It was advertised as “The Most Startling Picture in Years!” and “a shock story of today’s high school hoodlums!”
But more than anything else, “Blackboard Jungle” ushered in the rock ‘n’ roll era 50 years ago this month. The first movie to use a rock song over the titles -- Bill Haley & His Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock” -- the controversial film about New York City high school hoodlums spoke to the rebel lurking inside every teenager expected to keep the status quo during the staid Eisenhower era.
Kids started to dance in the aisles of the theaters when the raw, rocking Haley song was heard blasting over the speakers; teens in England broke out into riots during the screenings.
“Theater owners became concerned,” music historian and humorist Martin Lewis says. “In Boston, I was told, for the first two minutes of the film they turned down the music, so the kids would not be incited [to riot]. Frank Zappa said that up until ‘Blackboard Jungle,’ you could get race records to play at home or hear on the radio, but your mother and father would say, ‘Turn that thing down.’ But when you were in the darkness of the movie theater and the music came out loud from the speakers, suddenly it was liberation. There were no more parents to tell you to turn it down. That’s why it had that impact.”
The reaction was even more violent in England, Lewis says. “They would get up and start dancing, and then they would start tearing up the theater seats and throwing them at the screen.
“The British society of the mid-'50s was like that ‘Leave It to Beaver’ Eisenhower society in America, but on top of all of that we had all these stuffy, regressive Victorian attitudes -- everything the Beatles would later rebel against.”
This Sunday, the American Cinematheque will rock the night away with a 50th anniversary screening of “Blackboard Jungle” at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood. Lewis is producing the event, which includes a discussion after the screening with “Blackboard” cast members Paul Mazursky and Jamie Farr; Peter Ford, son and biographer of “Blackboard” star Glenn Ford; and four surviving members of the original Comets -- Johnny Grande, Marshall Lytle, Joey Ambrose, Dick Richards -- and Franny Beecher, who joined the group after “Rock Around the Clock” was recorded.
The night’s festivities conclude with a screening of the 1956 film “Rock Around the Clock,” starring Haley and the Comets, but that’s far from the only event marking the 50th anniversary of rock. The Comets, who range in age from 71 to 83, will play Tuesday at the Viper Room. From Wednesday through April 24, the Museum of Television & Radio will offer a new video presentation of early TV appearances by rock pioneers as well as an exhibition. And May 10, Warner Home Video will release “Blackboard Jungle” on DVD.
Directed by Richard Brooks and based on the novel by Evan Hunter, “Blackboard Jungle” stars Ford as a teacher who gets more than he bargained for when he joins a tough New York inner-city high school. Sidney Poitier, Vic Morrow, Mazursky, Farr and Rafael Campos were among the delinquents Ford tried to reach out to and teach.
The book was controversial but did not compare with the film’s impact. “Blackboard Jungle” was even banned from the Venice Film Festival because of its less than picture-perfect depiction of America.
Peter Ford remembers gossip columnist Hedda Hopper berating his father for making the film. “She was a family friend and, oh man, when he made the film did she get angry at him,” Ford says. “She would call him a communist and say, ‘Glenn, how could you make this kind of film?’ She wouldn’t talk to him for years.”
Though “Rock Around the Clock” became an international sensation, it was originally recorded as the B-side to the Haley and the Comets tune “Thirteen Women (and Only One Man in Town).” The A-side didn’t sell, so Decca released “Rock Around the Clock,” which barely caused a ripple on the charts.
Sax player Ambrose, who is the youngest Comet at 71, recalls “Rock Around the Clock” was recorded in just 35 minutes.
“We only did two takes,” Ambrose says. “Everybody was into it. We had rehearsed it the night before at Bill’s house, so we had an arrangement on it.”
But Decca did nothing to promote the song. “They kind of let it go.” With the exposure in “Blackboard Jungle,” the song quickly hit the charts. Peter Ford, then 9, was instrumental in getting “Rock Around the Clock” as the title tune of the film.
“Basically, my parents had a huge record collection,” Ford says. “We had over 5,000 records in my house. My mother [actress Eleanor Powell] coming from the stage, a lot of her influence was Fats Waller and a lot of black music from the 1930s. My dad had a lot of country-western and symphonic music. I started very young developing my own tastes. So my tastes evolved into what was called during those days ‘race music,’ which was rhythm and blues.”
As Ford remembers it, Brooks was at his parents’ house one day and mentioned to the elder Ford that he needed “some kind of music” to complement the other music in the film, which included works by Artie Shaw. “My dad says, Peter’s got all of this strange stuff. So Brooks took my ‘Rock Around the Clock,’ my Joe Houston ‘All Night Long,’ and I think he might have taken ‘Shake, Rattle and Roll.’ ”
Brooks played them on the turntable in his office, Ford says, and when he heard “Rock Around the Clock,” he knew that was the song.
“Blackboard Jungle” also proved to be a showcase for many young actors.
Mazursky, who went on to direct such films as “An Unmarried Woman” and “Down and Out in Beverly Hills,” was a struggling 23-year-old actor in New York working in a health food store. He had one feature to his credit, Stanley Kubrick’s “Fear and Desire.”
Mazursky recalls the day actor John Cassavetes walked into the store to inform Mazursky’s co-worker, who was also an actor, about auditions for “Blackboard Jungle.” Cassavetes ended up bringing both to the casting director. “I got the part because of John Cassavetes,” he says. “And then 30 years later I had him in ‘Tempest,’ ” the 1982 film he directed.
Farr, who later played the cross-dressing Klinger on the TV show “MASH,” made his film debut in “Blackboard Jungle.” He had been spotted by a scout for MGM while in a production at the Pasadena Playhouse. After screen-testing for Brooks, he won the role of Santini.
“Working with Richard Brooks was a real experience,” Farr says. “He was a tough ex-Marine who had this tough crew cut, these baggy corduroy pants with a light seersucker shirt, and that pipe clenched between his teeth.
“He would look at you ... he scared the heck out of me, but he was a wonderful director. He always set the mood on the set. You wanted to make sure you gave him what he asked for because if you didn’t....”