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Published in Print: February 24, 1999, as Hollywood Goes to School

Hollywood Goes to School

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Hollywood has an insatiable appetite for heroes and villains, and it's found plenty of both in the classroom. More realistic portrayals of school life in the 20th century are harder to come by. The difficult, sometimes tedious work of teaching and learning doesn't translate quite as easily to the big and small screens, even when producers try.

But Hollywood is in show business, not education policy, and many of the classroom-related movies and television shows described here are as entertaining as they come.

Teachers

Hollywood teachers are heroes--usually. They are idealistic. They battle the principal and other cynics and doubters. They question whether they can go on, but in the end, they make a classroom breakthrough and sign up for another year.

In Blackboard Jungle (1955), the prototypical American film of the genre, Korean War veteran Richard Dadier (Glenn Ford) faces a class of boys who make his life hellish. He is mugged, his wife is harassed, and his colleague's priceless record collection is smashed. He is ready to quit, but he goes back to his education school professor for re-inspiration. In the climax, a student pulls a knife on him, but some of the other boys help squelch the violence. Despite one-dimensional characters, it is the classroom movie against which all others are measured.

A dedicated teacher is also the focus of Good Morning, Miss Dove(1955), with Jennifer Jones as an elderly educator who recalls a lifetime of shaping the lives of her students.

In Stand and Deliver (1987), based on a true story, Jaime Escalante (Edward James Olmos) is one movie teacher who takes on the system and wins. Confronted by skeptical test authorities, his Latino students ace an Advanced Placement calculus test not once, but twice.

More typical is the teacher who defies conventions and pays a price, such as John Keating (Robin Williams) in Dead Poets Society (1989). His romantic notions about engaging the minds of his boarding school boys butt up against tradition. He loses his job, but at least he gets his students to stand up on their desks and recite, "O Captain! My Captain!"

Hollywood has an insatiable appetite for heroes and villains, and it's found plenty of both in the classroom. More realistic portrayals of school life in the 20th century are harder to come by. The difficult, sometimes tedious work of teaching and learning doesn't translate quite as easily to the big and small screens, even when producers try.

But Hollywood is in show business, not education policy, and many of the classroom-related movies and television shows described here are as entertaining as they come.

Principals

In the movies, the school principal (or vice principal or headmaster) is often bumbling (Mr. Rooney in Ferris Bueller's Day Off, 1986), villainous (the Catholic school principals in two obscure but poignant films, The Chocolate War, 1988, and Heaven Help Us, 1985), or pedantic (Mr. Wameke in Blackboard Jungle and Mr. Rivell in Teachers, 1984). But school leaders have also played heroic roles. In the sentimental Boys Town (1938), Father Flanagan (Spencer Tracy) gets through to even the toughest delinquents in his school.

In The Principal (1987), Mr. Latimer (James Belushi) is a failed suburban classroom teacher turned inner-city principal who takes on gangs and uncaring teachers.

And Lean on Me (1987) tells the true story of the autocratic Joe Clark (Morgan Freeman), who wields his trademark bullhorn and baseball bat and locks fire doors to keep drug dealers and other miscreants from the halls of his school. With the troublemakers gone, the rest of the students pass a basic-skills test that keeps the school accredited. The bad kids apparently all transfer to the troubled schools in other movies.

Urban Schools

Urban schools are almost invariably depicted as war zones. In Class of 1984 (1982), a B movie that might be more deserving of a D, a mild-mannered music teacher becomes a vigilante against gang members. Fast-forward to the Class of 1999 (1990), in which security guards wear Darth Vader-like masks and the "department of educational defense" uses teacher-robots to take on the gangs. A similar theme pervades 187 (1997), in which teacher Trevor Garfield (Samuel L. Jackson) is driven to kill gang members and ends up dead himself. The screenplay was written by a former teacher who thought too many Hollywood school movies ended on unrealistically upbeat notes.

But there are optimistic urban school movies, from Up the Down Staircase (1967), in which 1960s urban hoodlums learn to appreciate Dickens, and Cooley High (1975), which has a promising message for an all-black high school in Chicago.

In Dangerous Minds (1995), the classroom vulgarities would have shocked even the hoods from Blackboard Jungle. But ex-Marine LouAnne Johnson (Michelle Pfeiffer) uses martial arts demonstrations and candy bars to turn her students on to poetry.

Student Life

In the 1920s and 1930s, America's image of schoolchildren was shaped in part by Hal Roach's Our Gang movie shorts. The gang, also called the Little Rascals, engage in their memorable mischief in titles such as Bored of Education (1936). In the Andy Hardy series (1937-46), teenage life is "swell"; MGM won a special Oscar for representing the "American way of life." How things had changed by the 1980s and '90s. In Risky Business (1983), Joel Goodson (Tom Cruise) helps run a prostitution ring for a "future business leaders" club project. A stoned Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn) has pizza delivered to class in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982).

Director John Hughes helped define the 1980s with such movies as Sixteen Candles (1984), The Breakfast Club (1985), and Pretty in Pink (1986), which all feature smart, sassy teenagers in affluent suburban settings.

One of the most realistic depictions of student life is in 1994's Hoop Dreams, a project that started out as a short documentary about playground basketball and turned into a three-hour-plus window on urban public schools, suburban Catholic schools, and dashed expectations.

Television

In the half-century history of TV broadcasting, classrooms have been the setting for many shows, but only a few memorable ones. (Many didn't last more than one season.) Among the first were Mr. Peepers (NBC, 1952-55), with Wally Cox as a shy science teacher, and Our Miss Brooks (CBS, 1952-56), with Eve Arden as a wisecracking English teacher who was always trying to snag science teacher Mr. Boynton as a husband. Arden was so popular she received offers to teach in real schools.

In Mr. Novak (NBC, 1963-65), James Franciscus played a likable, fresh-faced English teacher at a Los Angeles high school, with Dean Jagger as the dignified principal.

In Room 222 (ABC, 1969-74), teacher Pete Dixon (Lloyd Haynes) at Walt Whitman High School dispensed lessons about history, tolerance, and sensitivity. Welcome Back, Kotter (ABC, 1975-79) is recalled disapprovingly for its racially and ethnically stereotyped student "sweathogs," but the show also had a sweet disposition and a great theme song.

The Simpsons (Fox, 1989- ) isn't just about school, of course, but the episodes at Springfield Elementary are the most biting satire of public education anywhere. The sign outside the school on parent-teacher night says: "Let's share the blame."

PHOTO: Bart of The Simpsons
—20th Century Fox Film Corp.

Vol. 18, Issue 24, Page 36, 37

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