“Little girls, I am in the business of putting old heads on young shoulders, and all my pupils are the crème de la crème. Give me a girl at an impressionable age, and she is mine for life.”
The impressionable minds at Marcia Blaine all-girl’s preparatory academy are certainly in for an education, so long as the likes of Miss Jean Brodie (Maggie Smith) are in charge: Jean - the Scottish sensualist/liberal-minded rebel, sassy and impassioned, utterly infectious schoolmarm, who refuses to devote herself to any one man even though she readily acknowledges she is in ‘her prime’. Miss Brodie’s girls will not receive any mid-Victorian slum prudery with their tutelage in this classroom; not when what ought to be known from life cannot be taught between its walls and the whole of history is to be appreciated rather than memorized. The purpose of schooling is to mold and encourage the mind in its innate predilections and métiers. To this end, Miss Brodie’s girls are decidedly ‘different’; this crème de la crème thinks for themselves, or rather, as Miss Brodie commands.
Jenny (Diane Grayson) is the great beauty. Her art will be devoted to sex – also to the admiration of artists relishing the opportunity to immortalize her portrait in oils and pastels. Monica (Shirley Steedman) shall become a great playwright, perhaps even a fine actress besides; her tastes prone to embellishment and drama; also the power of the imagination. Mary McGregor (Jane Carr), the lonesome, stuttering waif shall distinguish herself in time too. Of this, Miss Brodie has no doubt. But what of Sandy (Pamela Franklin); the suspiciously quiet and resourceful? Sandy is…well…as Sandy puts it – ‘dependable’. Alas, such dependability leans to mischief and jealousy; an exploitation and a betrayal of this select group’s confidences. Jean is perhaps leery and decidedly more critical of Sandy than the others; for she senses her pupil’s enterprising ambition; so nicknamed the ‘clever cat’ by art teacher, Teddy Lloyd (Robert Stephens); one of Jean’s jilted suitors.
Ronald Neame’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969) trends at the end of the cinema’s fascination with tales from academia; stories about the cyclical nature of inheriting shared knowledge and the complicated segue from youthful follies into adulthood, exemplified and glorified in To Sir With Love (1967) and the remake of Goodbye Mr. Chips (1969). The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is, encouragingly, unlike these films in several respects; first, in its feminization of the art of education, and second, in its proto-feminist protagonist; Jean Brodie - a self-destructing creature of habit. Jean Brodie is unconcerned with disseminating only the facts to her class. For Jean, it is more important these pupils feel their way through the annals of history, great literature and art. We get a sampling of Miss Brodie’s ability to manipulate the cold, concreteness of text book learning as she diverges from her lesson on Flanders’ Fields; relating to her class the loss of a lover, Hugh; a fairly lurid combination of l’histoire and l’amour.
What both the play and the movie do spectacularly well is to illustrate for the audience the double-edged sword of Jean Brodie’s expert instruction. On the one hand, she has dedicated her entire life to the enlightenment of her young wards; this ability to instill in them passions for living that no amount of book learning could ever provide, superficially reeks of the highest ideals to which any educator might aspire. However, on the flipside, Jean’s own passion becomes all-consuming and fairly corrosive; maneuvering and manipulating these children’s futures in a sort of grand experiment meets voyeuristic and toxic second childhood. Just as Miss Brodie’s girls live vicariously through her scandalous adult experiences that inspire a sort of sycophantic worship, so too do these malleable, silly little girls stir some wicked ambition in Jean to relive her youth and satisfy her own wishes, desires and dreams for them, rather than allowing each girl to explore what might suit them best.
As a harbinger of Jean’s tart defiance of authority, and her foolish placement of blind faith in unworthy subjects – Benito Mussolini and Gen. Francisco Franco among them – Jean pins a reproduction of Giotto’s painting ‘Flight into Egypt’ over the face of Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, undercutting the staunch conservatism of her superior; the school’s head mistress, Miss Mackay (Celia Johnson) and the poster’s slogan of ‘Safety First’. By extolling the virtues of Mussolini’s fascistic government in their place, regarded by Jean as a splendid cultural renaissance for Italy, Jean has already taken to the extremes as a counterpoint to Marcia Blaine’s even-keeled educational precepts. Only in retrospect can the audience know how utterly mislaid Jean’s devotion is. It will take the next 115 minutes for us to equally discover the disastrous influence of Miss Brodie’s credos or, as Jean puts it to Mary McGregor, “That is what I am for…to provide you with interests.”
Alas, those interests do not extend to Jean – or perhaps, do – though never for very long. Already her fear of commitment has resulted in the casting off of one married lover, art teacher Teddy Lloyd (actually played by Maggie Smith’s real-life husband, Robert Stephens); whom she publicly spurns, explaining her lack of taste for human imperfection, and her ongoing quest in search of beauty, truth and art. Teddy, however, is unimpressed by Jean’s faux piety, forcing her into the men’s bathroom to clarify for her, and crystalize for the audience, the unvarnished reality; that she “bounced into bed with an artist but was horrified to wake up with a man!” Teddy is the demonstrative sort, betraying a wife and six children by carrying on his affairs with Jean, and later, presumably out of spite, with Sandy. On the flipside, is music teacher, Gordon Lowther (Gordon Jackson); a sort of emasculated inamorata, casually fancying the school’s ever-faithful Latin classics instructor, Miss Lockhart (Rona Anderson) yet unable to purge himself of his stubborn preference for Jean’s flickering flame. Indeed, Jean’s overt sensuality proves a destructive elixir for both men, one she is acutely aware of and uses indiscriminately to titillate.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is, of course based on Muriel Spark’s novel of the same name, transformed by Jay Presson Allen into a Tony award-winning play; Presson Allen doing double duty by adapting her stagecraft for the movie screen. It is important to remember the play differs considerably from the novel; the book’s philosophical and theological debates discarded in favor of a fairly straight forward melodrama about thwarted/perverted love. Gone are the experimental ‘flash forwards’ that offered fleeting glimpses into whatever became of Miss Brodie’s girls long after their departure from Marcia Blaine. For reasons of concision, Presson Allen condensed Miss Brodie’s girls from six to four, amalgamating certain character traits along the way.
The play’s Mary therefore became a composite of the novel’s Mary and Joyce Emily, the latter killed during the Spanish Civil War after taking Miss Brodie’s advice about the valiancy in sacrificing one’s self to a great cause. In the play, Mary later died in a house fire instead, the incident emphasized in the play to illustrate how Miss Brodie’s less than altruistic principles have doomed those who blindly embrace them without first considering their own hearts’ desires. Jenny was also composited from the novel’s Jenny and another girl, Rose, never mentioned in either the play or the movie. Interestingly, Jenny in both the play and the movie bears an uncanny resemblance to Rose, whom Miss Brodie attempts to orchestrate an affair with the married Mr. Lloyd to rid herself of his lingering affections.
In the movie, as in the book, Sandy – not Rose or Jenny – become Teddy’s lover; though not by his – or even Jean’s choice, but rather as cleverly orchestrated by Sandy, who has plotted unsuccessfully to expunge Jean’s memory from his heart. Barring her inability to achieve the impossible, for Jean has poisoned Teddy’s blood (even to the point where her likeness permeates every portrait he paints), Sandy’s jealousy grows toxic. The penultimate confrontation between Jean and Sandy is a complete fabrication concocted by Jay Presson Allen for dramatic effect. It has no counterpoint in Muriel Sparks’ novel; Sandy confessing she has become Teddy’s lover and the incubus for Jean’s dismissal from Marcia Blaine Academy. Sandy summarizes the importance of all that has transpired thus; Mary McGregor’s death paramount amongst Jean Brodie’s indiscretions, whereas Jean regards the revelation of Sandy as Teddy’s lover the polestar for her present disillusionment and spinsterish anxieties.
When Jean suggests to Sandy that Mary had no one, Sandy plainly reiterates, “She had you! That was her misfortune! To please you that silly stupid girl ran off to get herself killed!...I always used to wonder why you called Mary McGregor by her full name. I think it was because you had such a hard time remembering who she was!” When Jean suggests a ‘devotion’ to Mary, Sandy smites back that what Jean calls ‘devotion’ was merely ‘an attraction’ appealing to Jean’s own vanity; a chance to use a truly pliable mind and exploit Mary’s impressionability and Jean’s devious misuse of it. The indictment is harsh, but affecting to Jean. Perhaps, for the very first time, she has marginally realized the implication her influences on generations of young girls has been more corrupting than educational.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie begins with our introduction to the principle cast; director Ronald Neame contractually obligated to afford each character their accompanying screen credit in the order of their importance in the movie. Thus, we meet Jean Brodie first - pert, plucky and proud -astride her bicycle, cycling down Edinburgh’s quaint narrow streets toward Marcia Blaine Academy. Jean’s vanity is at its zenith in the classroom, where she commands absolute authority under the auspices of befriending ‘her girls’. In this, Jean is not unlike her political heroes, Franco and Mussolini; the parallels of a true dictator rather ominously transparent; her ‘prime’ taking on bone-chilling meaning by the end.
Jean’s exceeding of her boundaries as an educator; possessively regarding the pupils as ‘her girls’, to be taught life in lieu of history and literature, is contradictory to the time-honored precepts of the school; also in direct conflict with its present head mistress, Miss MacKay, who will make several failed attempts to have Jean ousted from her position; chiefly using the especially after a letter written by Sandy and Jenny, reportedly meant as a torrid tome to Mr. Lowther’s love-making, is discovered by Miss MacKay, tucked inside a library book. Alas, Jean holds morality in the highest regard – or, at least, her warped concept of it. Having momentarily disentangled herself from an even more tawdry affair with the married Teddy Lloyd, and moved on in her nobler pursuits with Gordon Lowther – a bachelor, Jean regards Miss MacKay’s recommendation that she resign as nothing less than slanderous.
“I will not resign,” Jean bitterly tells the head mistress with mounting contempt during one of the movie’s pivotal scenes of bravura for which Maggie Smith deservedly took home the Best Actress Academy Award. “…and you will not dismiss me! You will not use the excuse of that pathetic document to blackmail me. Mr. Lowther you are a witness to this. Miss MacKay has made totally unsupported accusation against my name and yours. If she has one authentic shred of evidence – just one – let her bring it forth. Otherwise, if one more word of this outrageous allegation reaches my ears I shall sue! I shall take Miss MacKay to the public courts and I shall sue the trustees of Marcia Blaine if the board supports her. I will not stand by and be crucified by a woman whose vetted frustrations have overcome her judgment. If scandal is to your taste, Miss MacKay I shall give you a feast!”
Jay Presson Allen’s screenplay affords Maggie Smith several such opportunities to exercise her brittle outrage in being tested by public figures of authority. Each is a tour de force in writing, given over to passionate and moody magnificence by Smith’s fanaticism in the role. While Gordon is ineffectual and unequal to Jean’s tower of strength, he can certainly recognize and appreciate it as a desirable quality in the woman closest to his heart. Alas, Jean will have none of Gordon’s weak-kneed lack of initiative. His resignation from the church choir outrages Jean. Indeed, she regards it as tantamount to a confession of guilt. Actually, this merely gives Jean the necessary excuse to discard Lowther, of whom she has already grown weary, despite the luxuries of his inherited wealth he has openly shared with Jean and her girls on weekend escapes to his family’s estate; respites from the rigidity of Marcia Blaine’s conservative enclave that have enriched all of their lives to a point, but also have directly led to the profligacy of these rumors.
It matters not to Jean these tittle-tattles are, in fact, true; only the indignation be quashed to spare her the humiliation of having to confess to them to Miss MacKay, whom she barely tolerates, and thus, so clearly regards as her prudish inferior. Curiously, Jean compounds the danger of being found out for her unorthodox behavior by plotting to ensnare Teddy with Jenny as his new lover. She throws the underage girl, who has obvious physical attributes, at his head, but to no avail. Jean even leads Teddy on with the suggestion Jenny has taken an interest in him, when in reality no such understanding exists. Teddy, however, is no fool, although he manages to be seduced by Sandy without Jean’s knowledge of the affair. Alas, Sandy has had quite enough of being Miss Brodie’s spy. She has, in essence, become Jean’s assassin; the girl to bring about the full wrath and humiliation of hell’s fury and a woman’s scorn, thereby providing Miss MacKay and the board with the necessary proof to have Jean dismissed from Marcia Blaine.
Pivoting on one of the iconic and undeniably outstanding performances from the decade, Maggie Smith’s unrelentingly vial and arched, yet exquisitely compelling schoolmarm, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie remains a brutal, often disturbing portrayal of an almost psychotically arrogant educator. Here is a true masterpiece of acting; Smith imbuing each inflection with its own syllabic melodrama. The hallmarks of a consummate grammarian are readily on display. When cornered, Smith’s face subtly contorts into a weighty pang of poignant agony. But when she is threatened, her entire demeanor is absorbed with a penetrating disgust, the lash of her tongue matched only by a telescopically emboldened and piercingly blank rage brewing behind the eyes. It is a thoroughly complex and compelling portrait; her Jean Brodie marked by hubris, yet plagued by vanity.
The other notables in the cast are undeniably Celia Johnson, as the caustic Miss MacKay, and Pamela Franklin, who is nothing short of riveting in the film’s final moments. Franklin’s performance was overlooked for even a nomination at Oscar time; an unforgivable oversight, given her character’s exceptional transformation, from Miss Brodie’s precociously ‘dependable’ spy, morphed into her ruthless adversary. In their penultimate confrontation, Franklin exudes a cruel bitterness and ruthless resentment of her mentor; also an atypical and discriminating sense of compassion and yes, even sorrow. Toppling Miss Brodie from her ensconced perch of self-importance brings no satisfaction to Franklin’s Sandy; merely immense disappointment at having put this decidedly tormented devil of a woman out of her misery. It marks Sandy’s liberation from Miss Brodie’s tutelage, but it is nothing if not bittersweet, and Franklin, who runs the gamut from soulless vitriol to wounded tears quite simply rips one’s heart out. In the final analysis, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is quite unlike any movie about educators and their place in the pantheon of shared experiences in our lives; it truly is the crème de la crème.
There’s good and indifferent news about Twilight Time’s newly minted Blu-ray. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie has never looked stellar and certainly, this new 1080p rendering improves on the atrocities committed on Fox’s old ‘Studio Classic’ DVD. In 1.85:1, Jean Brodie doesn’t quite sparkle with renewed vibrancy. In fact, there is a slight detection of color fading, most noticeable in the ruddy flesh tones and overall muted palette. On the audio commentary accompanying this disc, director Ronald Neame makes mentioned of his subdued choice of hues. We do get a few striking moments where colors are robust; particularly during the all too brief outdoor sequences. Otherwise, this disc lacks the usual hi-def ‘pop’ and ‘wow’ factor. It also tends to favor a more blue-beige palette than Fox’s DVD. Actually, we can overlook both, since the image crisps up when directly compared to its old and obsolete DVD counterpart. Minor hints of edge enhancement as well as virtually all age-related speckling on the DVD have been eradicated on the Blu-ray. This is a generally smooth, mostly sharp and occasionally striking visual presentation. Alas, it continues to underwhelm. Personally, I'm troubled by this.
The film gets a brand new DTS mono clean-up. Jean Brodie is dialogue driven, although the score and Rod McKuen's wistful song, ‘Jean’ (inexplicably excised from the DVD but heard on the Blu-ray) are understandably undernourished and rather flat sounding with minimum distortion. As mentioned above, Ronald Neame gives us a solid audio commentary, well worth a listen; and TT also sweetens the pot with an isolated score that rectifies the shortcomings in the integrated score/dialogue and effects of the film proper. Bottom line: recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)