UP THE DOWN STAIRCASE (1967)
Running Time: 124 mins. Rating: xx Stars/5 Stars
MPAA Rating: NR
Director: Robert Mulligan
Distributor: Warner Brothers
Cast: Sandy Dennis, Patrick Bedford, Eileen Heckart, Ruth White, Jean Stapleton
Phony novel by unethical teacher makes stupid movie
The writer of the source material for this film, the novel UP THE DOWN STAIRCASE, Bel Kaufman, was Yiddish author Sholem Aleichem’s granddaughter. She was also the film’s “technical adviser”. She was my homeroom and English teacher at Taft High School in The Bronx circa 1960. Decades later when she was interviewed she admitted that she deliberately ignored the boys in her classes so she could concentrate on teaching the girls. Only the girls.
Ms. Technical Adviser permitted the dreadful lie that she taught in some “inner city hell” of a school. Taft at the time was located one block from the Grand Concourse that hadn’t even begun the long slide to become the notorious South Bronx. Neither phrase, “inner city” nor “South Bronx” had yet been invented. In fact in the mid-Sixties a huge Jewish center (now the Bronx Museum of the Arts) and the Executive Towers co-op, the tall white building seen in the background of shots taken from behind home plate at Yankee Stadium, were built. It was a comfortable, middle class Jewish neighborhood. The idea that there were all these tough, armed kids roaming the halls was pure crap. The real tough kids were shipped out to other schools such as the all-boys DeWitt Clinton or a technical high school like Evander Childs. The really tough high schools in The Bronx were located in the East Bronx or below 149th St.
Anyway, in the world of Hollywood films the dedicated teacher must be fighting their way up hill against deadhead thug students from underprivileged background who, well some of them, become enlightened. We can celebrate her successes but recognize that, sadly, she can’t reach everyone. What crap. That’s every teacher movie (except the sensitive bullied boy/girl in boarding school movie).
The story revolves around a male teacher whom a shy, overweight girl student is infatuated with. He returns her plaintive love note to her corrected for grammar and spelling. The girl commits suicide by jumping off the roof. The male teacher is the designated villain. According to today’s ethics he behaves faultlessly. If the novel and film were to be rewritten today the girl would be killing herself because she was sexually assaulted by the male teacher. Of course he is nothing but the designated villain. Whatever terrible thing would send an impressionable girl spinning to her doom is to be ascribed to the “evil” man. Whatever it would take to move the script the man is the designated villain. So very much like the man-hating castrating author of the piece. So many of the teachers in this era in The Bronx must have been like this but never so celebrated so that their confessions years later were not recorded as was Kaufman’s. This generation of women, because of prejudice, went to Hunter and not Harvard, became schoolteachers and not something more glamorous or remunerative. Only a few, I imagine, were as unethical as Bel Kaufman, to take it out on their male students and make a male teacher the ethically challenged villain of their novel.
The phoniness of the novel was multiplied again by the dishonesty of the film script set in some cliché “inner city” Hell Hole High, as if a teacher’s profession were ignoble unless inspiring “at risk youth” from “underprivileged” backgrounds. The book and the movie are both crap, an advertisement and not literature, propaganda and not a film. A lie from beginning to end.
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