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    Summer Schooling

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    It’s intriguing that some of the best movies about dedicated teachers opened during summer vacation months when you would think the last thing filmgoers would want to see during their warm weather break would be stories about the uplift of education. But Robert Donat’s Charles Chipping (1939’s Goodbye, Mr. Chips), Sandy Dennis’s Sylvia Barrett (1967’s Up the Down Staircase) and Robin Williams’s John Keating (1992’s Dead Poets Society) kept the turnstiles busy upon their summertime openings, so with the right cinematic lesson plan, school could be in onscreen session all year. Just as memorable as the three previously mentioned instructors – and perhaps even more so because his movie had a #1 hit single for its title song – is Sidney Poitier’s Mark Thackeray, based on the semi-autobiographical 1959 novel by E.R. Braithwaite sharing the name To Sir, with Love (1967), which opened this day 49 years ago. Thackeray/Braithwaite was a novice teacher whose educational baptism of fire unfolded in a hard-up secondary school in London’s tough and underprivileged East End, where students resigned to a bleak future of working-class suppression didn’t see the use to commit to learning. Reviewers of the time noted burgeoning box-office powerhouse Poitier cast on the other side of the learning curve from the dynamic delinquent he played 12 years before in Blackboard Jungle (1955), another tale in which public education got a lift at the box office from the integration of pop tunes. Author Braithwaite was not pleased with the way adaptor/producer/director James Clavell (The Great Escape, King Rat) downplayed the racial and romantic storylines in his book. Columbia Pictures was so unsure of the picture’s prospects to the point that the committed Poitier reduced his fee in exchange for a percentage of the box office (a wise move indeed). Audiences didn’t mind. What they got was a charismatic star turn from an actor who with this film, In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (available on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray) would have a championship year in the cinema; a refreshing glimpse of Swinging ’60s England at a marvelous, transitional time (from the studio that also recently offered The Collector, Bunny Lake Is Missing (also a TT title) and Georgy Girl); and just as the previous year’s Born Free (still another TT offering) was powered by its John Barry score and title tune, a great song (by composer Marc London and Born Free lyricist Don Black) indelibly warbled by emerging pop star Lulu in her film debut as a cheeky but clever student. Suffice to say it was a learning experience for all concerned. Packed with a full curriculum of extras, including a profile of Braithwaite, To Sir, with Love is in session this summer and beyond on TT Blu-ray.