By Jeremy Marks
The question of who invented Rock & Roll will probably never be answered. But the question of who popularized Rock & Roll is a bit more conclusive. Ironically it was not a record label or a radio station but a Hollywood director, a film and a band. The director was Richard Brooks, the film, Blackboard Jungle and the song, “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley and the Comets. Together they kicked off the movement which today we know fondly as Rock & Roll.
In 1954 Bill Haley and the Comets recorded “Rock Around the Clock” and released it as the B-side to a single. The single was a modest success, rising to number 23 on the pop charts but quickly petered out. But it did catch the ear of Richard Brooks, a young writer/director working at MGM. In a 1983 New York Times interview, he claimed that hearing “Rock Around the Clock” inspired him to quit working on Ben Hur (a questionable choice in retrospect) and make a film about Rock & Roll. This led him to Evan Hunter’s novel, Blackboard Jungle, about a schoolteacher trying to bring order to an inner-city school. The book was in the middle of being banned in libraries across the country. Convinced the film could make money, Brooks talked MGM into giving him 1.2 million dollars, an amount in line with films of the B-movies status, and set out to make a picture.
When Blackboard Jungle premiered in March of 1955 it was clear that it was going to attract attention. Bosley Crowther of the New York Times wrote, “It gives a blood-curdling, nightmarish picture on monstrous disorder in a public school. And it leaves one wondering wildly whether such out-of-hand horrors can be.” And the film was a sensation, earning four Oscar nominations, a Congressional inquiry, an “X” rating in the UK and $8 million dollars worldwide by 1957. More importantly, it was the film “that not only introduced rock to mainstream America but forever cemented its image as a fashionably dangerous youth music that followed its own rules.”
What is fascinating is that the film’s connection to rock and youth is only peripheral. The film is not Rebel Without a Cause, which opened the same year. Rather than illuminating and highlighting the struggles of teenagers to fit in, Blackboard Jungle focuses on the struggles of those trying to rein them in. The lead is not a wild up-n’-comer like James Dean but Glenn Ford, a 39-year old actor best-known for his comedies with Rita Hayworth. Ford plays Mr. Dadier (naturally nicknamed Daddio by the kids), a WWII-vet who is looking to settle down with his pregnant wife. Dadier ends up teaching in the school from hell. On his first day on the job, he hospitalizes a student trying to molest a fellow teacher. And things only go downhill from there, climaxing in a dramatic knife fight.
But the film itself never glorifies the youth rebellion, treating it as a dangerous phenomenon that threatens the well-being of our protagonist and any other red-blooded American. In case there was any confusion about this, a written introduction was added to the film which included the following: “We are especially concerned when this delinquency boils over into our schools… We believe that public awareness is a first step toward a remedy for any problem.”
Now what an audience took from the film was obviously much different. There were reports of riots at screenings. “British youth, provoked beyond the comparatively low threshold of stimulation considered permissible in the early ‘50s, slashed the seats with razors as Bill Haley & The Comets performed ‘Rock Around The Clock’ over the opening titles of the teen-apocalypse exploitation film The Blackboard Jungle.” Clearly it was the “us versus them” mentality portrayed in the film that spurred on Rock & Roll.
But most surprising is the dearth of Rock & Roll in the film. Blackboard Jungle provides its audience with only a taste, not a starter course in the sound of Rock & Roll. “Rock Around the Clock” is the only Rock song used in Blackboard Jungle. And much like the audience watching the film, the teenagers in the film seem to be unaware of Rock & Roll. In fact Sidney Poitier, one of the classroom leaders, harmonizes the spiritual “Go Down, Moses” with his vocal quartet mid-way through the film. But what the delinquent students did show was how to act Rock & Roll. “Their anger was palpable throughout the film, transforming “Rock Around the Clock” from an amusing novelty to a Greek chorus for adolescent rebellion.” In a sense, Blackboard Jungle created the movement, others brought the tunes.
The success of the film and “Rock Around the Clock,” which spent eight weeks at number one on the pop charts after the film opened, demonstrated that there was a coast-to-coast market for Rock & Roll. This led to the first true Rock & Roll film, the aptly-titled Rock Around the Clock a year later. It is clear that Blackboard Jungle left a lasting impression on youth and the record execs alike and should be considered one of the forefathers of the cultural and musical movement known as Rock & Roll.
Leopold, Todd “The 50-year-old song that started it all – ‘Rock Around the Clock’ made Bill Haley the first rock star” CNN ( http://www.cnn.com/2005/SHOWBIZ/Music/07/07/haley.rock) Viewed 12/16/07
“Blackboard Jungle” AFI Film Catalog (http://gateway.proquest.com/openurl…)
Crowther, Bosley “The Screen; ‘Blackboard Jungle’; Delinquency Shown in Powerful Film”
New York Times 21 March, 1955
Dawsom, Jim & Ian Whitcomb Rock Around the Clock San Francisco: Backbeat, 2005. 122
Rosen, Steven R “Jim Dawson: Rock Around the Clock – The Record that Started the Rock Revolution” Denver Post June 2005