As time goes on we lose more and more of our direct connections to the Golden Age. As key players in the history of Hollywood leave us it’s important to treasure those who remain. One such luminary is Sidney Poitier. About to celebrate his 90th birthday he remains one of our most enduring stars. To celebrate his birthday I’m taking part in the 90 Years of Sidney Poitier Blogathon hosted by The Wonderful World of Cinema. But how to celebrate? There are so many incredible performances. The Defiant Ones. In the Heat of the Night. Lilies of the Field. So I decided to go to the beginning. Not his first role but the one that put him on the map – Gregory Miller in Blackboard Jungle.
Blackboard Jungle tells the story of Richard Dadier (played by Glenn Ford) a brand new teacher in an inner city school. When the school year starts he gets more than he bargained for when he finds his class filled with combative students who have no interest in learning. Poitier’s Miller and Vic Morrow’s Artie West are the two ringleaders responsible for much of the unrest. As the school year progresses Dadier’s professional and personal life while he struggles to get through to the neglected students.
Blackboard Jungle is a film of firsts. The inspirational teacher film seems a cliche today but Blackboard Jungle was the first to really tell the tale. One could argue for Goodbye Mr. Chips but that story doesn’t contain the teacher student conflict that we’ve grown familiar with. Blackboard Jungle is the first to bring the teacher into the inner city school and fight to change the lives of his pupils.
Blackboard Jungle is also the first film to use rock music in its soundtrack. The film opens to the strains of Bill Haley & His Comets “Rock Around the Clock. ” Today we’re used to a film score containing popular hits but at the time of its debut most scores were created at the studio and tailored to each movie. Blackboard Jungle took a contemporary song and formed the soundtrack around it. “Rock Around the Clock” became a huge hit and film scores were forever changed.
Blackboard Jungle is the first film to bring Sidney Poitier to major prominence. He’d been performing in movies for a few years but the role of Gregory Miller put him on the map. Glenn Ford is the film’s star and gives a fantastic performance as the much put upon but unbeatable Mr. Dadier but Poitier is right behind him as the ringleader with potential. While Vic Morrow’s Artie West is all flash and drama Poitier’s Greg Miller is understated and authentic. Whether he’s harassing his teacher or taking his advice he fully inhabits his role and we see a true evolution in his character. Poitier’s Greg Miller is the heart of the film and its message that there’s true potential in every student no matter their circumstances.
Blackboard Jungle is a glimpse into Sidney Poitier’s acting potential and it’s no wonder that several iconic roles soon followed. In less that 10 years he would win an Oscar for Lilies of the Field and cement his status as a Hollywood legend. He remains a favorite of mine and I’m happy he’s still around. Happy Birthday, Mr. Poitier.