Teaching The A,B,C’s of Real, Raw Living: Sidney Poiter’s To Sir, With Love!

By James Kenney

“The new Sidney Poitier picture has already won the acclaim of all who have seen it. Like A Patch of Blue and Lilies of the Field before it, To Sir, With Love has that something special in excitement, in heart, in fun and in meaning…that makes it a picture for all to enjoy.

It’s about today…about a teacher…and about the wild and turned-on teens of London who teach him the A, B, C’s of real law living.

It’s a motion picture you are going to hear a lot about from now on.”

-From a 1967 Columbia Pictures poster promoting To Sir, With Love

The above description is so accurate I don’t know why I’d add anything to it, but I’ll try.

James Clavell’s  1967 film To Sir, With Love, based loosely on the novel/memoir by E.R. Braithwaite, is about an unseasoned Guyanese teacher played by Sidney Poitier who takes a job he doesn’t want in a tough, fairly racist London school. It was a hugely successful film, but it is also a misunderstood humpback classic of a film.  No, it’s not a classic-classic like The Seventh Seal, Red River, Vertigo or Rashomon.  But “film-snobs” (whom I generally adore, just oversimplifying things a bit for provocation in my introductory paragraph) generally look down on Sir as another one of Poitier’s earnest, well-mannered efforts to raise the consciousness of the human race (which actually look all the more valuable in the face of racist “populists” all over the world trying to turn back the clock). But, no, man, it’s great. This movie will stick with you, like, forever. It’s funny, smart, a little-bit compromised, sure, but don’t confuse the issue. It’s great.

In a peculiar way, perhaps – self-censorship mutes some of the film’s potentially more incendiary edges, the story is episodic, Poitier’s Mark Thackeray is possibly too good to be true from a certain angle (I find him completely human and relatable myself).  Filmmaker James Clavell is an interesting guy, having directed this and one more unnoticed classic, the Last Valley, but he’s mostly famous for writing the novels Tai-Pan, King Rat and Shogun. His direction doesn’t have the flow or refinement of “natural directors” such as Spielberg, Hitchcock or Peter Bogdanovich, who took the To Sir With Love, 2 assignment in the mid-90s because he wanted to work with Poitier (and work in general), but who didn’t like the original at all, saying to Peter Tonguette in Tonguette’s first-rate book about him “I ran the first picture – I had seen it before – and I was pretty disappointed in it. It’s pretty dated, and I thought we could do better. Ours holds up better because it’s not dated.”

Well, Peter was wrong. The original Love is dated, sure, in all sorts of charming ways that make you long for a past when there was hope, miniskirts and Sidney Poitier as the number one movie star in America, but the themes and messages (and performances and pacing) are all A-grade and still spark audience response today, confirmed by my incessantly showing it to my Freshman classes at different colleges who all absolutely love it, whether the student body is inner-city community college students or relatively affluent Orthodox Jewish males.  In fact, while I’m glad Bogdanovich, my favorite filmmaker, got the chance to make a film with Poitier, I honestly wish it wasn’t To Sir, With Love 2 because he just doesn’t appreciate the original, so his sequel is really a missed opportunity; while agreeable and fairly sensitive in its handling of its subject matter, Love 2 is frankly much more contrived (and downbeat) than the original and simply isn’t as captivating.  The original To Sir, With Love might be an eccentric masterpiece, but masterpiece it is.

The film’s humanitarianism is most welcome, particularly as the story is told with humor and grace – the lack of truly histrionic developments (no guns are drawn, unlike in Bogdanovich’s sequel) and the film’s successfully modulated human-scale situations (a student has a crush on Poitier, another attempts to ask racially insensitive questions to rattle him, a fellow teacher treats the poor, crude students as beneath contempt) makes it an unequivocally pleasant film to watch as it nevertheless conveys some rather lofty and for the time cutting-edge themes. 

Viewed today, a sequence where the indelible Judy Geeson as student-with-a-crush Pamela Dare dances with Poitier, forcing the clumsy Thackeray to attempt some “modern” dancing is still charming if a bit drawn-out; but with a little creative imagination, remembering that this film was made at the height of the Civil Rights movement, with Martin Luther King’s assassination happening within the year, one is quickly reminded how even this whimsical sequences was a calculated, brave transgression – interracial dancing was still illegal in many states (and the London setting only helps the film covey its anti-racist world view to Americans who have proven awfully touchy on the subject of race).

What’s Up, Sir?!
Where’s the Action, Sir?!
Want to Swing, Sir?!

Poitier was on a mission, sure, and it was an ever-important one that he handled with elegance and seriousness, and in 1967 he proved the top movie star in the country with his one-two-three punch of films arguing for racial harmony, Sir, In the Heat of the Night, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, only one of which (Night) gets anywhere near the respect it deserves at this point.  All three films are sociologically valuable, historically fascinating, and, damn it, they are utterly entertaining.

“London town, which sent us the mods, the miniskirts, and “Twiggy,” has sent us a new motion picture.  It has sent us, with love, To Sir, With Love.”

Love’s subtlety may be a turn-off to more militant social justice warriors, but when Poitier, an obviously intelligent, capable Guyanese Engineer who can’t get a job in engineering due to (unspoken) racial factors is asked why he’s taking this unattractive teaching position, and answers quietly “Reasons,” it gets me every time.  A sign of how dangerous the simplest things were in 1967 is the pretty clear removal of a growing relationship between Thackeray and another new hire at the school, Gillian, who is clearly (and justifiably) ga ga for him, taking her glasses off when he enters a room, agreeing to help him take the young rabble-rousers to a museum as a chaperone when no one else thinks they should leave school premises, and looking a bit jealous when he dances with Geeson’s Dare.

Suzy Kendall, the former model who plays Gillian is indeed white, but nevertheless this chaste romance shouldn’t be particularly objectionable to any audienc; she is a lovely, educated equal match to Poitier, and as he is the only person of color in the community, it couldn’t be seen as he’s turning his back on his own or anything like that.  Yet one suspects in the name of Southern U.S. playdates all vestiges of their romantic relationship being consummated in any way are indeed absent from the released picture, but enough footage remains that it is clear something is going on that has been truncated.  The lobby card image below indicates a possibly romantic scene was filmed with Poitier and Geeson that does not appear in the released film:

In Love 2, Poitier does speak of finding a loving wife at the East End school in his retirement speech (she has died before the film begins), one of the moments that make a Love fan smile (he and Gillian did fall in love!), but which are also curiously muted in Love 2 because Bogdanovich apparently just wasn’t interested in the original film and doesn’t play the moment up. Geeson and Lulu return for the sequel too and are ill-used, Lulu not even getting a line of dialogue (!).  It’s a good film, but it’s not my To Sir, With Love sequel, that’s for sure.

It is about London’s young people…and a teacher, strong and hip enough to make them cool it and call him “Sir.”

Clavell does a fantastic job with the actors portraying the students; they are an interesting, spirited bunch, and you’llwell remember them for their distinctive personalities, idiosyncratic moments and sharp deliveries. Geeson is dazzling, able to communicate intellect, insecurity, immaturity and strength at the same time, but Lulu is funny and charming, Christian Roberts doesn’t overplay as the biggest troublemaker in the class, and all the rest convince as part of a larger community that has existed long before Poitier got there.

Thackeray’s fellow staff includes a young Patricia Keeping up Appearances Routledge in a go-getting, appealing early performance, doing a lot with just a few lines, but really, Clavell does a fine job with the ensemble, finding the right temperament for the material and making all the pieces fit, even if his staging is occasionally rudimentary (the initial teacher introductions have the teachers pretty much lined up in a row introducing themselves to Thackeray).

“A Story as Fresh as the Girls in Their Minis…as Cool as Their Teacher Had to Be!”

Oh, and “To Sir, With Love” the song! What an indefatigable tune (Hal Hartley has PJ Harvey’s Mary Magadelene sing it when Jesus returns to earth for the final reckoning in Book of Life), and the film rides it hard, using it in the opening credits and again when the group visit the London museum.  At this point, I should point out when I was showing the film to my cohort of Orthodox Jewish male students, I didn’t know that they really weren’t supposed to be hearing women sing. Luckily my students pointed out that it isn’t “so bad” if they only hear it but don’t see the woman perform, which was fine until the final minutes when Lulu comes on stage to sing it one more time at the school’s graduation dance.  Oops. It’s a sign of the film’s brilliance that the students didn’t try to get me fired but instead forgave my inadvertent faux pas and embraced the film, writing attentive papers about Thackeray’s unorthodox teaching methods.

TO SIR, WITH LOVE…THE MARKETING:

“Into the wild world of today’s turned-on-teens…whirling legs, ready fists, pounding tempos and tensions…comes the new teacher – strong and hip enough to demand that they cool it…and call him “Sir!”

Columbia’s To Sir, With Love campaign book was filled with “hip, swinging” ideas of how to market the film.

“Start with the idea that the audience for To Sir, With Love consists of: Teen-Agers!; Children!; Parents!; Teachers!; The Mod Generation (18 to 25 years old!); The sophisticated art house patron!; The big commercial theatre patron!; In fact…EVERYBODY!”

Columbia presented a five “basic showmanship” step campaign plan:

Step One – An In-Depth Screening Program

Step Two: Go After Endorsements

“Your screenings should include virtually everyone who has access to a mimeograph machine or newspaper space or radio/television time, or other audience attention! These are the people who can say, to tens and hundreds and thousands of people. “I saw a great picture the other night – To Sir, With Love! Don’t Miss it!”’

Step Three: Sneak Preview

“Invite the whole town to attend your sneak preview of what truly is an important new movie!”

Step Four: The Music

“There is plenty of exploitation “muscle” in the music of To Sir, With Love!…

Step Five: Hand-Tailored Ads

There was a Pepsi promotion, where exhibitors could work with “local bottlers and distributors and [plug] the final scenes of the film, the graduating class dance where Pepsi is served.”

Apple Appeal!

Apple-growers’ associations, cognizant of the “apple for teacher” phrase and its appropriateness to To Sir, With Love, have tied in with the picture. A special cardboard mailing box, holding a single well—polished apple and information about the film, has been sent to key cities.

Go ‘Mod’!

Columbia suggested having a local department store “work for a ‘mod-style’ [fashion] show with teen-age models selected by the store…the store can help set newspapers and radio interviews with mini-skirt wearers, and with adults who express their opinions on the “mod” and “mini” styles.

“Curry, Steak and Milk!”

The marketing materials also tell us that the dynamic Lulu gets her energy from a diet of “curry, steak and milk” (!) Poitier talked about how he “became an actor in order to find expression. I did not become an actor by plan. It was the result, really, of having tried many things and failed. Had acting failed me, I would have gone on to seek espression in other fields.”  Suzy Kendall, a former model, confessed that she was terrified of the stage but not of movie cameras: “A camera is impersonal, comforting. It can’t say ‘I like you’ or ‘I hate you’ like a theater audience.”

But I digress! To Sir, With Love is a legitimate “feel-good” film, one that doesn’t leave you feeling cheap ticks after it ends.  So when my cherished Peter Bogdanovich and Pauline Kael both naysay it, I weep for them and trust myself and the response of the hundreds of students I’ve screened it for. Oh, and Marvel fans, Love is the forerunner of your catnip – you must stay through the final credits to get to a final bit of essential Poitier footage. But it won’t be hard to stay through the brief credits to get to this final bit—Lulu belts out “To Sir, With Love” one more time!

-30-

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s