“‘Too soft, too sweet, too sentimental, and most of all two special’ – these were the reasons, according to Sidney Poitier, that most Hollywood executives had passed on To Sir, with Love,” Aram Goudsouzian writes in his perceptive 2004 biography Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon. “E.R. Braithwaite’s 1959 memoir about teaching in London’s East End won the Anisfeld-Wolf Award for racial understanding and was published in seven languages. After Columbia Pictures bought the rights, Martin Baum launched the project. The agent interested his client James Clavell, a screenwriter, director, producer and author of two popular novels [King Rat and Tai-Pan]. Then Poitier signed on. Braithwaite’s self-made success story resembled Poitier’s own journey. Poitier admired his values of integrity and fellowship. In a time of turbulence, he thought the warm story of a black teacher and his interracial classroom might make a worthwhile statement.” The resulting film of To Sir, with Love (1967), which opened in theaters 50 years ago today, offered, in Goudsouzian’s view, “a recipe for the generation gap: mix old-fashioned civility with liberal uplift, and add a splash of Mod style,” In Braithwaite’s book, students dance the fox trot and waltz. In Clavell’s movie, they spend lunch breaks grooving to rock ’n’ roll. They wear smart jackets and miniskirts, and they style their hair in the shaggy but neat Mod fashion. The movie even features the rock band The Mindbenders and the bubbly pop star Lulu. Her title track is heard at the beginning, middle and end of the film.” It also marked a cinematic looking-glass touchstone for its star: “Twelve years earlier in Blackboard Jungle, Poitier had embodied the threat of urban rebellion. Now he tamed the disaffected youth of the inner city. ‘The Sidney I saw in Blackboard Jungle was a lithe, restless, smart but unmotivated kid with contempt for authority,’ recalled the writer Nelson George. ‘This was someone I knew from the projects, someone I could be in a rebellious moment, precisely the kind of kid my mother had take me to To Sir, with Love…to prevent me from becoming.’”
Though studio mavens hesitantly provided the production itself with a slim $750,000 budget and retreated from depicting the original book’s chronicle of an interracial romance between Braithwaite and a fellow teacher, Columbia’s marketing push targeted teenagers and played up the film’s educational values – and their modest faith snowballed into a huge box-office hit, including a windfall for its charismatic leading man. In his invaluable chronicle of the turbulent year of 1967 in U.S. studio moviemaking, Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood, Mark Harris details: “Columbia didn’t realize that Poitier had been building a tremendous audience base thanks to television, where his movies were showing up more frequently. When To Sir, with Love opened, the studio found out that Poitier was not only review-proof, but a much bigger star than anyone in the movie business had guessed. The film was an immediate and sustained hit that played for months and made the actor a rich man. His deal to take $30,000 up front in exchange for 10 percent of the gross turned out to be one of the biggest paydays an actor had ever engineered. In Poitier’s contract, Columbia had stipulated that his yearly take would be capped at $25,000 for as many years as it took to pay him in full. The studio realized it would have to revise that deal when To Sir, with Love took in so much money that it would have taken 80 years to fulfill the contract’s terms.” And this was only the first salvo in a banner Poitier year soon enhanced by his next two projects in quick succession, In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (a Twilight Time Blu-ray title), a high-water mark of star power. TT’s To Sir, with Love hi-def Blu-ray offers a rigorous curriculum, including an Audio Commentary with Co-Star Judy Geeson and Film Historians Nick Redman and Julie Kirgo, an Audio Commentary with E.R. Braithwaite and Educator Salome Thomas El and five flavorful featurettes: E.R. Braithwaite: In His Own Words; Lulu and the B-Side; Miniskirts, Blue Jeans and Pop Music; To Sidney with Love; and Principal El: He Chose to Stay. Enrollment is still offered.