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Films About Teachers: My ’10 Best’ List

By Henry B. Maloney — February 26, 2003 6 min read
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From the noble to the flawed, teachers in film.

Over the years, two dozen or so major motion pictures have featured teachers as central characters. Some of these characters have been flawed, as was William Hundert in last year’s “The Emperor’s Club,” a film I found far less compelling than the story it was based on, Ethan Canin’s “The Palace Thief.” Others have been noble. From a literature teacher’s perspective, however, the play’s the thing on which to evaluate a film, not the virtue of the teacher.

In compiling a list of the 10 best movies about teachers, I recognize that several factors influence judgment, and that criteria can’t truly be objectified. Certain actors will affect a film’s impact, for example, as will the amount of sentiment, whether or not the teacher is based on an actual person, and how true the movie is to that person’s life. Also playing a role will be the worthiness of the teacher depicted, and resonating experiences from one’s own life that condition responses to the film.

Musicals are not included in my list, since a spoonful of hummable tunes can change a film in a most delightful way. In fact, in the decade beginning in 1956, all four of the musicals about teachers, governesses, or tutors were highly successful. “My Fair Lady” and “The Sound of Music” both won Best Picture awards. Also nominated for Best Picture were “The King and I,” which won a Best Actor Oscar for Yul Brynner, and “Mary Poppins,” for which Julie Andrews was named Best Actress.

Here, in chronological order, are my 10 best films about teachers:

  • “The Blue Angel” (1930). This German-made film depicts the fall of a nitpicking gymnasium teacher as he succumbs to Lola, a showgirl in a seedy traveling troupe. After being fired from his teaching post, the teacher marries Lola, but is obliged to play the clownish stooge in a magician’s act to earn money. Back in his hometown and facing a capacity audience of dignitaries, former students, and faculty colleagues, he is dumbstruck when cued to crow like a rooster. He finally emits a pathetic, wailing sound, which he can’t stop. Meanwhile, Lola has taken up with the first gigolo to flirt with her. Made only three years after sound enhanced films, this primitive film reflects the story’s simplicity.
  • “Pygmalion” (1935). Although nominated for three of the top Oscars, “Pygmalion” lost all three, winning only a Best Screenplay award for George Bernard Shaw and two collaborators. (Gussied up with song and color, and free of Shaw’s control, the story became “My Fair Lady” and won several major awards in 1964.) In spite of his scornful treatment of Eliza Doolittle, Henry Higgins earns some respect for setting a challenging objective and working tirelessly to achieve it.
  • “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” (1939). The film provides a flashback that covers six decades in the life of Mr. Chipping at Brookfield School. As a Latin master, he is satisfactory; but like the good, but not great, baseball player who accumulates decent statistics—and respect—by staying in the big leagues for 20 years, modest respect for Mr. Chipping develops over time. An aloof fellow, he meets a witty, personable beauty on a walking tour and marries her. She dies in childbirth a few years later, but “Chips,” as he is now called, has assumed by then some of her outgoing, confident qualities. And, as a wartime substitute, he is granted the headmaster’s position he had always dreamed of getting.
  • “The Miracle Worker”(1962). Knowing the outcome of this screenplay, and, indeed, knowing what happened to Helen Keller in real life, can hardly diminish the impact of this movie. Rather, the knowledge provides joy of anticipation and recognition of a celebratory occasion. Given early momentum by the drama of a domineering father and intense physical struggles between Annie Sullivan, the teacher, and young Helen, the film settles into a less combative format, although tensions remain. Annie’s perseverance in the face of her own debilitatingly poor vision, the Keller family’s unease with her teaching methods, and Helen’s seeming intractability provides an inspiring lesson.
  • “To Sir, With Love” (1967). In the first of my choices to be filmed in color, teacher Mark Thackeray finds that his efforts to civilize a group of rowdy, lower-class London high school seniors bear fruit when he insists that they treat each other with the dignity adults expect. He junks the curriculum in favor of teaching “life” (grooming, making a salad, boxing, or whatever). Having accepted this teaching position as a temporary job because he was unable to get a place in his field, engineering, he becomes dedicated to his work and rejects an engineering opportunity when one is offered. Mark’s unflinching determination as a teacher adds power to this film.
  • “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” (1969). The opening shot, an oblique view of Miss Brodie emerging from her rowhouse, bicycle in hand, suggests that something quirky is afoot here, and it is. Miss Brodie cultivates friendships with her 1930s-era Edinburgh schoolgirls as a way to indoctrinate them with her fascist sympathies and other enthusiastically-held but questionable views. When one of her embittered former apostles blows the whistle on her, linking Miss Brodie’s teachings to the death of a classmate in Spain, the teacher’s downfall commences. Thanks mainly to a lecherous art master, there is a good deal of hanky-panky going on at the school.
  • Dead Poets Society (1989). Like Jean Brodie, John Keating sees Welton Academy turn on him when a student, responding to Mr. Keating’s carpe diem philosophy, dies. The film underscores its carpe diem theme with visual images and sounds that relate to the passing of time. Both the positive aspect of this philosophy (opportunity knocks but once) as well as its negative reading (live it up today, for tomorrow you may die) are illustrated in the film. In the end, Mr. Keating’s flaw is in trying to humanize his alma mater, a place where young men are sent to learn groupthink.
  • “Music of the Heart” (1999). In spite of a plot that introduces more conflicts than any other film on my list, the characters in this modern-day urban tale seem to deal with their slings and arrows convincingly. Like Mark Thackeray in “To Sir, With Love,” Roberta Guaspari grabs a teaching job in East Harlem because she needs money. Her own conflicts include a philandering husband who divorces her, two sons who don’t understand the marriage breakup, an intrusive mother, a snide department head, a harried principal, rejection by the African-American teachers and parents, and status as a substitute, teaching violin. The late violinist Isaac Stern and his beloved Carnegie Hall resolve a major conflict.
  • “Wonder Boys” (2000). This is very close to a tale told by an idiot, or, perhaps, a wild, improbable script that could have been penned in Professor Grady Tripp’s creative writing seminar. The author of one successful novel, Mr. Tripp has become trapped in the massiveness of a follow-up book. He is an anti-hero, a negative role model, whose amoral pursuits during one Pittsburgh winter seem to complement the behavior of other characters in the film. Somehow, the unpredictable pieces fit together.
  • “A Beautiful Mind”(2001). This was the first nonmusical centering on a teacher to win an Academy Award for Best Picture. John Forbes Nash Jr., an uncongenial mathematics genius teaching at MIT, marries a student and then lapses into schizophrenia. The film is written and directed in such a way that, for a time, the audience can’t distinguish any better than Nash can what is hallucinatory and what is real. Covering a 40-year period in his life, the screenplay focuses not only on his illness and its treatment, but on how he rehabilitates himself and gradually changes his life by teaching students at his alma mater, Princeton University—for many years, as simply a wandering campus presence without title, class, or office space. That he is honored with a Nobel Prize at movie’s end is icing on the inspirational cake.

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