Friday, June 27, 2014


"I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking."
Christopher Isherwood  - The Berlin Stories 1945

I've wanted to see I Am a Camera for 42 years. That's the length of time I've been aware ofyet unable to lay eyes uponthis little-known, rarely-televised, not-available-on DVD, all-but-forgotten adaptation of the successful Broadway play that inspired the Broadway & film musical Cabaret and gave the screen its very first Sally Bowles.
Julie Harris as Sally Bowles
Laurence Harvey as Christopher Isherwood
Shelley Winters as Natalia Landauer
Anton Diffring as Fritz Wendel
Forty-two years ago: It was 1972, I was a freshman in high school, and Cabaret had just opened nationally. I was eager to see the film on the strength of my fascination with Bob Fosse's choreography in Sweet Charity (1969) and my infatuation with Liza Minnelli in The Sterile Cuckoo (1969), but in order to persuade my family to select it for a night out at the movies, I had to rely on the scores of critical raves quoted in the newspaper ads. Which was all for the good because I knew next to nothing about just what Cabaret was.

I had absolutely no foreknowledge of Christopher Isherwood's 1945 novelized twin-memoir: The Berlin Stories; I was in the dark about playwright John Van Druten (I Remember Mama) adapting one of those short novelsGoodbye to Berlin—into the 1951 play I Am a Camera (prompting theater critic Walter Kerr's terse, too-oft-quoted review, "Me no Leica"); and I was thoroughly unaware that said seriocomic play had served as the structural source for the 1966 musical Cabaret…the original Broadway production serving as merely the launchpad for Fosse's significantly reworked movie adaptation.

Well, as if to prove the adage "ignorance is bliss," a byproduct of my state of unenlightenment was that it afforded me the rare opportunity of enjoying Cabaret free of the usual burdens that come with seeing a beloved stage and/or literary work adapted into another medium. That feeling of never fully being "in the moment" born of anticipating the omission or mishandling of some favored line or bit of business. Sometimes it's a ceaseless, almost involuntary process of comparison and sizing up which goes on in your head as you watch, hoping expectation doesn't outpace execution.
Lea Seidl as Fraulein Schneider, the landlady
Ron Randell as Clive Mortimer, the rich American playboy

Like most everyone who saw it at the time, I was utterly blown away by Cabaret. Especially its stylish, darkly atmospheric depiction of the social and moral decay of pre-Nazi Germany in the '30s…so ideally suited to Bob Fosse's particular brand of razzle-dazzle cynicism. In an attempt to rectify my prior obliviousness, I subsequently took to reading everything I could about the film.

My first discovery was that it was the rare Cabaret review or feature article which didn't reference the film version of I am A Camera. Always unfavorably. Some remarked on the film's failure to do justice to Van Druten's play, others complained that it didn't successfully bring to life Isherwood's colorful characters, all cited it as the first on-screen incarnation of Sally Bowles. While it definitely came as a surprise to me to learn that Fräulein Bowles (who to this day is difficult to envision as anyone other than Liza Minnelli) appeared on film a whopping 17 years before Cabaret even existed, what really knocked me for a loop was that it was in the startlingly against-type personage of Julie Harris.

I couldn't imagine two actresses with less in common than Liza Minnelli and Julie Harris. Even in the most democratic of fantasies, I'm hard-pressed to envision any point at which the talents of these two very gifted ladies might intersect to make feasible the notion of their being cast in the same role. One's a jackhammer, the other a tap on the shoulder. It piqued my interest no end to discover that it was Harris (an actress I adored, but always associated with reserved, Plain Jane roles like in The Haunting, East of Eden, and You're a Big Boy Now) who originated the role of one of literature's most flamboyant extroverts...and won a Tony Award for it in the bargain!
Divine Decadence
Sally bares her emerald-green nails (and tigress snarl)
Suddenly, I am A Camera became a movie I absolutely had to see. In 1972, I hoped the popularity of Cabaret would occasion a resurfacing of it on late-night TV or at a local revival theater…but no such luck. My frustration knew no bounds. In those pre-cable/pre-DVD days, it certainly wasn't out of the ordinary to have to wait a long time for a favored old movie to make the rounds, but I am A Camera was a unique case in that absolutely no one I knew (not my parents nor my older sister, who was a Late Show maven if ever there was one) had ever heard of it, much less seen it.
Years passed (decades, actually), and I am A Camera eventually became one of those films (like Andy Warhol's L'Amour) I resigned myself to never seeing. Then, two weeks ago, just as I'd all but forgotten all about it, what do you know?... there it was, big as life on YouTube!!!!

So it's true, good things come to those who wait...for a VERY long time!

Having read so little that was encouraging about I Am a Camera, I'm afraid that when the time came for me to finally see it, I did so more out of curiosity than conviction. After it was over, I wanted to give each of those early critics a solid trouncing over the head (myself included, for believing them), for to my great surprise, I found I Am a Camera to be a thorough and utter delight. Maybe I wouldn't have thought so back in 1972 when the air of solemnity Fosse brought to Cabaret rode the then-popular wave of pessimism of so many Nixon-era films (which flattered my adolescent self-seriousness); but today, I Am a Camera's unremittingly old-fashioned, studio-bound, almost farcical, light-comic approach distinguishes it so significantly from every other adaptation of Isherwood's memoirs I've seen, that it stands far and apart from comparison and represents to me, a work unique unto itself.

Presented in the form of an extended flashback told to fellow writing associates by "confirmed bachelor," now successful author Christopher Isherwood (Harvey), I Am a Camera recalls the years Isherwood spent as a struggling writer in Berlin in the 1930s. In vignette style, the film recounts his platonic, life-changing friendship with free-spirit Sally Bowles (Harris), a modestly talented cabaret singer and self-styled bohemian whose flighty manner and impulsive behavior propel him into adventures that ultimately serve as the basis and inspiration for his early writing successes. A subplot involving his only-slightly-worldlier friend, Fritz (Diffring), a would-be gigolo and closet Jew, wooing a department-store heiress (Winters), introduces a bit of drama and brings Germany's mounting Nazi threat to the forefront.
The Nazi Intrusion
Sally, Clive, and Christopher momentarily have their spirits dampened by a Jewish funeral procession  

I Am a Camera doesn't deviate significantly from the basic plot of Cabaret, its chief point of departure being merely one of approach. While Minnelli's Sally Bowles symbolized the kind of I'm-dancing-as-fast-as-I can, willful self-deception that allowed the Nazis to take over a Depression-era Germany by salving its sorrows with decadence. I Am a Camera presents Isherwood's adventures as a lighthearted coming-of-age story and depicts Bowles as something of an early incarnation of that genre staple: the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (thank you, Nathan Rabin) – the quirky, childlike female character who brings chaos into the orderly life of a sensitive, button-down type, only to leave him a better, more-matured artist for it.

Katherine Hepburn played one in Bringing Up Baby (1938), and so did Sandy Dennis in Sweet November (1968). Certainly, Minnelli's Pookie Adams from The Sterile Cuckoo qualifies (although the word "nightmare" might be more appropriate than dream), and the characters of Dolly Levi and Mame Dennis from Hello, Dolly! and Auntie Mame, respectively, are nothing if not the Manic Pixie Dream Matron. Of course, the great Grande Diva of Manic Pixie Dream Girls is Audrey Hepburn's Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany's, and ultimately it is this film, not Cabaret, which I Am a Camera most recalls.
One of the setpieces of I Am a Camera is a raucous, remarkably staged party scene that predates Blake Edwards' iconic cocktail party sequence in Breakfast at Tiffany's 

Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's (published in 1958) and Christopher Isherwood's Goodbye to Berlin (published in 1939) are novelized memoirs by gay men recalling their transformative friendships with quirky, unconventional women of liberated sexuality. Whereas Tiffany's was converted into a romantic comedy (even Cabaret imposed a false romance), Camera leaves Isherwood's homosexuality as coded as the '50s would allow (his declaration, "I suppose I'm not the marrying kind," is tantamount to coming out). 

Whether or not one cares for I Am a Camera's lighthearted touch and bittersweet Hollywood happy ending (which still feels more honest than making the Isherwood character bisexual [the movie musical] or straight [the stage musical]), I can't imagine any fan of classic cinema not being enchanted by the sight of so many brilliant dramatic actors displaying such a talent for comedy.
British actor Laurence Harvey, long a favorite of mine yet so unaccountably stiff and affectless in so many of his American roles, is appealingly naïf and boyish as Isherwood. I've always harbored a big crush on him, so perhaps I'm not exactly what you'd call an objective judge, but I'd easily rank his work in I Am a Camera alongside Room at the Top and Expresso Bongo as among Harvey's best film performances.
In a reversal of her role in 1951's A Place in the Sun, Shelley Winters
 plays an heiress wooed by a fortune-hunter 

As for the strikingly handsome Anton Diffring, so chilling as the villain in Fahrenheit 451 and an actor who literally made a career out of playing cold-hearted Nazis, I never would have guessed he'd be so charming a light comedy player. Honestly, I think this is the first film I've ever seen him smile! Several years away from the grating, undisciplined performances that would later brand her a camp film favorite, Shelley Winters has a surprisingly small role and displays a worrisome German accent, but she is endearing beyond belief. It's easy to forget what an accomplished comedienne she could be.

But hands-down, Julie Harris walks off with my highest praise. She's nothing short of sensational. I've seen Harris in many things over the years (even on Hollywood Squares, of all places), but I've never EVER seen her this perky and playful. I had no idea she could be such a flirtatious, funny, physical, and a vivacious personality. Her versatility is on full display here, capturing the many shades of Sally's mercurial personality, from her childlike vulnerability to her flashes of self-interested callousness. Speaking in that rapid-fire manner I associate with George Cukor movies, her Sally Bowles is less a bohemian iconoclast and reminds me more of Kathryn Hepburn's Eva Lovelace in Morning Glory (1933): all self-centered chatter and ostentatious show, but ultimately touching.
I found not a single moment of Harris' performance wanting, save for the poorly-matched dubbed singing voice she's given during her big cabaret number--the languid vocalist fails to capture the sprightliness of Harris' physical interpretation (I'm reminded of the too-calm dubbed voice attributed to Rita Moreno in West Side Story). Harris doesn't appear to be lip-syncing, leaving me to suspect the other voice was added post-production. i remember hearing Harris sing on the cast album of the 1965 Broadway musical Skyscraper ... she mostly went the Rex Harrison talk-sing route.

In the end, what pleased and surprised me most about Harris as Sally Bowles is the manner in which she tackles the role with such ease and command, inhabiting her character so winningly and completely that she resists comparisons to Liza Minnelli, making the part her own. No easy task, that.
"I remembered your eyes. It was as if they were asking me to look at you and yet not see you!"

It's believed that Julie Harris' outstanding performance was overlooked for an Oscar nomination because I Am a Camera--a British production that failed to punish its sexually promiscuous heroine or delete mention of abortion--was denied a Production Code Seal, resulting in many theaters refusing to screen it, and some newspapers refusing to carry ads. In the UK, it was given the "Certificate X" rating.

While devoid of anything like Cabaret's "bumsen" scene, I Am a Camera is remarkably frank on the topics of sex, abortion, prostitution, and, depending on one's susceptibility to gay coding in old films, homosexuality. Considered risqué for its time, I was amused by just how much they were able to allude to in this 1955 film (a gay couple is briefly glimpsed in the nightclub scene) and enjoyed noting how many little details of style and content would later show up in Fosse's Cabaret.
This Sally sings at The Lady Windermere, but its clientele is pure Kit Kat Klub, 
as are its wall caricatures
Partaking of Sally's favorite pick-me-up: Prairie Oysters 
The Threesome...
...The Twosome
Laurence Harvey + rectal thermometer = sexiest scene in the film 
"I mean, I may not be absolutely exactly what some people call a virgin... ."

For all the charismatic dominance of Sally Bowles and Julie Harris' standout performance, I Am a Camera ultimately manages to make good on its first-person title by being a story of one man's coming of age. The increased presence of the Nazis in Berlin challenges Isherwood's determination to just be a spectator in life, his ultimate inability to ignore its evil facilitates his growth as both a man and an artist.

For me, the poignancy of I Am a Camera is found in its final moments when it becomes clear (to us, if not the characters involved) that, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, Christopher has possessed all along what he'd sought to find. As the only person to take pity on the abandoned Sally that first night in the club; to be the one individual who offered her shelter without the want of anything in return; to have remained by her side during a crisis, even going so far as to propose marriage and lose a promising job opportunity--Christopher was an "involved" participant in life from the very start. He was never for a moment the apathetic, unthinking "camera" he imagined himself to be.
Christopher ceases being the passive observer

Author Armistead Maupin in his 2008 introduction to Christopher Isherwood's The Berlin Stories (and if you haven't read The Berlin Stories, I highly recommend it), makes the observation that Isherwood's narrative device of assuming the role of the "camera" in his memoirs--the impartial, uninvolved recorder of events--was the author's way of protecting himself. A method of intentionally keeping his homosexuality out of his autobiographical stories for fear that its mere inclusion would distract from everything else in the text. 
A necessity at the time, but one rectified by Isherwood himself in his 1976 memoir Christopher and His Kind, in which the very same pre-war Berlin years documented in this film are recounted with a proud acceptance of his sexuality and an acknowledgment of its profound influence on his life and his art. 

I Am a Camera; a film shrouded in period-mandated gay coding (the aforementioned "confirmed bachelor" line) and starring a closeted gay actor portraying an asexual/sexually ambiguous character; is a product of its time, yet nevertheless contains a timeless message. Especially for the LGBTQ community, which has been so much a part of Christopher Isherwood's enduring legacy. Society, when not actively seeking to eradicate, has always encouraged gay people to "hide in plain sight." To, in effect, protect ourselves through anonymity and the acceptance of a non-participatory role as a "camera" on the periphery of life.
I Am a Camera - (inadvertently perhaps, but I'd like to think by way of the innate humanity of Isherwood and his characters)--exposes inauthenticity as an obstruction to growth (Sally, a woman defined by artifice, never changes). It promotes the necessity of being true to oneself (Fritz finds love and is compelled to reveal his true self to Natalia), and it affirms the absolute necessity that we must all be active participants in matter how complicated things become.
Since I consider Bob Fosse's Cabaret to be such a perfect film and wasn't really hoping to find a movie to compare it to or replace it with, I rejoiced in I Am a Camera turning out to be so comprehensively and refreshingly different. Making up for those 42 years of longing, I've already seen it three times and marvel at what a splendid lost gem it is. To quote Sally Bowles, I think I Am a Camera is "Most strange and extraordinary!"

The tune Sally Bowles sings in her cabaret act is the 1951 German song, "Ich Hab Noch Einen Koffer in Berlin" (I Still Have a Suitcase in Berlin), written by Ralph Maria Siegel. In this film, the song is given new English lyrics by Paul Dehn, the title changing to: "I Saw Him in a Café in Berlin."
You can Hear Marlene Dietrich sing the original song HERE.

Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2014

Saturday, June 14, 2014


BOOK GIVEAWAY!  Enter to win a hardback copy of Richard Barrios’  
DANGEROUS RHYTHM : Why Movie Musicals Matter 

As one who can happily state that a movie musical was responsible for changing the entire course of my life (briefly: I saw Xanadu [yes, Xanadu] in my third year of film school; I was inspired to drop out and study dance. The result - a nearly 30-year career as a professional dancer and choreographer), it's fair to say that I’m perhaps the ideal audience for a film book with the subtitle: Why Movie Musicals Matter.

Dangerous Rhythm: Why Movie Musicals Matter is an exhaustive (and occasionally, exhausting) look at the American movie musical from the earliest Vitaphone squeaks of Jolson’s The Jazz Singer (1927), to the count-the-hairs-in-Hugh-Jackman’s-nose close-up bombast of Les Misérables (2012). Award-winning film historian, Richard Barrios, who’d already neatly expounded on the origins of the movie musical in his 1995 book, A Song in the Dark: The Birth of the Musical Film, broadens his scope considerably this time out – the result being an impressively well-researched crash course on the uniquely American art form known as the movie musical.

Essentially a series of chaptered essays dissecting the genre from perspectives practical (financial, technical) and aesthetic (artistic, pop cultural), Dangerous Rhythm, in covering so vast a topic from so many angles, can at times feel as if it is in danger of losing its way…but stick with it. Barrios writes with a surer hand than what might be initially presumed, and guides (as gracefully as Astaire) the reader through roughly eight decades’ worth of film history, analysis, and guilty-pleasure gossip, to the foundation of his studied and sound conclusion that movie musicals do indeed matter. The specifics of which you’ll have to discover for yourself.

Dangerous Rhythm: Why Movie Musicals Matter is academic and fact-filled enough to satisfy the most knowledgeable film scholar, yet informal and full of amusing and critical observations to please the armchair film buff and casual fan of the musical genre.

A few examples of Barrios' infectious running commentary:

On critics' reaction to Lucille Ball in Mame“...the words 'toneless' and 'croak' were frequently invoked."

On a certain disco musical  – “Like [Alan] Carr himself, Can’t Stop the Music was gay without thinking anyone knew….”

On Joan Crawford’s Terpsichorean skills in Dancing Lady – “The epic shoulders are curious ballast for a thrashing upper body, the elbows eternally tense linchpins for arms that flail without cease.”

DANGEROUS RHYTHM:Why Movie Musicals Matter        By Richard Barrios
Illustrated. 276 pp. Oxford University Press. $34.95.

BOOK GIVEAWAY!  Enter our drawing to win a hardback copy of Richard Barrios’  
DANGEROUS RHYTHM : Why Movie Musicals Matter 

If you're a regular visitor to this blog, or just a fan of movies and musicalsI'm sure you'll enjoy Richard Barrios' DANGEROUS RHYTHM : Why Movie Musicals Matter.  That's why 
I'm happy to announce that Dreams Are What Le Cinema Is For... is hosting a giveaway drawing for a free hardback copy of the book.

Entry is simple: just email your full name to me here at and list one reason why you think movie musicals matter (a prerequisite for entry in the drawing). The winner will be randomly drawn on Monday, June 23rd, 2014 and the winner notified immediately (no entries accepted after Midnight, Sunday June 22nd PST). After notification, the winner will be required to send me their full name and address, which will then be forwarded to the publisher's PR firm and the book mailed to you. The first name of the winner will be posted in an update to this blog post, along with any particularly interesting submitted reasons for why movie musicals matter.
So come on, enter to win your copy today!

Dreamgirls  2006
From a random drawing of names submitted by June 22rd, 
Larry W. of Nevada 
is the winner of the free copy of 
DANGEROUS RHYTHM:Why Movie Musicals Matter by Richard Barrios!!
Congratulations to Larry, and a BIG, BIG thanks to all who entered this giveaway and gave such thoughtful reasons for why musicals matter (you each would be getting a book, were it up to me).

The drawing was random, but everyone who participated gave such wonderful reasons why they thought movie musicals mattered. The sentiments in these three reader-submitted entries covered the topic nicely:

All movies are dreams-- some pleasing (Some Like It Hot), some nightmarish (Sophie's Choice), some a little bit of both (Wizard of Oz.)  But, they all speak to the unconscious as do our dreams.  Add to this experience the Movie Musical and even the dullest moviegoer's limbic system is hotwired directly into the wildest flights of fancy. Only in the movies do we have the experience, when our hearts are filled to overflowing with emotion, of exploding in song and dance, and it is the recognition of how right it feels to dance and sing when words will not suffice that makes Movie Musicals the absinthe of cinema.  That's why they matter. -Larry

Musicals matter because there are multiple ways to tell a story and by engaging the senses with color, sound, and rhythm (the rhythm of dancing and song, as opposed to the spoken word), a musical communicates on an entirely different level. For example, "Pygmalion" / "My Fair Lady" or "Romeo and Juliet" / "West Side Story")--one isn't necessarily better than the other, but the essential elements of the story are processed and received by our senses in vastly different ways.  -Deborah

'The truest things are said in jest' and perhaps this is the case of a musical as the medium. What is being communicated is an emotional truth of the character singing it - it may be light-hearted and humorous, or it might be a hard reality, but the guise of song makes it easy to communicate. -Mitchell

I couldn't have said it better. Frequently I'm told that one of the pleasures of  visiting this blog is reading the comments of the articulate, knowledgeable, and film-savvy readers. I have to agree. Thanks, everybody!  

In honor of our giveaway drawing and the subject of movie musicals, I thought I'd compile my own (by no means comprehensive) list of musicals that matter to me. As for why these films matter, there are links to past posts. As for the new entries...well, those will have to wait for some future date.

1.   Sweet Charity   1969
Because of Bob Fosse's choreography and Paula Kelly's spine
 2,   Cabaret  1972
Because art, dance, and music never blended so decadently
 3.   The Boy Friend  1971
Because anything that makes me feel this happy has to matter
4.   The Gay Divorcee  1934
Because of the magic that is Fred & Ginger  (Note* The title of Barrios' book "Dangerous Rhythm" is taken from the lyric to the song, "The Continental", my favorite dance number in this film)
5.   Tommy  1975
Because nobody can put our dreams and nightmares on the screen like Ken Russell
6.   Singin' in the Rain  1952
Because Gene Kelly is a sex god
7.   Nashville   1975  
Because musicals capture a sense of time and place better than anything I know
8.   The Wizard of Oz   1939
Because it makes me feel like a kid again
9.   Camelot   1967
Because it looks like a fairy tale come to life
10.   Xanadu  1980
Because it fueled my dreams and fed my imagination

 "Life is too short without dreaming, and dreams are what le cinema is for." 

Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2014

Thursday, June 12, 2014


“Now, as then, teachers are overworked, underpaid, and underappreciated.”
 Up the Down Staircase author Bel Kaufman. 2012

Although I lived in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco at the time, my strongest memory of June and July of 1967 isn’t related to the human “Be-In” that was The Summer of Love (as I was only 10 years old at the time, in contrast to the timbre of the times, my entire existence actually depended on trusting people over 30). Instead, it relates to the fact that it was the summer vacation that I spent almost entirely in school. Not actual summer school, mind you, but as a visitor to the classes of Mr. Mark Thackeray and Miss Sylvia Barrett.
Vaguely evoking the "dueling Harlows" of 1965, in the summer of 1967, two films starring Academy Award-winners cast as idealistic high school teachers facing hoards of unruly teens in “problem area” inner-city high schools were released within weeks of one another. To Sir, with Love and Up the Down Staircase came out in June and July, respectively, and I spent many hours in dark theaters that summer. An honorary high-schooler in a virtual classroom, receiving a first-rate education in life lessons and human compassion from two of the most inspiring fictional teachers ever culled from best-selling, semi-autobiographical sources. 
Sandy Dennis as Sylvia Barrett
Patrick Bedford as Paul Barringer
Ellen O'Mara as Alice Blake
Jeff Howard as Joe Ferone 
In an earlier essay on Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976), I  commented on the psychological soundness of De Palma limiting the scope of Carrie’s destruction exclusively to that of her school (as opposed to the entire town, as it is in the novel), for the simple reason that to the average adolescent and teenager, school IS their world. 
This was certainly true for me. Back when school comprised the totality of my outside-the-home activity and influenced whatever social perceptions a ten-year-old child can claim, this narrow scope of experience led to my favoring television shows in which schools and classrooms played a regular part. The television programs I grew up watching were Leave it to BeaverDennis the Menace, The Andy Griffith ShowFather Knows BestOur Miss BrooksDobie Gillis, and Room 222. The Saturday afternoon movies and Late Show movies I enjoyed most were those reactionary 1950s “high school juvenile delinquency” movies like High School Confidential, High School CaesarThe Cool & the Crazy, and High School Hellcats.
Ruth White as Beatrice Schacter
And even if these all-white, staunchly middle-class, sanitized exemplars of Eisenhower-era values were more social propaganda than any kind of recognizable reality to me, in their classroom archetypes (teacher’s pet, class clown, bully, tattletale) and basic school-system templates (teachers, principal, classrooms, assembly halls); just enough discernible truth was able to seep through in these movies and TV shows for me to feel as though the world I occupied--seven hours a day, five days a week--was validated through representation.
Having attended primarily Catholic schools with nuns as teachers, one of my all-time favorite high-school movies is 1966s The Trouble with Angels. But, alas, none of the nuns I came into contact with were quite as even-tempered as Rosalind Russell’s Mother Superior.
Both To Sir, with Love and Up the Down Staircase were mainstream reboots of the somewhat dormant high school juvenile delinquency film (which, during the early '60s, had been mainly supplanted by the motorcycle gang/beach party genre), their near-simultaneous release in the summer of 1967 coinciding with Hollywood's reawakened interest in the boxoffice clout of the young. No longer a strictly Drive-In exploitation market, youth-centric movies were now served with a healthy dose of social relevancy.
To Sir, with Love (a cross between that 1961 British rarity, Spare the Rod, and 1955s Blackboard Jungle) benefited from the heavy radio airplay of its ubiquitous title song; its simplified, feel-good, Civil Rights Movement topicality; and the above-the-title participation of megastar Sidney Poitier (Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? came out later that year). In this film, Poitier was essentially taking on a role similar to that of Glenn Ford's in Blackboard Jungle the great-granddaddy of all high school juvenile delinquency films in which Poitier was cast (for the first and last time) as a disagreeable tough. 
Up the Down Staircase, on the other hand, promoted itself mainly on the strength and popularity of Bel Kaufman's terrific bestselling bookan epistolary novel consisting of notes, directives, and letters (not unlike Bob Randall's novel for the Lauren Bacall film, The Fan)and in the casting of Sandy Dennis, the Oscar-winning breakout star of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in her first starring role.
When I, at last, got the opportunity to see both films, I was surprised and relieved to find that each, while covering roughly the same territory (teacher idealism vs. public school reality), did so from very different perspectives: To Sir, with Love taking the more socially-conscious angle of students learning life lessons about accountability and human interdependence; Up the Down Staircase satirically pitting the personal and professional challenges of being a teacher against the obstacles of administrative boondoggling and student apathy. 
Both films get a big gold star from me and rate high on my list of all-time favorite movies about teachers and teaching - The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie occupying the top spot. But over time To Sir, With Love, a film I'd initially favored, has begun to feel more quaint and sweetly naive (in spite of the warm, fuzzy feelings these movies invoke in me, I’m not one to disavow claims that neither film fully succeeds in sidestepping the clichéd racial tropes of the well-intentioned Hollywood movie: the black saint/the white savior.), while Up the Down Staircase, a film that once felt too easygoing, has grown in emotional richness for me.
Mean Streets

I’ve neglected going into the plot of Up the Down Staircase because, as an example of the idealistic inner-city schoolteacher genre, it’s one of those films (like the manic pixie dream girl rom-com or renegade cop drama) whose genre classification serves as a roadmap for its narrative. In Up the Down Staircase, the seriocomic adventures of neophyte English teacher Sylvia Barrett (Dennis) as she grapples with the undisciplined, underserved students and battle-fatigued, red-tape deluged staff of New York’s fictional Calvin Coolidge High, follows a preset, genre-standardized dramatic arc of idealism/disillusionment/renewal - as inexorably and unwaveringly as a NY subway train speeding along the tracks.
What saves Up the Down Staircase from being just another high-minded lecture on “What’s wrong with our schools” is its light touch and sense of realism. It’s most definitely a film with points to make. But thanks to a zippy pace, a great deal of authentic school atmosphere (captured frequently with a hand-held camera,) and the compelling performances director Robert Mulligan (Inside Daisy Clover) elicits from his sizable cast of young unknowns, the film makes its points gently and with a great deal of sensitivity.
Jose Rodriguez as Jose Rodriguez 
If there's any one character in this movie that comes closest
to capturing what I was like as an adolescent, it's this guy
During the self-serious '60s, Up the Down Staircase’s cutesy score, pat characters (Dennis has at least one of each standard-issue troubled youth “types” in her class), and then-uncommon mix of comedy and drama, had the effect of making the film appear insubstantial and mawkish. However, what perhaps looked facile to me in 1967 comes across as measured and delicate today.
Up the Down Staircase benefits from a documentarian's eye for detail (this scene brings back to me the unforgettable smell of mimeograph ink and the oily texture of the paper). It also has a good eye for capturing the absurdist contradictions typical to the day-to-day operation of a school: the incessant bells, the garbled intercom announcements, the endless forms, and the mindless rules 

Instead of a socially naïve, politically heavy-handed drama trapped eternally in the time-warp of the issues of the late 1960s, Up the Down Staircase in focusing on a dedicated teacher’s frustration at being hindered from doing her job by distractions, both disciplinary and administrative, achieves a kind of timeless poignancy as a character drama. In some of the most economical filmmaking outside of an Altman movie, we come to know and care a great deal about both the kids and the teaching staff. Without really knowing how, you find yourself becoming involved in what is happening with a particular student, and, come the film's conclusion, you're likely to wonder if the story arc of your specific favorite will have a happy ending or be (realistically) left unresolved. 
The always-welcome Eileen Heckart as Henrietta Pastorfield
What's undoubtedly surprising is that the problems facing these '60s teens are really no different from what you'd hear kids talking (texting?) about today. The same goes for the complaints of the teaching staff and the burdens placed on the school system. And, true to the era (in the New Hollywood, happy endings were out), Up the Down Staircase doesn’t neatly solve or wrap up all of its dilemmas; it ends fittingly and without much fanfare…a few heartbreaking failures, a few quiet victories.

It's always puzzled me why critics have always singled Sandy Dennis out for her acting mannerisms. I'm not saying she doesn't have them, but next to the twitchy gimmicks and facial contortions of Marlon Brando and James Dean, Dennis is practically a Sphinx. In a film like Up the Down Staircase, one with a large cast of characters required to establish their personalities quickly, a director does well to cast actors capable of exuding a distinctive, idiosyncratic individuality: something Ms. Dennis possesses in abundance. Portraying perhaps the least-neurotic character of her screen career, Dennis displays a great deal of sympathetic charm, allowing her trademark hesitancy and fragility to give overqualified first-year teacher, Sylvia Barrett, a vulnerable “otherness” that appropriately sets her apart and makes believable her soft-hearted compassion for her students. She's one of my favorite actresses, and here she gives a nicely understated performance.
Theater legend Vinette Carroll as Mrs. Lewes
Actress, playwright, and Tony-nominated director (she was the first black woman to direct a play on Broadway) Vinette Carroll's brief scene is one of the film's highlights. A genuine Oscar-nomination-worthy turn by a great actress with too few screen credits 

At the time of its release, Up the Down Staircase garnered a lot of publicity for casting real New York high school students in significant roles and as extras (who, by the way, in their low-income modes of dress, still look positively dapper compared to kid's styles today). And indeed, the youthful, diverse faces in Up the Down Staircase are a welcome improvement on the callow blandness of those teens one sees on Disney Channel, the AARP-adjacent adolescents in movies like Grease. Director Mulligan uses the inexperience of his cast members to get raw, suitably awkward performances that are not only a boon to the realistic feel of the film, but are surprisingly moving in their naturalness. Newcomer Ellen O'Mara is especially good (the scene where her lovesick character is politely excoriated by the object of her affections is more brutal than most horror films), as is the terminally shy Jose Rodriguez, and the brooding, hard-to-reach Jeff Howard.
Special mention must be made of Dennis' very teacher-like wardrobe for the film. 

Films shot on location in New York usually benefit from the wealth of theater-trained actors at their disposal, and Up the Down Staircase is no exception. From Frances Sternhagen as the librarian who cares a bit too deeply about her books, to Jean Stapleton as the over-efficient office secretary who practically runs the school single-handedly, Up the Down Staircase boasts an impressive and colorful supporting cast. In addition, the film is chock-full of the early-career appearances by many actors who went on to become familiar TV faces in the '70s.  
All in The Family's Jean Stapleton as Sadie Finch
The Dukes of Hazzard's Sorrell Booke (l.) as Dr. Samuel Bester, Roy Poole as J.J. McHabe
Florence Stanley as Ellen Friedenberg (played Abe Vigoda's wife on the 70s TV series Fish)
Good Times' Esther Rolle appears as an unnamed teacher
Although rarely cited in film sources, that's Liz Torres
(The John Larroquette Show) making her film debut
Harold and Maude's Bud Cort, also making his film debut
That's Bel Kaufman, author of Up the Down Staircase, making a well-placed cameo

They don’t call Hollywood the dream machine for nothing. Only Hollywood could make us all believe we really value teachers. Up the Down Staircase is a veritable valentine to the teaching profession. It dramatizes the state of intellectual crisis so many kids find themselves in, and it sheds light on the potential of dedicated, caring teachers to guide and shape young lives.
It certainly must be an idea we like, because Hollywood hands us the same fable every few years under a different title. Call it Dangerous Minds, Conrack, Dead Poets Society, or Stand and Deliver; the message is always the same: our young people are the answers to a better tomorrow, and our teachers hold the keys to unlocking their minds and spirits.
Sandy Dennis plays the kind of schoolteacher we all wish we had
(and perhaps a lucky few did!)
Sounds good in theory, and it certainly makes for lovely, weepy movies that make us proud of our teachers, proud of our education system, and proud of ourselves. 
But what do we do in real life? We pay teachers next to nothing, refuse to pay taxes for school funding, and actively support cutting programs and services devoted to helping “our” children develop into well-rounded, functioning individuals. And because we love our guns so much, we also contribute to helping to make our schools about as safe as a war zone. Of late, we've adopted a political culture of staunch anti-intellectualism that is frightening as it is disturbing. It’s embarrassing to contemplate and makes little sense until one stops to consider we’re also a culture that loves movies about brotherhood and racial harmony.

Lucky for us, movies like Up the Down Staircase are there to also remind and reassure us that good teachers are so dedicated, they'll continue to be devoted to educating our nation's youth...whether they actively get our support or not.
Bucking the System

Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2014