by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The film I watched this morning was part of TCM’s salute to schoolteachers on the eve of the new school year: Up the Down Staircase, a Warner Bros. production from 1967 based on a novel by Bel Kaufman which was in turn based on her own experiences as a young teacher in an inner-city public high school in New York City. I first saw this story in an issue of Scholastic magazine when I was in high school myself — it was an article with a set of stills from the film that illustrated its synopsis — and later I actually read Kaufman’s book, which I found utterly delightful, told with a light touch that is almost totally absent from the film. The book qualifies as an epistolary novel — one told in the form of letters, memos, diary entries and other writings allegedy by the characters — though Kaufman “cheated” a bit by having most of it narrated in the voice of the central character, new teacher Sylvia Barrett (Sandy Dennis, whose combination of a hot body and a weird face, with that tiny mouth that always looked like she was pouting whether she was or not, limited her range but was just right for this part), writing to a friend of hers from the graduate program she attended in college before taking the teaching job.
As a result, we get some marvelously satirical asides from Sylvia as she observes what’s going on in the school and tries her best to instill some amount of knowledge in an incredibly unruly batch of students — though they rarely reach the thuggish level of the kids in The Blackboard Jungle or To Sir, With Love, they’re singularly disinclined to take either her or the school or their education at all seriously. Though the script was done by a recognized playwright, Tad Mosel, with a good track record at creating both critically acclaimed plays and box-office hits (sometimes the same plays!), he jettisons Kaufman’s ironic tone and makes the school and its students considerably darker (literally — there are more Blacks, and fewer ethnic whites, in the student body at Calvin Coolidge High School than I’d thought there were when I read the book — and figuratively) than Kaufman did.
The essence of the story is still the same: a loosely connected chain of events in the life of a first-semester public school teacher and the people she encounters: principal Dr. Bester (Sorrell Brooke — a short, bald, rather oafish man — I’d imagined him as tall and white-haired, perhaps because that’s what my real-life high-school principal looked like); “administrative assistant” Mr. McHabe (played by short, sandy-haired Ray Poole, and once again quite a different “type” than what I’d imagined from the book: my vision of McHabe was tall, with slicked-down black hair, black horn-rimmed glasses and an implacable bureaucratic mien that made him a cross between Robert McNamara and a member of the Sopranos); his own assistant, Sadie Fitch (Jean Stapleton in a role she was almost perfectly suited for, though it’s jarring that she was so much slenderer in this 1967 movie than she was just four years later when she made her debut as Edith Bunker); Ella Friedenberg (Florence Stanley), the school’s guidance counselor and uncredentialed psychiatrist (“she thinks she’s Freud, but she’s really Peeping Tom,” is one of Sylvia’s asides that couldn’t be used in the film because Mosel wrote the script in a straightforward structure — I think he should have used a voice-over narration to reflect the perspective of Sylvia’s experience through the letters she’s writing to her friend, so he could have put in asides from that as well as her marvelous description of McHabe — based on his signing his memos “Adm. Ass’t.,” for “administrative assistant” — as “Admiral Ass”); Henrietta Pastorfield (Eileen Heckart), a 20-year veteran of the English department who loses her marbles when her star student (whom, it’s suggested, she has a crush on) is found necking in the library with a low-life girl from the student body; and Paul Barringer (played by Patrick Bedford in a performance that makes him less charming and even more infuriating than he was in the book), who responds to the love letter written to him by student Alice Blake (Ellen O’Mara) by correcting her grammar and telling her to look up the spelling of the name of the Lady of Shalott in Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem The Idylls of the King (the King was Arthur and the Lady was a young woman who had a crush on Sir Lancelot which, when she realized it was totally unreciprocated, led her to commit suicide — and in Tennyson’s final ironic fillip Lancelot comes across her body and says, “She has a lovely face”) — leading her to throw herself out of the window of her inamorata’s third-floor classroom, hoping for death and ending up in traction in a hospital.
Also among the dramatis personae are Joe Ferone (played by Jeff Howard in a startling resemblance to Henry Winkler’s character of the Fonz on Happy Days, all dark hair, leather jacket and smoldering looks à la James Dean or the young Elvis), the school’s tough guy who turns out to have an I.Q. of 139 (five points higher than mine!) and to do well in school when the spirit moves him and he’s not either terrorizing his teachers with switchblades or threatening to rape him, both of which he does to Sylvia in the film; and José Rodriguez, the quietest person in class who blossoms out in the film’s finale (he’s the judge in a mock trial Sylvia stages based on the novel Silas Marner) and, at least in Mosel’s reworking of Kaufman’s material, inspires her to stay at Calvin Coolidge instead of resigning and taking a job at an elite private school.
Up the Down Staircase comes off rather oddly now that the public schools are even more regimented than they were in 1967 — back then there was still room for an innovative student who cared about her students to motivate them and try to get them to learn by associating their lessons with their lives (one of the film’s most effective scenes is one in which she gets her students to appreciate A Tale of Two Cities by comparing the period Dickens was writing about — France during the Revolution — with Dickens’ time and their own 1967 realities, and for once in a movie we see a portrait of a great teacher and how she can make even the unlikeliest set of students come alive with the thrill of learning) and any pretense at the school’s being there for educational discovery and student self-improvement has been replaced by a relentless career emphasis and so-called “teaching to the test,” tests having become the all-important means of grading not only students but teachers as well. A modern-day remake of Up the Down Staircase would be conceivable but only if it were completely reshaped to fit contemporary realities — and it would probably end with Sylvia Barrett getting a layoff notice as a combination of her disinclination to “teach to the test” and the teachers’ unions’ ability to channel layoffs on the basis of sheer seniority rather than teaching skills — with the result that the oldest and most burned-out teachers stay on the longest. (This may be a good way to run a steel mill but it’s a lousy way to run a school.)
A modern version would also have to make the neighborhood around the school a good deal more threatening — whereas the 1967 version hinted at drugs and gangs, the 2011 film would have to show them directly as a clear and present danger for both students and school personnel as well as the neighborhood itself and the parents and people raising the kids. It’s depressing that the state of public education, especially in neighborhoods of color in big cities, is so much worse than it was in 1967, but Up the Down Staircase emerges as a surprisingly optimistic work rather than the cry of despair it is now. The film was directed rather sluggishly by Robert Mulligan — who occasionally threw in an odd camera angle just to prove he could — and it was produced by Alan J. Pakula, who would probably have been a better choice to direct as well; a Pakula version would probably have made Sylvia Barrett less polite and more obsessive, more like Jonathan Kozol or Herb Kohl in her determination to do right by her students no matter what — but it still holds up surprisingly well, better than some of the more blatantly melodramatic inner-city school movies like The Blackboard Jungle (which I can’t watch, if only because the scene in which the wanna-be hip teacher brings his priceless jazz record collection to school and the students smash it to bits, leading him to a nervous breakdown, hits too close to home for me — I mentally remixed it to have the students discover he has a copy of Joe Turner’s “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” put it on expecting to hear Bill Haley’s version and find out it’s better!).