By M.V. Moorhead
After a short, hot summer—in Arizona it’s the warm-up, of course, to a long, hot fall— back-to-school time has rolled around again. A movie night on this theme may be in order, but let’s try it from a slightly different angle:
Out of the countless movies about school, most tend to focus on students, but a few create memorable portraits of the experience of being a teacher.
Here, off the top of my head, are a few memorable and fun movie teachers who deserve at the very least, an apple:
Blackboard Jungle—Glenn Ford, oddly reminiscent here of Jack Lemmon, is exasperatingly earnest as Mr. Dadier, a young teacher at an innercity school with a class full of hoodlums and future stars: Sidney Poitier, Vic Morrow, Paul Mazursky, Rafael Campos and Jamie Farr, billed here as “Jameel Farrah.”
The 1955 movie, directed by Richard Brooks, made a big stir at the time simply for using “Rock Around the Clock” under the titles.
To Sir, With Love—What goes around, comes around: Twelve years after giving poor Mr. Dadier a hard time in Blackboard Jungle, Poitier was the teacher. As Mark Thackery, aka “Sir” to his students, he had to put up with a class of tough, troubled youths in London’s East End, and gradually win them over with his patience and respect.
Conrack—Jon Voight had one of his best roles in this 1974 drama, based on a memoir by Pat Conroy. “Conrack” tries to bring some sense of the outside world to isolated kids on one of the “Gullah islands” off the coast of South Carolina, playing them classical music and showing them movies. His bosses don’t approve.
Educating Rita—It isn’t just kids who need great teachers; they’re also essential in adult education. In this 1983 adaptation of Willy Russell’s play, Michael Caine is lovable and funny as Frank, a bored, jaded, hard-drinking Open University prof who rocks the worldview of his new English lit student, a lively hairdresser who calls herself Rita (Julie Walters). She rocks his worldview right back.
Kindergarten Cop—And we mustn’t forget elementary school teachers. In this silly but sweet 1990 action comedy, Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a police detective; the contrived premise is that he must go undercover as a kindergarten teacher. It’s all in service of the film’s one real joke: That even a tough guy like Schwarzenegger is no match for a bunch of five-year olds.
Mean Girls—The focus of this popular 2004 high school comedy (since adapted into a Broadway musical) certainly was students, in particular the nasty alpha females of the title. But the movie also includes a wonderful portrait of math teacher Ms. Norbury, played by Tina Fey, who gets falsely smeared by an ugly student prank. Fey, who also scripted, gets across some of the weary idealism, tempered with ironic humor, of the dedicated, underpaid, underappreciated teacher. Small wonder the principal (Tim Meadows) has a crush on her.
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off—The beloved 1986 John Hughes comedy is mostly about playing hooky: Ferris (Matthew Broderick) and friends sneak off to Chicago to catch a Cubs game, the Art Institute, etc. But there is an unforgettable educator: Occasionally Hughes cuts back to school and shows us an economics teacher (Ben Stein) droning away; it gives us a powerful sense of what Ferris wants to avoid.