Classic Teacher Movies
There have certainly been a plethora of classroom teacher movies released in the past 25 years, some that spoof the profession and others that celebrate it or real-life persons that have positively influenced their students and (therefore) communities. One can also find many classics which portray the development of a unique relationship between a specialized teacher and their student (Born Yesterday (1950), The Miracle Worker (1962), My Fair Lady (1964)). But instead of exploring the student-teacher topic generally, I’ve decided to be a bit more specific by confining this article to films about classroom teachers.
Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939) - Robert Donat won his Best Actor Academy Award playing the title role in this heartwarming drama about an English schoolteacher and his students. Terry Kilburn plays several different members of the Colley family as the story spans many generations, and John Mills portrays a grown up Peter Colley. I don’t want to minimize Greer Garson’s screen debut, an Oscar nominated role as Donat’s love interest, but that element of the plot (and others from the films listed below) is not the focus of this article’s subject. The film was remade with Peter O’Toole as Arthur Chipping, and the Mr. Chips character appears on the American Film Institute’s list of the top 50 movie heroes of all-time.
Cheers for Miss Bishop (1941) - a drama that was actually in the works prior to Chips, this one has often been tagged as a female version of same. Somewhat less affecting and overly sentimental, the story chronicles fifty years of the title character's life - Ella Bishop played by Martha Scott - a freshman English teacher who only realizes her value to the institution at a climactic recognition banquet when several of her former students remember the influence she had in their lives.
The Corn is Green (1945) - Bette Davis plays Miss Lilly Moffat, a career school teacher now in a small Welsh mining town whose focus becomes a single gifted student played by John Dall (who received his only Academy recognition, a Best Supporting Actor nomination, for his screen debut) in this film. Lilly recognizes a special intelligence in Dall’s character Morgan and does everything she can, including manipulating the town squire (Nigel Bruce), to provide him an opportunity to go to Oxford. The student has to endure ridicule from those who are jealous of him as the teacher's pet, which leads him into making a costly mistake involving a young woman (Joan Lorring also received her only Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actress). Lilly ultimately makes a great sacrifice to convince Morgan that she is right about what is best, that he can and should pursue the high goals which she has set for him. It was remade for television starring Katharine Hepburn, who received an Emmy nomination for her performance as Miss Moffat.
Blackboard Jungle (1955) - the apt title describes the environment in which teacher Richard Dadier (Glenn Ford) is thrust. Director-screenwriter Richard Brooks captures the appropriate environment when he opens his drama with Bill Haley and His Comets' "Rock Around the Clock" which helped to usher in rock n' roll music. The cast includes several new young actors and would-be stars from Sidney Poitier (in only his fifth film), Vic Morrow and Jamie Farr in their film debuts, and Paul Mazursky (his second film). Dadier must deal with these unruly students whose prospects in life after school are limited, which naturally affects their interest in his class. The film’s B&W Cinematography and Art Direction-Set Decoration also help set the mood, making this a timeless story about generational differences between teachers and their students.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) - in this essential Western, James Stewart plays a nonviolent civilized man from the east among hardened yet uneducated men out west. One of many memorable scenes from this classic involves his character teaching children (and several older folks who also attend) how to read.
To Sir, with Love (1967) - the drama that enabled actor Sidney Poitier to come full circle - from being an initially disruptive student of Glenn Ford's in the Blackboard Jungle (1955) to playing a British Guana-born engineer-educated novice teacher of an equally challenging classroom of undisciplined English teenagers in this one. After having limited success with his students, Poitier’s character decides to toss the curriculum's books in the garbage can and open up a dialogue with them, allowing the topics of discussion to be of their choosing but directing it towards life after high school. He insists that they use manners, addressing him as "sir" and the girls as "miss" etc. After a time (and an educational field trip), the school’s other teachers and parents in the community notice a positive change in Sir's students.
Up the Down Staircase (1967) - film critic Roger Ebert gave it four stars. Here is the last paragraph of his review at the time - "Here is an honest film about one aspect of life as it is lived in our large cities. The school and the students come through with unmistakable authenticity. The camera is alert but not obtrusive, allowing the classroom to emerge spontaneously and not through stagy tricks, and everything is brought together by Dennis' quiet, natural, splendid performance."
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969), which won the wonderful Maggie Smith her Best Actress Oscar, seems out of place with these other movies because the titled teacher is farther from the ideal than the others listed above. In fact, Smith’s eccentric character may have unfortunately been a role model for some of today’s more narcissistic teachers who prey upon the young and impressionable minds of their students to advance a political agenda. It’s ironic that Miss Brodie’s environment was the ideological opposite from what one finds nearly 40 years later.
© 2007 Turner Classic Movies - this article originally appeared on TCM's official blog