Blackboard Jungle: The Film That Ushered Rock N Roll Into The Mainstream
In 1955, Blackboard Jungle put rock 'n roll (of Bill Haley and the Comets) on the screen -- a concept that was revolutionary at the time. When MGM released Blackboard Jungle, reviewers thought it was just another “teenage crimewave” movie, a genre in which tough high school students learned lessons at the hands of their elders, but it was much more important than any b-movie. By using the burgeoning sounds of rock and roll from Bill Haley and the Comets, Blackboard Jungle connected with young people and sparked a movement. With the release of Blackboard Jungle in 1955, the sound became codified and teenagers recognized that a new sound was pounding through their speakers.
Blackboard Jungle reflected teenage life like no movie before
Blackboard Jungle follows similar threads as other teen focused movies at the time. Glenn Ford plays a war veteran turned school teacher who has to whip the rowdy students of a New York City high school into shape. Like its predecessors in the genre, the film features all manner of rebellious teens but Blackboard Jungle sets itself apart by addressing the racial injustice of the time. It’s not just the rocking soundtrack that connected with audiences, it was the way that the film acknowledged the real life struggles of young people in the 1950s. Peter Ford, son and biographer of Glenn Ford explained the film’s reach to the Calgary Herald:
There was a lot of turmoil going on, and it brought teenage angst-filled young people to the fore… it was quite edgy. It celebrated and brought to the attention of the world that there were teenagers and there was this culture of youth that up to that time had not been considered.
MGM knew the film would be controversial
Before production got under way for the film, MGM was at least partially aware of the turmoil that the film would create. The film was adapted from a book of the same name that was released in 1954 that stirred some controversy on its own. Square society didn’t like hearing about the realities of teen life especially when it involved desegregation and violence. MGM picked up the rights to the film and immediately put the film into production to capitalize on the success of the book and the conversation surrounding the release of the book.
MGM didn’t just want to use the controversy surrounding the book to bring in viewers, they wanted to tap into the sounds that teenagers were bopping to on the weekends and blasting from their car radios - rock and roll. By combining a controversial story with music that parents couldn’t stand MGM had a massive hit on its hands before the film even premiered, but they didn’t realize how culturally important this film would be.
Rock Around The Clock wasn’t a hit until it was used in Blackboard Jungle
Despite the fact that “Rock Around the Clock” is the basis of the sound of Blackboard Jungle it wasn’t written for the film the way you might assume. The song had been bouncing around the country for nearly a year as a b-side to a track called "Thirteen Women (and Only One Man in Town)." As enticing a that title sounds, it didn’t exactly set the airwaves on fire for Bill Haley and the Comets. The group’s saxophone player, Joey Ambrose, says that the record’s producer had no idea what kind of hit he had on his hands during the recording session:
It took almost the whole session to do ‘Thirteen Women’ and we only recorded ‘Rock Around the Clock’ two times. The DJs only recognized the A-sides… they didn’t play ‘Rock Around the Clock’ until the movie came out. We didn’t know about it (being in the movie); we were in Philadelphia doing our thing. But it caught on all over the world.
Glenn Ford’s son is responsible for the sound of Blackboard Jungle
Pretty much everyone involved with Blackboard Jungle has taken credit for the film’s use of rock and roll and the cultural significance of the film but it’s most likely that the use of “Rock Around the Clock” was inspired by Glenn Ford’s son Peter who was only seven years old at the time of the film’s release. After principal photography, producers were searching for a sound to inspire the audience, and Glenn Ford borrowed some albums from his son - including the “Thirteen Women” single. However, Ford was under the impression that “Rock Around the Clock” was the A-side thanks to his son’s constant spinning of the track. Producers loved the song and placed it on the opening and closing credits while basing the opening moments of the trailer around it.
Teens were obsessed with Blackboard Jungle
Stories of teens ripping up theater seats and dancing in the aisles to the sounds of Bill Haley and the Comets have been circulating since 1955, but without having been there at the time it’s hard to tell if this is a marketing technique or if it actually happened. Apparently young people were so energized by this new uptempo sound that they couldn’t help themselves for responding physically. Vancouver DJ Red Robinson explained the fervent response to the film at the time of its release:
Blackboard Jungle was the catalyst. I went to see it in Vancouver and when it opened I couldn’t believe kids were getting up and dancing in the aisles. In 1955, I was still in high school… it was a very conservative society; you didn’t get up in the middle of the movie and dance.
Parents just didn’t understand
There must have been plenty of adults who enjoyed Blackboard Jungle, or at the very least recognized that it wasn’t the end of society as we know it. That being said, many adults were horrified by the actions on display in Blackboard Jungle. They were terrified of teenagers and embarrassed that the United States was being presented this way. The U.S. Ambassador to Italy, Clare Boothe Luce, was reportedly so upset by the picture that she didn’t want it shown outside the country because of the way that the American school system was portrayed. The New York Times review of the film said:
It gives a blood-curdling, nightmarish picture or monstrous disorder in a public school. And it leaves one wondering wildly whether such out-of-hand horrors can be…
Regardless of its detractors, Blackboard Jungle continued to find success by mixing rock and roll with amped up teenage hormones. It played a major part in ushering rock and roll into the mainstream and bolstering a sound that we’ve been addicted to since Bill Haley sang “One, two, three o’clock, four o’clock rock.”