Friday, August 15, 2014

Back-to-School: Sir Dares You to Go Up the Down Staircase

For me it’s shorts-and-sandals weather, so it’s hard to imagine young people going back to school. I’m sure that most adolescents would much rather head for the movies. But of course movies about unruly students—and the teachers who try to tame them
are a genre unto themselves. The year 1967 featured two: Up the Down Staircase and To Sir, With Love.

The former, a gritty low-budget black-and-white feature, somewhat parallels To Sir, With Love, with Sandy Dennis assuming the Sidney Poitier role as a brand-new teacher who walks into a tough situation. Adapted from a best-selling novel by the late Bel Kaufman, it understands that a public school is a bureaucracy run amok. Shot in an actual New York City high school and incorporating non-professionals into its cast, it is one of the most convincing movies ever made about secondary education. Within its student body, some are hopeless and a few are dangerous, but others remain capable of making progress. The film does an honest job of showing both the risks and the rewards of being a classroom educator.

Up the Down Staircase earned only a third as much money as To Sir, With Love. The obvious explanation is that Sandy Dennis is no Sidney Poitier. Yes, Dennis was much admired for this performance, even winning the Best Actress prize at the 1967 Moscow Film Festival. (Rumor has it the film was submitted by the U.S. Department of State to counter Soviet propaganda that all American schools are racially segregated.) Yet Dennis’s spirited but vulnerable Sylvia Barrett is no match for Poitier’s suave, charismatic Mark Thackeray. The marketing campaigns for the two films tell the tale. In one prominent ad, a well-dressed Poitier is shown standing behind his desk, his hands splayed out flat on its wooden surface. He’s leaning forward, and his face is grim. Clearly, he’s a man who means business. This fact is reinforced by the words scrawled on the blackboard behind him: “You’ve got to make them cool it and call you ‘Sir’!” What To Sir, With Love is promising is a powerful hero, one who scores an almost-military victory (note the emphasis on the word “Sir”) over the young roughnecks who threaten to bring him down. Audiences were clearly pleased: the film was a major hit.

Many newspaper ads for Up the Down Staircase contained a full-length image of Dennis, carrying books and a large tote bag; she looks slightly disheveled, and also wary of the leers she’s getting from the teens loitering in her path. Other ads featured a male hand, complete with snake tattoo, writing boldly on the chalkboard, “DEAR TEACH—THE THING I LIKE BEST ABOUT YOU IS YOUR LEGS.” Above this implicitly sexual taunt, there’s a glimpse of Dennis’s anxious face. Though much of the marketing for Up the Down Staircase contains in small print a line clearly intended to be inspirational—“The year’s #1 best-seller picks you up and never lets you down”—all visuals emphasize the leading character’s feminine fragility. Poitier represents the teacher as victor, as someone who, despite his air of refinement, is tough enough to tame classroom hoodlums. Dennis, by contrast, is the teacher as potential victim. Nonetheless, the fact that a movie is devoted to a female whose dilemma is professional rather than romantic, and whose concern for her students’ progress is not to be confused with maternal softness, shows a rare and welcome respect for the idea of a woman finding her place in the world of work.

Here’s to teachers – and their students – everywhere!  


  1. Cheers indeed!

    I have managed to not see either of these movies - though I do have a beaten up copy of Kaufman's book in paperback working its way up my To Read pile. I'm sure the book will light a fire under me to see the movie version. I love Poitier - so I have no excuse for having not gotten around to seeing Sir - guess I'll commence 500 times on the blackboard "I will not skip To Sir, with Love any more!"

  2. Actually, the novel is quite well done -- it's actually a variant on the old epistolary novel, a story told solely through letters, class assignments, official memos, and the like. For what it's worth, Bel Kaufman is the granddaughter of the great Sholem Aleichem. She was a teacher in real life, and also quite a live-wire, so I hear. She just died this past July at age 103.