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


  1. Hi Ken,

    Really nice piece about this film. I'll admit it took me a long time to watch this because for me a little Sandy Dennis goes a long way. However I did enjoy it very much once I hunkered down and gave it a view. To me it is her best performance.

    As you said it did benefit from location filming and all the wonderful supporting character actors it used. It was very cool to more or less play spot the TV star but even the actors who didn't go on to that kind of fame were excellent. The movie isn't one that I've revisited since that initial watch, only about a year ago, but it was great hearing your perspective on it

    1. Hi Joel
      Thanks very much! As the very central star of “Up the Down Staircase” it helps not to have a problem with Sandy Dennis to really get to the particular pleasures this film has to offer (my apathy leaning toward annoyance in regard to Michelle Pfeiffer is a big reason I can’t abide “Dangerous Minds”). But it does offer a wealth of marvelous supporting performances, period detail, and, as you say…”Spot the TV Star” fun.

  2. Teachers...underpaid?

    Certainly not on this side of the Pacific Ocean. Australian school teachers: overpaid if anything (especially when compared to textile workers and many in the hospitality industries), and twelve weeks on holidays (paid holidays, no less!) per year into the bargain. Even better, the teachers down here don't have to make their students walk through metal detectors each morning. Colour me observant, but I always found it to be a huge contradiction when (Australian) teachers would complain about pay and conditions, only to tell us what a wonderful time they and their family had in (insert enviable holiday location here) first day back from school holidays. Many of us had parents who could never afford to take us interstate, never mind overseas (and don't think I failed to notice what type of car each teacher drove to school each day!).

    Also, I would question the entire "educational" system: to me, it's less about nurturing the minds of children, more about turning children into "money-making, machine-made snobs!" (Thank you, Mr. Chips) and removing any trace of individuality from the student, so that he or she is more pliable to what is laughably referred to as "the real world".

    That said...I really enjoy films (and some television shows) about school! "To Sir, with Love" is an absolutely beautiful motion picture--and the makers of the film knew they were onto a good thing with that title song--I believe they play it four times over! More recently, we have seen several school flicks of a much darker variety--"The Wave" (German version), "The Class" (France), "Skirt Day" (also France, and all of these titles from 2008, strangely enough) all very far removed from the warm, fuzzy 1960s idealism enjoyed by Mark Thackeray.

    Question: do American teachers REALLY turn the simple act of writing one's name on the blackboard into a chance to show off their calligraphy skills? Miss Sylvia Barrett even underlines it--too funny!

    1. Hi Mark
      Yes, the American attitude about education is very different.
      Over the last few years a wave of anti-intellectualism has swept this country, making the satire of the 2006 film “idiocracy” more of a reality. I personally would prefer to live in a land of overpaid teachers than one that worships valueless morons like Linsay Lohan and the Kardashian clan, and celebrates narcissistic stupidity like honey Boo Boo and Duck Dynasty.
      In this country we make stupid people rich and famous, and seem blind to the cause and effect of the quality of our society and the value we place on teachers and our young. It’s crazy! If I had my way, 50 cents from every dollar we spend on things that only contribute to making us a nation of knuckleheads (Adam Sandler movies, reality TV, superhero movies, fashion shows) would go to teachers and schools- y’know to help balance things out.

      Oh, and growing up, ALL my teachers wrote their names on the blackboard that way! In part so students would know whose class they were in (we had homeroom and then upwards of four other teachers you saw in a day) and because cursive writing and good penmanship was a discipline as strict as being able to spell or read. If you doubt that it was important, remember Rhoda Penmark’s reaction to losing the Penmanship medal in “The Bad Seed”!
      I have a school principle in my class and she tells me that cursive writing is being phased out (!!!)
      I guess kids will mark things with an x and be known by their Social Security numbers.

      I have to check into those school films you mentioned. I’ve been out of school so long, they’ll probably look like sci-fi to me. Thanks, Mark!

    2. Ken, I totally agree, society has its priorities out of order. As much as I'm jaded of school teachers in this country (Australia) bemoaning ostensibly low rates of pay, the amount of wealth accumulated by overpaid celebrities is ludicrous to say the least.

      And as much as I couldn't stand school and all the authoritarianism that goes with it, I'll go on record as saying that a small number of school teachers did manage to make a positive enduring impression upon me, not as school teachers, but as human beings.

      Don't forget to include narcissistic sports stars in the parade of knuckleheads!

      Speaking of handwriting, mine is ordinary to say the least! I'm not surprised that cursive writing is being phased out. Do you think that with all the texting that goes on, kids of the future will even be able to print their name with a pen?

      I should mention that "Skirt Day" features Isabelle Adjani(!) as the teacher, who is nothing short of phenomenal in it. No amount of anything in the world would make me want to deal with her students in said film. It's a great companion piece to "The Class", as both films highlight issues that have been at the front of the news in France over recent years: racism, religious conflict, etc.

  3. As usual, your own reflections, insights and assessments shine a brilliant light on the movie in question. Any time I read one of your posts, even on a silly or benign movie, I feel like I've either learned something or at least be awakened to something that I may have felt, but had not yet expressed or put my finger on.

    Why is it so hard for people (Americans, I suppose I should add) to "get it" and (re)discover the elements of education that are truly important and quit focusing on the shallower or more frivolous aspects. We ought to be progressing, but instead we're regressing (including the violence that is becoming prevalent. It's not just about the weaponry and preventing it from coming in. It ought to be about the WHY young people want to and sometimes decide to kill other people and themselves!) Anyway... I love delicate, character-oriented films like this in which it pays to observe what's going on, even if for not other reason than to spot the people you pointed out in the background. Thanks, too, for including a shot of Ruth White, who I never knew before, but once discovered has given me a lot of pleasure (Eileen Heckart, too!)

    1. Hi Poseidon
      Thank you very much! You’re such a knowledgeable fan of films that I always find it doubly rewarding when you are so kind as to say that my posts sometimes offer something more than the rote relaying of plot details or movie facts; that you are drawn to the observational side. It means a lot. Thank you.
      And I SO agree with the latter points you make, especially about our band-aid approach to school violence and lack of respect for education.
      Glad to hear you like this film…delicate is a good word for it. Interesting performances, lots to catch in repeat viewings, a wonderful character people like the great Eileen Heckart and Ruth White. Thanks, Poseidon!

  4. Hello Ken, this another film that you inspire me to see. Your knowledge of these classics from the 60s and the 70s is immense. You know of the culture that produced the films and experienced the zeitgeist. I learn so much about these films from your site. There is so much more to your reviews than other movie sites that just repeat information from Wikipedia. Oh, how I envy you having seen these films when they were released!

    I know too little about Sandy Dennis. She seemed so fragile, like Elizabeth Hartman, to last long in the harsh movie business. I would like to see this film for all the character actors in it that you mention like Vinette Carroll and others.
    - Wille

    1. Hi Wille
      You’re very kind in your comments. I do love film a great deal, and it just so happened that my own growing into myself as a person coincided with a period in film history when Hollywood was going through its own growing pains. I feel very fortunate to have been so impressionably young at the time, and that my sometimes failing memory still recalls the social and personal circumstances of my exposure to these movies.
      That my often autobiographical, wholly subjective approach to film analysis sometimes inspires you to seek out a movie is a huge gift you give to me. I thank you for that.
      I hope you get a look at “Up the Down Staircase”…I’m sure you’ll like its performances and compassionate, humanistic message. There are at least three scenes that still have the power to get me all teary eyed.
      Good to hear from you, Wille!

    2. From what I've read, Sandy was nowhere near as fragile and emotionally crippled as Elizabeth Hartman.

      Somebody should update Liz Torres' Wikipedia page though. Either way, a few of the other kids in this movie have had some fledgling acting careers after this movie. Lew Wallach who played Lou Martin was hilarious. Maria Landa who played Carole Blanca went on to play one of the hostages in the original version of "The Taking of the Pelham, 1, 2, 3," and The Actor's Compendium website still doesn't know they're the same person. Jose Rodriguez was in "The Detectives." Esmeralda Santiago went on to write a play called "Almost a Woman" that wound up on PBS. Oh, there's so many to go through.

      But one time in Midtown Manhattan I was buying an old copy of the soundtrack to "Yours Mine and Ours," because Fred Karlin conducted the score for both movies. After mentioning this movie to the clerk, I encountered a woman at the store who said her cousin had a bit part in the movie. I wanted to find out who this was, and I did my imitation of the Sigma Supremes girl who called Jerry Amdur a "Whitey-Lovin' Plow Boy" and she got a good laugh out of that.

    3. Yes, if you were to hear Karen Black talking about working with Sandy Dennis during the Broadway run and later the filming of "Come Back to the 5 & Dime" fragile is hardly the word that comes to mind. Sounds like, at least professionally, she was sure of herself and didn't take any guff.
      When it comes to actors in small roles who have gone on to other things, STAIRCASE seems to boast an embarrassment of riches. And your record store encounter sounds very funny! I would have had a good laugh out of that one, too.
      Thank you for commenting.

  5. Mark: That's not calligraphy on the chalkboard. It's standard cursive handwriting! I was taught to write exactly that way in school back in the 1970s. I will gladly send you a sample in a letter so you could see for yourself. My handwriting which I work hard to maintain as legible looks almost exactly the same as Miss Barrett's example. Only last year I discovered that cursive is no longer taught in any American schools. It's seen as pointless. All students need to know how to do is print. Typing has almost exclusively become the standard form of "writing" these days. As a consequence few young people can read cursive handwriting and hardly any can write that way. When asked to sign their names some kids just print it! Pretty soon genuine handwriting will be an quaint art form just like calligraphy is now. As for the underlining --. Yes, teachers used to underline things on the chalkboard all the time to make their point. ...sigh... I feel old just explaining all this and I'm only 52.

    Thanks for this review. Ken. Makes me want to rent the movie and re-watch it. For me "a little" Sandy Dennis is never enough!

    1. Mark!
      Looks like you beat me to the comment punch this time out. You wound up writing (more succinctly) about the same topic (cursive writing in schools) before I did! Kind of amazing that it is being phased out, isn’t it? My partner has the most AMAZINGLY beautiful handwriting. Perhaps he should just start writing things on paper and holding onto it to later sell to a museum. I’m the one that feels so old these days when it comes to any dialog about school. College kids today can’t tell the difference between they’re, there, and their. And it’s scary when celebrities like Jay Leno proudly proclaim their dislike of reading…like stupidly is now a badge of solidarity (which, I guess it is, politically speaking, these days). I’m 56, so I take a little pleasure in a younger of 52 being made to feel old. :-)

      Thank you again for taking the time to visit my blog and comment. Especially a Sandy Dennis fan…which speaks very highly of you, I must say.

    2. John:

      I think what made me think of it as "calligraphy" was the way Miss Sylvia Barrett has written the "S" in "Sylvia" and the "B" in "Barrett". To me, it looks really fancy!

      To relate my own experience, I went to school in the 1980s. When we were taught cursive writing, we were taught to link the lowercase letters, but the capitals were written just as you see them here: M, S, B, etc. So, we weren't taught swooshy cursive capital letters. Also, we were told not to loop the lowercase "I" as we see in "Sylvia". My cursive "I" looks like a straight line.

      I do recall when I was in secondary school (when I'd have several different teachers in one day) in the 1990s, teachers tended to just print their name.

      We were only taught to write in cursive in primary school (what's known as elementary school in the United States), and even then not past fourth or fifth grade. Once we got to secondary school, we were no longer taught how to write, and if you didn't know how, you were on your own. Thus I'm always amazed and impressed when someone much younger than myself (I was born in 1978) has really well-developed cursive writing!

  6. Great review of a wonderful movie that is now a late-sixties time capsule. I work in the public school system and it's so sad to see educators becoming the latest political "hate object." I can't speak for Australia's system, but American teachers are not "paid" for summer vacation. Most school systems allow employees to hold back a specified portion of each pay check during the school year and then get them back as "payment" during the summer, but if they don't use this option, there is no pay during the summer. Let me stop before I get on my soapbox and never get down!

    1. Hi 3D!
      Gald you like the review! Time capsule is right: intercoms, mimeograph machines, Delaney cards, kids wearing sports coats to school...fascinating!
      And as one in the school system, you're better equipped than most to be on a soapbox. It makes no sense that the conditions for teachers Bel Kaufman wrote about as far back as 1964, shouldn't have improved! It took everything I had not to turn this post into a heated jeremiad about how we are failing our country by failing our teachers.
      Should you have any things you want to say, soapbox-wise, free free to use the comment section for this particular film. It certainly can't be considered off-topic! Thanks, Deb!

  7. Hi Ken - I like these two movies very much and never made the connection that they were made the same year. How often there is "something in the air" that makes filmmakers want to tackle the exact same subjects at the same time. 1967 was the summer of love, and of youth, and the Generation Gap. I love how both the Dennis and Poitier characters, as educators, attempt to bridge the gap with their understanding of both sides of the issues raised.

    Miss Dennis and Mr. Poitier are two of my very favorite actors, for very different reasons. Sandy Dennis is basically a character actress, pure Method, using her own quirky uniqueness to ignite her characters. I always say that when you look in the dictionary for the word neurotic, you'll probably see a picture of Sandy Dennis. But I mean that kindly!! On the other hand, Sidney Poitier is a Movie Star in every sense of the word. He is also obviously a fine actor but was born to be a Leading Man, oozing charisma, passion and frankly, one of the most physically attractive men ever to grace the silver screen. It was this star quality that helped him transcend the barrier of racial inequality and blaze the trail for those who came after him. He has an awesome presence.

    I love this time in film history as much as you do for many reasons--one of them that you hit upon here so beautifully. I love, love love seeing great character actors at work in roles big and small, proving the adage that there are no small roles, only small actors. Some of my very favorites are represented her: Heckart and Stapleton, Esther Rolle, Florence Stanley and the legendary Vinette Carroll, adding depth and dimension and a feeling of reality to every situation. Today, we see stars making cameos in films, sometimes beautifully, but they are not character actors. Or the supporting parts are poorly written and the actors cast in them blend into the background like wallpaper. In the late 1960s, the art of character acting basically peaked...

    Thanks again for your great post, which we have all been eagerly awaiting!

    1. Hi Chris
      You're so right about the way there always seem to be a kind of run on certain themes at particular points in history. Hollywood is known for feeding on itself, but like in the case of say, The Towering Inferno, where two books (The Tower and The Glass Inferno) came out around the same time, it always seems like there is indeed, "something in the air".
      Love your assessment of the unique qualities of Poitier and Dennis. I totally agree. Dennis reminds me of the kind of eccentric star the 70s embraced in Karen Black, but Poitier is definitely old-school leading man.
      Also, I never really thought of the era of supporting players, but sometimes when I see old TV programs that came out of NY, can see that indeed the supporting casts are phenomenal. Even a sitcom like "Car 54 Where Are You" has the most amazing character actors appearing on it.
      Thanks for the kind words, considered comments, and overall support, Chris. I feel flattered you consider my blog one worth returning to.

  8. I share your affection for Sandy Dennis, Ken.
    It's funny that when she was very active in movies I did start to see Dennis as being a bit mannered (compared with some of her peers). Now I am crazy about the unique style and personality she brought to nearly all of her roles.
    In this age of 20something leading ladies who often seem interchangeable to me, I wish there was someone who would stand out from the crowd the way Dennis did. (I like Greta Gerwig but she hasn't had a lot of opportunities in mainstream fare.)
    Now I relish the way Dennis could bring something special to an underwritten part that might have been dull in another actress' hands - i.e. 'The Out of Towners.' Her comic teamwork with Jack Lemmon in that Neil Simon comedy gives me such pleasure now (Dennis' many different readings of 'Oh, my God!' never fail to make me laugh).
    Thanks for reminding me of the special gifts of this unique film actress.

    1. Hey Joe,
      I like the point you make, and in thinking about it, it makes me miss the personality of actresses like Karen Black and Sandy Dennis all the more.
      You're right, Dennis always brought a lot to underwritten roles. (I like her so much in "Sweet November") and who would have guessed she'd be the perfect match for Jack Lemmon? She is really great in "The Out of Towners." I would love to see that in a theater and hear audience reaction to her 100th variation on the phrase "Oh, my God!"

      I'm not familiar with Greta Gerwig, but after this to IMDB.
      Thanks for visiting. Where you find the time, I'll never know. Love your blog!

  9. Thanks Ken!
    The Greta Gerwig pics to check out are "Frances Ha" & "Damsels in Distress" but, like Sandy Dennis, she rubs a lot of people the wrong way.

  10. Wow! You really outdid yourself with this one, Ken. A very considered analysis, and a felt appreciation, of a terrific movie.

    In your comparison between this film and To Sir With Love, you made the case for Staircase's superiority very fluently and eloquently. Excelsior!

    How undervalued schoolteachers are in our culture. They do one of the most important jobs in the world, yet, we almost never treat them that way.

    Where I live, in that Rupert Murdoch abortion called The New York Post, they print an annual ranking for every single teacher in the NYC school system. That means, once a year, your very name is printed in a widely circulated newspaper. With a ranked number right next to it.

    Can you imagine that? You do one of the toughest jobs in the world, and then that? Why don't they do the same with cops? Or even garbageman?

    And today, you even have knuckle-dragging Fox news idiots telling you, to solve all problems, you just need to have teachers carry guns. Completely f--king absurd.

    Like that other idiot, Trump, puts it: "I love the poorly educated!" A thousand years from now, that statement will sound as sage and wise as a verse from Ecclesiastes.

    Almost forty years ago, I read a Psychology Today article that listed inner city schoolteacher as, hands down, the most stressful job in the entire country. Since that time, crime rates have been drastically reduced. But I don't believe anything has necessarily changed in the classroom itself.

    A few years ago, educator Ed Boland wrote a memoir about his experiences. Harrowing, even bone-chilling. The title says it all: The Battle for Room 314: My Year of Hope and Despair in a New York City School. He debunks that whole heroic-teacher thing:

    But the thing is this: inner city teachers ARE heroic. Some of them have even been murdered right in class. And even if that doesn't happen, the threat of violence is always present. Can you imagine still going into work every day with that? Heroes. Definitely.

    Back in the wild 70s and 80s, my high school friend's dad used to teach in Brownsville. One of his students was Spike Lee. Mr. Wang would always tell a story about him and another teacher cutting school one day so they could treat Spike and another student to a Yankee game. Through their circumstances, Mr. Wang told me, neither of the boys had ever been able to afford something as simple as seeing a ball game. But a caring teacher made it happen.

    Whew! What a rant! Sorry Ken.

    So! In regard to those Tourette's-like tics. The Gorgon Kael once wrote some scorching words that have become seared into my brain over the years: "Sandy Dennis, blinking as if she had taken pills and been woken up in the middle of the night."

    Ah, La Pauline!

    And whether or not I did this in reaction to that condescending slam, but, not long after Sandy Dennis' death, during my late-nineties days as a miserably-unhappy-closeted-gay-alcoholic-NYC-cop, and right after I had just vomited in the toilet of the now-defunct Chelsea bar Splash, I took a car key out of my pocket, and, with all of the flourish of a cavalier brandishing a sword, some strange, desperate, inspired impulse caused me to scratch into the door of that toilet stall, these triumphant words, that still catch in my throat to this very day: SANDY DENNIS LIVES!!!


    1. Hi Rick
      Thank you very much Glad you liked this essay and that you enjoy this film, too.

      We’re on the same page when it comes to our respect for teachers, and the baffling way our society disregards their valuable contribution. I know we’re a culture that loves our myths, and we like to hold images of ourselves as humane and decent, but I will never understand (and I have no children, personally) why we give so much lip service to how much we love our children, and then out of the other side of our mouths, cut funding for lunch programs, libraries, and schools.

      We’ve just got screwed up values, and idealized movies like this just make us feel better about ourselves without ever having to do the hard work (like “feel good” movies about race). As you point out regarding the “arm the teachers” idiocy, we are almost a culture that worships stupidity and feels threatened by the educated (Elites!).

      I absolutely loved the clip you linked to the teacher/author Ed Boland. Exactly what we're talking about. I wonder if any studios were clamoring for the right to HIS book?

      And you’re right in saying teachers are heroic, all are. So heroic that I think we’re ultimately ill-served by the “savior” mythology we build around them. It stops us from seeing them as real people who suffer financially and psychologically from the stress of their jobs. The selfless teachers in movies like this (as entertaining as these films can be) only create the illusion of the magical savior teacher.

      And indeed there are many. The story you relate your friend’s dad and Spike Lee is mirrored by my best friend in high school (I hope I haven’t told this story in another comment…I’m too lazy to check) who became a teacher at our alma mater. He was responsible for creating an outreach program that got Ryan Coogler and other kids who couldn’t otherwise afford it, into the private Catholic School where he taught. My friend being a film fan helped inspire Coogler’s interest in writing and filmmaking.

      So all around the country teachers are making a difference with low pay and little assistance. As a culture we seem to love that romantic image, I guess.
      It’s an interesting topic, and your bringing it up is not a rant at all. It’s very germane to the sub-genre of UP THE DOWN STAIRCASE.

      And whatever inspired it, I like your Chelsea Bar Sandy Dennis graffiti. That slogan should be on a button or T-shirt.
      Just the other night my partner and I were watching Dennis in COME TO THE 5 & DIME…and I went to one of my Kael collections to re-read her review. It was nice to see that she liked her performance in that (perhaps because Cher does a spot-on impression of Dennis in it that almost fits Keal’s description) and spoke glowingly of Dennis in THE OUT OF TOWNERS and THAT COLD DAY IN THE PARK.

      Your thoughts on UP THE DOWN STAIRCASE are very much on point with what I think is the reasonable response someone in 2019 would have watching upon seeing a film that deals with problems still in existence in the American School system. Despite the film’s charm, you are inevitably hit in the face with the mythologizing. You illustrated and explained your points beautifully. Thanks, Rick!

    2. Hey, I'd just be happy to see an online photograph of the Sandy Dennis graffiti.

  11. Others may have already commented on this, but in the image where you site Lizz Torres' screen debut, the girl next to her is Esmeralda Santiago, also in her film debut:

    1. Only one individual mentioned Esmeralda Santiago being in the film, but I never know which teen it was. You're the first to cite her! That's brilliant!
      Thank you. I want to update the caption, she's had such a marvelous career as an author and playwright. Thank you so much for your eagle-eyes!

  12. Hi, Ken! I hope all is well with you!

    I love that you mentioned other 60's school movies, as after watching "Up the Down Staircase" I was glad I could finally have a perfect triple feature, being the other two "To Sir With Love" and "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie". It's a shame the school movie genre became totally dominated by teenage rom-coms or sexploitation comedies, as the setting is perfect and no other place has so much trauma, libido, love and betrayal as a school building.

    One thing that surprised me about "Up" is that it has maybe all the same major plot points as "To Sir With Love", but what differentiates them is the simple fact that when I presented "To Sir With Love" to my boyfriend, he said that it was cheerful and hopeful - And he was right - But cheerful and hopeful is everything "Up" is NOT. And I really loved it for that.

    I think we spent the past 20 or 30 years drunk in a middle class life philosophy that encourages us to believe that love fixes everything, that talking we'll always find a middle ground and that we are unique and born to do great things. "Up the down staircase" goes against this optimism (which I think can be very helpful in many circumstances) and tells us what we are more likely to meet out there: Sylvia wasn't heard by anybody, students came and went without allowing her to even come closer, she felt underappreciated, underused, parents were suspicious about her and by the end of one year worth of work she might have (MIGHT HAVE) impacted one student in a room of 40. And still, not even that one kid is ready for the things he is about to face, being poor, being a person of color, and most likely being gay. He left her to a world of sexual repression and political abandonment that no one could prepare him for.

    I also like how each student in this movie is like a mini-chapter that's left open for the audience to imagine what happened with that. I wonder if the audience is brave enough to think that some of those adorable, misunderstood kids could become the very criminals they watch on TV as a form of entertainment. Having been a teacher for some good years, I could easily identify with the open endings as to this day I wonder were my ex-students are, and if they managed to solve whatever they had to years ago.

    The acting is great, from everybody. The kids really give a show, and even though none of them has more than 10 minutes total of screentime, they all come through as a whole character. As for Sandy, I love how you never really get enough of her. I don't think I was ever satisfied. And it's beautiful how she walks through all of the chaoitic energy of public school with dignity. She doesn't seem to be above them, she just has conviction - and not only in an idealistic way, cause that would not be enough here - she loves english and she believes it makes the world better to navigate through passion and verse, and if only they could see it, it wouldn't change them, but it could give them something that they are denied otherwise. I believe Sandy, and I miss movies like this. It's not an overly optimistic portrayal of what a school is, but it's also not an overly stylized Oscar bait story of poverty and lack of opportunity. It's just about a teacher, walking through the city with a cardboard box, trying to listen to those who have no place to speak. And that alone is poetic, is beautiful, is optimistic and depressing, and a whole lesson on the heroism of our teachers.

    1. Hello, João Paulo! (I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again…your entire name sounds so distinguished. It’s the name of an artist!)

      I’m fine and hope you are the same. Thanks for reading this and for contributing such marvelously observational commentary on STAIRCASE and other school-related movies. Observations made all the more meaningful due to your having been a teacher for many years (which I didn’t know!).

      I like especially the point that you make about the “realism” of STAIRCASE relative to the “optimism” of TO SIR. As wonderful a film as TO SIR is, I agree with you in that it is essentially a narrative that reassures and is built upon a lot of hopeful but far from truthful middle-class social attitudes that fed into the “Work hard and there’s no telling what you can become.” Reassuring because it fails to call upon all the ways our system is geared to make such a dream impossible for some factions of society.

      Conversely, STAIRCASE, based on the real-life memoirs, paints a far less rose-colored picture, but to me winds up being more optimistic because it speaks to the authentic issues. One such issue is that love doesn’t solve everything, and sometimes caring isn’t enough, but that individuals, we make a difference.

      You expressed this quality of STAIRCASE exceptionally well, I think.

      I also hadn’t really considered how the genre had somewhat disappeared. In one respect, I think the public tired of the “white savior” aspect of well-intended movies like Jon Voight’s “Conrack,” Michelle Pfeiffer’s “Dangerous Minds” or Hillary Swank’s “Freedom Writers” that posited ethics as the-in-need-of-leadership charges of white authority figures.
      And movies like “The Breakfast Club” popularized presenting school from the student’s perspective. But since I regard teachers as the true heroes of our society right up there with doctors and medical professionals, I think imaginative writers could create stories that depict a teacher’s contributions and realities while steering clear of propaganda casting or messages.

      Lastly, what a great take on the quality Sandy Dennis brings to STAIRCASE. You
      Re right…she doesn’t place herself above the others, but she does have a dignity and an idealism that I can’t imagine anyone who goes into teaching can do without.
      You’ve shed light on so many of the small but significant ways that STAIRCASE distinguishes itself. You really “saw” the movie in a way that makes me want to look at it again, myself. You’ve written such a tribute to a very winning film that you simultaneously made into a tribute to those unsung everyday heroes that we can’t thank enough…our teachers.
      Thank you for investing your time in sharing your thoughts.