent as a singer and works with him to help make the play a success.  He has a small breakthrough in a class lesson, but the success is marred as the event coincides with his wife going into labor and giving birth to a stillborn son.  The climax of the novel comes when Dadier returns to school in the course of an argument, has a knife pulled on him by the student Artie West, who as it turns out is the same student that lied to the principal and has been sending his wife the anonymous letters.  There is a fight between teacher and student, but Dadier is surprised when the other students intervene, helping to restrain Artie West and possibly saving his life.  The book ends on an upbeat but ambiguous note as Dadier remains a teacher at the school. 

      Movie studios quickly saw the potential for the novel to be made into a film.   MGM won out over two other studios to by the rights before the book was even released. The film does an excellent job of staying true to the text.  However, there are a few substantial differences.  The relationship between Dadier and Gregory Miller is exaggerated in the film.  In the film, Miller volunteers for the school play rather than being asked, Dadier walks him to work after play rehearsal, has a similar conversation as one of their conversations in the book, except in the film they make a pact that if Miller stays to graduate then Dadier will stay and continue teaching.  No such pact is made in the novel. 

      In the novel, Dadier’s wife Anne is pregnant with their first child, has the child as expected, but it is born stillborn.  In the film, Anne previously was pregnant, miscarried, and now is pregnant again.  This time, she goes into labor early, and we are made to believe it happens because of the stress brought on by the anonymous letters.  The baby is born premature but survives and is healthy.  The tone of the film would have been different without the plot line of the previous miscarriage or the survival of the child. 

      In the film Dadier goes to visit the “good school,” speaks to his old professor, and stops in on two quiet and respectful classes.  All of this occurs with the student body singing the “Star Spangled Banner” in the background.  It creates a clear dichotomy of “good school” versus “bad school.”  Nearly all of the students in the “good school” are white, and show their collective obedience eerily as the camera cuts to an auditorium full of students singing in a bland unison at the end of the scene. 

      Perhaps the biggest difference was the fight scene near the end of the novel and the film.  In the film, West pulls the knife out unprovoked while his friend Belazi sneaks around to grab the teacher from behind, Miller notices this and punches Belazi, while Dadier disarms West, and the entire class rallies around their teacher, triumphantly accompanying him as he takes the delinquent kids to the principal’s office.  In the novel, Dadier grabs West by the collar and slaps him across the face before he pulls out the knife.  Belazi sneaks around, but is caught by Dadier who punches him.  He then lures West around the room and hits him with a chair.  Only then, when Belazi grabs the knife and tries to stab the teacher does the class come to his aid.  They certainly do not parade with him to the principal’s office. 

      Viewing the film through a modern lens, it appears far less controversial than the book.  The film involves a miscarriage but no death, the teacher/student relationship is far more mutually beneficial than in the novel, and there is no alternative vision of the, “good school.”  However, the film also places a far higher level of importance on the students than on the teacher as hero.  The novel clearly makes Dadier the main focus, but in the film, there is a possibility that could be misconstrued.  This is just one of many issues arising from the release of the novel and the film that brought controversy. 

      The novel generated a great deal of interest even before being released. A number of books, both fiction and non-fiction were released prior to the Blackboard Jungle taking aim at the educational system.  Non-fiction such as Educational Wastelands in 1953, and fiction like Catcher in the Rye in 1951 raised pubic awareness and created space for more literature on the state of American schools.  There was a growing obsession with the “problem of juvenile delinquency,” not only in schools but across the country in all facets of life.  This collective consciousness was recognized by magazines and film studios.  Before publication, The Ladies Home Journal purchased the novel for condensation in a special asking, “what do we want of our schools?” Three film studios showed interest before Metro Goldwyn Mayer bought the rights to the story.   

      Once published, the book continued to generate response, both positive and negative.  Publicity for the book compared it to others that sparked debate on major social issues, and one reviewer compared it to The Jungle for having the potential to start social reform (Golub, p. 116).  Many readers, including teachers, had a similar response in private letters to Hunter.  The book was praised for its realism, and beginning to be looked at as a sociological work.  Hunter was called upon by various public interest groups to speak on education and juvenile delinquents, looking for a voice to push a reform movement (p. 119). 

      Hunter was never interested in this role.  The novel was based on his short teaching experience at a vocational school, and he had enlisted the help of multiple teachers to try to ensure accuracy in the story.  However, Hunter never claimed to be an expert on the subject, wanted the novel to be judged on its literary value, and was never really interested in starting a movement for educational change.  He continued to withdraw after the release of the film brought more public criticism.  While Hunter was not as interested in the sociology of his novel, and stepped away from these types of discussions, MGM had no such plans for the film.  The director and screenwriter Richard Brooks consulted a number of educational resources, as well as newspaper and magazine articles, on vocational schools, juvenile delinquency, and youth culture (p. 120).  In an attempt to maintain realism, many of the boys cast in the film had attended vocational schools but had no acting experience.  MGM felt their film was a service to the public.  They even released a manual with rebuttals of criticisms to the film, suggesting the film praised the high standards of education and was a tribute to the teaching profession. 

      The film certainly had its critics.  The U.S. Ambassador to Italy pressured organizers to withdraw the film from the Venice Film Festival because it did not offer an accurate picture of U.S. education.  The film was widely known to be at least partially based on Hunter’s teaching experiences in New York City, and teachers and principals there chastised the film for its many inaccuracies.  It was denounced by the National Education Association, the National Congress of Parents and Teachers, and the American Association of University Women (p. 127). 

      Though MGM defended their film as an honorable study of inner-city classrooms, their advertising for the film did not take the same tone.  Ads described the film as a, “drama of teen-age terror,” “primer in violence,” and, “a brass-knuckle punch in its startling revelation of teen-age savages” (p. 123,124).  Critics also pushed the film’s themes of violence and sensationalism rather than its merits.  Headlines read, “Teen-age Rebels Shock in ‘Blackboard Jungle,’” “Bad Boys in the Schoolroom,” and “Schoolroom Terrorism.”  This contrast in the way the film was scripted and developed and the way it was advertised and received made the film difficult to categorize.  An unfortunate effect of this lack of categorization was that it created difficulties in determining the difference between fact and fiction in the debate on education. 

      Even though it served to spark debate on education, The Blackboard Jungle served in another way to narrow it.  Some began to look at the imaginary world of the film as the real standard for classroom evaluation.  This raised debates of school manageability and the importance of classroom control, but left out discourse on teacher shortages, budget deficits, and under-funded schools.  Emphasis went away from the importance of teaching students, replaced by the necessity of controlling them.  However, whether the novel and the film were a realistic statement on schools, a dangerous misrepresentation of American education, or a political statement on the cultural challenges of the 1950’s, the impact it had on both society and education are relevant and undeniable. 
 
Sources:

Baker, D. (2005).  Rock Rebels and Delinquents: the Emergence of the Rock Rebel in 1950’s ‘Youth Problem’ Films.  Journal of Media and Cultural Studies, Vol. 19(1), p. 39-54

Burman, P.S. (producer), &, Brooks, R. (director). (1955).  Blackboard Jungle [motion picture]. United States: Metro Goldwyn Mayer.

Golub, A. (2004). Is Your School a Blackboard Jungle?: A Cultural History of America’s “Jungle Tempest.” Chapter in Into the Blackboard Jungle: Educational Debate and Cultural Change in 1950’s America.

Hunter, E. (1954). The Blackboard Jungle.  New York: Simon & Schuster.

McLean, M. (1995). One Person’s Opinion: It’s a “Blackboard Jungle” Out There: The Impact of Media and Film on the Public’s Perceptions of Violence in the Schools.  The English Journal, vol. 84(5), p. 19-21 

Link:

Summary of The Blackboard Jungle

Prepared by Clint Eckstein, OISE/University of Toronto, 2006

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