Happy Friday, all! Another week and another round-up of some can’t-miss flicks waiting for you on Warner Archive Instant! Today it’s a double feature full of knife fights and frilly knickers. Glenn Ford and Sidney Poitier star in the rough-and-tumble cautionary tale on juvenile delinquency, Blackboard Jungle (1955), while Joan Crawford and Clark Gable get their Busby Berkeley on in the splashy MGM musical Dancing Lady (1933).
Newly added to Warner Archive Instant’s ebulliently eclectic grab bag of choices, Blackboard Jungle has always been best remembered for its opening number, the pivotal Bill Haley jump tune that heralded the rock & roll era, “Rock Around the Clock.” Its probably near impossible for modern audiences to understand the impact both the song and the movie had on the general public, but it was seismic. Even though the 45″ single “Rock Around the Clock” was originally released to mediocre success a year earlier, it was director Richard Brooks’ choice to frame the song front and center under the opening credits, repeat it throughout and end with it, that shook the country, nee the world (check out the film and song’s effect on Britain’s Teddy Boys here) to its core. Kids would return again and again to dive into theater aisles and swing dance as soon as the opening credits rolled, then tear up the seats, causing all sorts of mayhem, that set the fear of that “jungle music” in motion.
It’s easy to forget, then, that Blackboard Jungle itself is a terrifically super-charged drama illustrating Glenn Ford at his simmering best, Sidney Poitier as an effectively powerful voice for young disenfranchised African Americans, and Brooks as a top notch “outside the studio system” director. An examination of the dangers of juvenile delinquency by shining a light on the decaying public school system, Blackboard Jungle follows Ford as a good teacher in an impossible situation, starting new as the latest bait thrown into the toughest high school where students run the system. Even today, the outlandish cruelty exhibited by the students (Vic Morrow is positively frightening as the gang leader) which reduces many of the teachers to flee or accept their lot as fodder, makes for an exciting and treacherous minefield of intimidation and violence. That the penultimate crime is a teacher’s’ rape at the hands of the worst offenders is edgy and realistic even today, let alone 1955. This is the scenario that sets Ford into action and drives the story to its (maybe not realistic but) satisfying conclusion. Keep an eye out for TV M*A*S*H’s Corporal Klinger Jamie Farr (then going by his true name Jameel Farr) and a young Paul Mazursky, both as part of the gang of ruffians.
While the movie was intended as a cautionary tale about the evils of rock and roll and inner city youth, it ended up motivating an entire generation of teenage rebellion that would culminate in the ultimate “finger” to “the man,” 1969’s Easy Rider. Much like the teachers vs. student passion plays Dangerous Minds, 187, Lean on Me and Stand and Deliver, Blackboard Jungle’s intentions were pure, but in the end, it was really about the vicarious thrill of “thug life.” Dig that, daddy-o.
Why? Because hunky Clark Gable works out in gym shorts, that’s why. And a stunning Joan Crawford prances about in her knickers. And Franchot Tone is at his charming boozer best. And, like, for some reason the Three Stooges are in it. Not to mention Fred Astaire’s film debut. And costumes by Adrian. And … it’s just about one of the most perfect examples of splashy MGM Everything-But-The-Kitchen-Sink-What-The-Fuckery you’ll ever see, and it’s all waiting for you, right now, on Warner Archive Instant.
Dancing Lady is a thinly veiled attempt to one-up the watershed success of RKO’s 42nd Street and is one of many ‘backstage musicals’ to emerge from the early ’30s. And, like a lot of them … it’s not really a musical. There’s music, yes, and singing (sorry Joan, but no), and Busby Berkeley choreography, and plenty of backstage brouhaha. But Dancing Lady is really just a straightforward pre-code melodrama, which is more about sexual freedom than it is about singing and dancing.
The threadbare plot centers around Crawford, a burlesque singer who, after being busted by the police for indecent exposure, is bailed out by the perpetually (but pleasantly) tipsy Franchot Tone. Tone, once again playing the millionaire playboy, is quite a fan, shall we say, of Crawford’s performances. She refuses his advances for a guaranteed life of comfort, determined to make her own way on the Great White Way. Her tenacity takes her into the chorus line of successful Broadway producer Clark Gable’s newest musical . The tough as nails producer is ice cold to Crawford at first, but with so much hot white heat between the two of them (Gable smacks Crawford’s ass, and she responds with a delighted ‘thanks!’), it’s only a matter of time before the ice melts. And you know what happens from there.
Look. You’re not watching this movie for the plot, OK? As with most MGM productions of the era, we are here to revel in the grand, glittery escapism of early 30s Hollywood. A struggling American struggling in the throes of the great depression would have paid their 20 cents, walked into the darkness, and reveled in all that MGM had to offer: the most beautiful faces in the world at that time, hit music, lively choreography, melodrama, comedy, and just about everything you could want to make one forget about what waited for them back in the real world. RKO’s escapist musicals definitely did it better, but Dancing Lady is a formidable contender with the best of the genre. Watch Dancing Lady and see what Hollywood magic was used to look like.