America will survive another bout of teenage rebellion
PORTLAND, ORE. — When actor Glenn Ford died last month, I felt as if a family member had passed away. In his memorable role as Richard Dadier in the film "Blackboard Jungle," Mr. Ford portrayed a hard-working teacher who looked and behaved much like my dad, Max Shaffer.
Mr. Dadier and my father belonged to the generation of guys who headed off to World War II hoping to change the world into a better place. You can see them in countless family albums. They look handsome and confident in their uniforms – a mighty force of solid citizens.
But after the war ended, they found themselves on the front lines in a country that was changing faster than any government planner could have anticipated. America of 1941 was a dot in society's rearview mirror when "Blackboard Jungle" hit the big screen in 1955, and many aspects of postwar culture startled them.
The character who set off alarm bells in "Blackboard Jungle" was Artie West, portrayed by young Vic Morrow with equal amounts of disdain and malevolence toward the new teacher, whom he churlishly calls "Mr. Daddy-O." In earlier times, Hollywood treated wayward youth with a soft touch. The Bowery Boys were good-hearted rascals. Artie was bad news, and carried a knife.
I first saw "Blackboard Jungle" on TV early in my teen years, and the scenes of Artie confronting Dadier hit my psyche hard. My parents raised me to be polite to adults, and it was horrifying to imagine my dad in Dadier's place, a good man deserving of respect, and instead getting dissed and threatened by a no-good punk. Artie did cave in the final showdown, but on the insult scorecard, he was way ahead.
Many adults at the time of the movie's release had similar feelings. Bosley Crowther's review from the March 21, 1955, issue of The New York Times called it, "[A] testimonial to the lurid headlines ... reporting acts of terrorism and violence by uncontrolled urban youths." Yes, he said terrorism. More evidence for those of us who believe that history moves in big circles.
Mr. Crowther also wondered if the film presented an overly grim image of juvenile delinquency and said, "it may be challenged not only as responsible reporting but also as a desirable stimulant to spread before the young." In other words, it might be glorifying hoodlums by giving them so much attention.
I grew up being warned constantly about bad influences. Elvis's hips. Madonna's lips. Free love, drugs, disco. Yet somehow, amazingly, America keeps moving on – changed but not broken.
My daughter has just started her last year of high school. It's different from when I was in 12th grade, but so is everything now. Some teachers are better than others; ditto for the students. I believe she'll be able to handle the scene later when she's parenting her own children. I hope to be around for that because I've picked a nickname for myself. It's a small tribute to guys like Glenn Ford and my dad, and a little joke on the Artie Wests of this world. I want the grandkids to call me Mr. Daddy-O.
• Jeffrey Shaffer writes about media, American culture, and personal history.