Wednesday, February 22, 2017

TO SIR WITH LOVE: Blu-ray reissue (Columbia 1967) Indicator/Powerhouse

Sidney Poitier capped off his meteoric rise as the cinema’s #1 box office draw with To Sir With Love, one of three major motion pictures in which he starred in 1967 (the other two: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and, In The Heat of the Night). Indeed, Poitier had scored an unlikely coup in Hollywood at a time when black performers were still expected to play second fiddle to their Caucasian counterparts. In hindsight, there was nothing about Poitier that ought to have pegged him for such greatness; nothing – except talent – and, arguably, timing. Talent alone rarely equates to stardom. But Poitier had distinguished himself in Darryl F. Zanuck’s No Way Out (1950); his big screen debut – creating a template for the forthright man of color, repeatedly forced to grapple with abject racism.  Five years later, Poitier resurfaced as the incorrigible youth in Blackboard Jungle (1955); in retrospect, a tantalizing precursor to his role as Mark Thackeray in To Sir With Love; the pupil now sufficiently aged and morphed into the educator with progressive ideas, but a gentle heart. 
Poitier’s screen persona is, in essence, largely an extension of the man himself; the noble free thinker, governed by a built-in intuitiveness and moral compass positioned just this side of sainthood. In an era buffeted by volatile civil right demonstrations across the still segregated south, Poitier’s men of action spoke to a new perspective on ‘black power’; the gentlemen’s ‘gentle man’ who could debate his way out of any situation using superior deductive reasoning. Sandwiched somewhere between this bronzed – if reconstituted – view of Friedrich Nietzsche’s superman and the traditional tough guy with a Teflon-coated veneer of ethnocentric congeniality, Poitier’s own humanity was allowed to periodically shine through. Poitier’s champions are heroic in less obvious ways; the caretaker who looks out for a refreshingly innocent flock of nuns (Lilies of the Field, 1963), or the conqueror of prejudice, in search of the unvarnished truth to solve a hate crime (In the Heat of the Night 1967). His shy educator in To Sir With Love is thrust upon a hard knock neighborhood in London’s east end; a dangerous place for most, but particularly Poitier’s Mark Thackeray, who isn’t about to take any guff from his current class of lazy slackers.
James Clavell directs from his own screenplay, overusing the chart-topping title song, sung by Lulu (who also has a small part in the film as Barbara ‘Babs’ Pegg), but he gets considerable mileage out of Poitier’s ability to convey a stern wisdom and eagle-eyed pride without either quality ever becoming boastful. Mark Thackeray is no push over, as he proves at some point by standing up to and putting down class bully, Denham (Christian Roberts); who fancies himself cock of the walk around these parts and aims to keep up his territorial rights. In their few rounds of fisticuffs its brains, not braggadocio that win out. And Thackeray knows his audience. Reason and cooler heads will follow, even if Thackeray isn’t above knocking them together. The two-way street of respect is left decidedly uncluttered after their bout. Now, the real work can at last begin. To Sir With Love hails from a long line of dramas in praise of a favorite teacher. In some regards, E.R. Braithwaite’s novel is an update on James Hilton’s classic read, ‘Goodbye, Mr. Chips’; introducing a relatively shy man whose own convictions break through the bureaucratic nonsense and get the job done despite seemingly insurmountable odds.      
Educator and author, E. R. Braithwaite based his novel on personal experiences – or perhaps, those merely embellished – accrued while teaching in London’s East End. Upon publication, the book met with heavy criticism. Noted critic and reviewer, F. M. Birbalsingh called To Sir With Love a ‘glowing tribute’ to Braithwaite’s ‘own image’ as a ‘rather talented and thoroughly civilized black man’, bashing the savior-esque qualities of its protagonist as a ‘sordid demonstration of the author’s own vanity’. To be fair, there is something of the martyr in Braithwaite’s prose. At times, he does everything except conjure the image of a gallant astride his magnificent charger, crusading for the enlightened mind, while conquering with a benevolent heart. In hindsight, the book is tailor-made for the movies; even more perfect as a star vehicle for Sidney Poitier, perhaps, because Poitier never falls into the obvious trap of playing the ‘perfect’ man toiling under decidedly imperfect conditions to affect social change. His Mark Thackeray is not a man who always believes in himself. But he is someone who fervently has faith in this ragtag flock he believes can be brought around to do better. So, exactly how does one thank someone who has taken them from crayons to perfume?
To Sir With Love opens with Lulu Kennedy-Cairns’ (abbreviated to Lulu professionally) infectious rendition of the title song, co-written by Don Black and Mark London. In 1967, the song remained #1 on the U.S. Billboard charts for nearly a year; a pop phenomenon even more of an oddity, considering it did not even list in the Top 100 in the U.K. – released there as the quickly forgotten B-side to ‘Let’s Pretend’.  As an interesting aside: Lulu would have even greater success with 1974’s title track for the James Bond movie, The Man With The Golden Gun. For a while, it appeared as though Lulu’s fame might rival Petula Clark. In the end, only Clark had the longevity of an intercontinental career. We catch our first glimpse of Mark Thackeray, an unemployed engineer, disembarking a London bus for his first day of school. The novel took its time to evolve a back-story for ‘Ricky Braithwaite’ – the author’s not-so-fictional alter ego; detailing his exploits as a British/Guiana-born engineer who worked on an Aruban oil refinery, but returns to Britain at the cusp of WWII. Distinguishing himself in the RAF during this global crisis, afterward, Ricky quickly discovered mounting anti-black sentiments to prevent him from finding suitable employment in his chosen field. Very reluctantly, he takes a position as an educator at London’s Greenslade Academy.  As scripted by James Clavell, none of this preamble appears in the film; the whole premise updated to ‘then’ present day, making the circumstances ironically even timelier with the racial divide taking place in the U.S. Deep South. 
Thackeray has come to his teaching post second best. A defeated man, he perhaps believes the task of motivating young minds beneath him, though nevertheless, an easy way to make some money while he quietly goes in search of future job prospects elsewhere. Caught in the crossfire of some harmless, though brazen, flirtations made by a pair of old crones aboard his bus, Thackeray is in for a most unwelcome surprise upon his arrival to North Quay Secondary School near the London Docks. The building looks more like a reformatory than a place of higher learning; Thackeray’s first encounter with one of the pupils, Tich Jackson (Gareth Robinson) a pale glimmer of the adversarial outlook he is about to encounter. Indeed, his classroom resembles the general tenor of an 18th century asylum, the gaggle in chaos and disrespectfully oblivious to his purpose among them. Thackeray’s students are, in fact, tart-mouthed reprobates who, having been repeatedly expelled from other schools would rather spend their free time smoking or carousing than partaking of his expert tutelage. About half are semi-literate, the rest disinterested in making the effort to stay afloat in their studies so they can make something from their lives upon graduation. Thackeray tries to win favor with this motley crew, but quickly realizes conventional wisdom will not be enough to convince them of their dead-end paths.
Headmistress, Grace Evans (Faith Brook) is a welcome sight, as is another new recruit, Gillian Blanchard (Suzy Kendell). Both could tell Thackeray a thing or two about the quagmire he’s stepped into; his first teaching assignment promising to be something of a trial by fire. Thackeray’s introduction to fellow educator, Theo Weston (Geoffrey Bayldon) is an ominous precursor of things to come. Weston refers to Thackeray as the latest lamb, fit for the slaughter.  Gillian is more circumspect, but astutely comments there is something simultaneously ‘frightening’ and ‘challenging’ about North Quay. On his first day, Thackeray makes rather a bad enemy of Denham. Assessing the reading comprehension skills of his pupils proves a minor tribulation until Pamela Dare (Judy Geeson) reads a lyrical passage from her textbook with great conviction. It’s the first, and arguably, last bit of promise revealed to Thackeray so soon in his assignment.
Thackeray is given the lowdown on his predecessor, Mr. Hackman, who made a hasty departure after several valiant – but failed – strides to befriend his students. They won’t respond to kindness, having so little in their own home lives, and therefore regarding it as a terrible weakness amongst the educators to be exploited at every possible opportunity. In the meantime, Weston takes cynical pleasure in explaining to Thackeray the pointlessness of their positions as educators of the ‘great unwashed’. Thackeray is apt to side with the plight of his pupils, a perspective Weston finds quite laughable and Thackeray will soon discover for himself is a thoroughly misguided approach. The next morning, Thackeray nearly takes a tumble after the front leg on his desk gives out. Inspecting the break, he quickly realizes it was neither a natural malfunction from the age of the wood, nor an honest accident; the leg deliberately sawed at its joint. After school, Thackeray confronts one of his pupils, Seales (Anthony Villaroel) in the courtyard. Seales’ melancholy quickly pivots to rage as he reveals a general contempt for his brutish father and emasculated empathy for his ailing mother. Thackeray is frustrated. He desperately wants to be of help, yet cannot bring himself to the task, suddenly realizing there are more dire issues at stake for these kids than mere studies in math and English.
The next day begins with a near miss from a water balloon, tossed out the school’s second story window. Upon his arrival to the classroom, Thackeray discovers one of the girls has placed a soiled sanitary napkin in the heating duct to ferment. The stench is appalling, but more so, the crudeness and mindset of the act; Thackeray ordering the boys into the hall before confronting the girls, admonishing each of them as a filthy slut and demanding an immediate cleanup of their disgusting display before he returns. Thackeray is incensed, set to throw in the towel until he suddenly realizes he has been treating his brood as children when, in fact, in a few short weeks they will be thrust into the adult world as adults and, with all the responsibilities of the adult world suddenly heaped upon them. To this end, Thackeray reenters the room reinvigorated. He informs the students from this moment on, they shall address one another with the essential courtesies as ‘Miss’ or ‘Mr.’   All shall refer to him as either ‘Sir’ or ‘Mr. Thackeray’. He also outlines a few harsh facts for the brood to chew on; first, no man, except the worst kind, prefers a slut to a lady for too long; second, real men are never caught dead in public unkempt. Proper hygiene will be observed from now on. Finally, Thackeray elects to toss out the conventional modes of education for the duration of their time together. Instead, the students will engage him in conversations about topics that are interested in; love, sex, death, rebellion, etc. and et al.
Thackeray goes on to explain the rudimentary principles of growing up. Rebellion is a natural part of coming into one’s own. But it is only successful as either a trend or new way of looking at the world if it impacts the culture at large; peacefully, objectively and with the purpose to enhance the social order of the present, even as it leans toward a possible revisionist perspective for future generations who will follow it.  He imparts certain intrinsic wisdoms with pointed clarity. First, marriage is no way of life for the weak, the selfish or the insecure. These early truths become the foundation of his new teaching platform. Furthermore, Thackeray elects to broaden everyone’s horizons with a school trip to the Victoria and Albert Museum. If To Sir With Love has a singular flaw, it is the handling of this crucial sequence in the students’ enlightenment; photographed economically via a stilted montage of still images with Lulu’s title track heard for a second time in its entirety. Nevertheless, the trip is a great success.
Based on the exemplary behavior exhibited by everyone on this outing, the school’s administrator, Mr. Florian (Edward Burnham) approves Thackeray for more outings; Thackeray turning to his pupils for advice on where next they would like to go. In the meantime, Thackeray becomes aware Pamela has begun to harbor romantic feelings towards him; an unexpected complication he must eventually deal with in his own time and way. However, when P.T. teacher, Mr. Bell (Dervis Ward) inadvertently causes one of the boys, ‘Fats’ Buckley (Roger Shepherd) to become injured on the pommel horse during gymnasium practice, the mood amongst the male students gets ugly. Because Bell has treated the boys in general, and Fats in particular with callousness and contempt, Potter (Christopher Chittell) now elects to seize the broken wooden leg from the horse and give Bell a good thrashing; a confrontation narrowly averted when Tich bursts into Thackeray’s classroom for help. Thackeray listens to both sides; challenging Bell on his bad behavior. It is an unpopular decision, with Bell as well as the class; Denham exploiting the opportunity to turn everyone against Thackeray after he insists Potter apologizes to Bell for his bad behavior. As Thackeray points out, if Potter makes his recompense out of fear he will still be a boy, not a man.
Amidst this turmoil, Seale arrives late to the class, tearfully informing Thackeray his mother has died. Thackeray rushes to comfort, returning some time later to discover a very different attitude pervading his classroom. The students are against him because of the incident with Bell. Nevertheless, they have valiantly rallied to get together a collection for flowers for Seale’s mother. When Denham suggests Pamela have the order sent to the house, Thackeray questions why not deliver the flowers in person. Miss Peg explains how any girl who would enter the home of a ‘colored’ would be set up to ridicule, rumor and innuendo. It is the film’s first and only attempt to address the racial divide far more prevalently described in Braithwaite’s novel, and its impact carries all the more resonance in Sidney Poitier’s understated reaction. Owing to her lingering affections for Thackeray, Pamela offers to visit Seale’s home with the flowers – having grown up alongside his family since kindergarten. A short while later, Pamela’s mother (Ann Bell) pleads with Thackeray to have a talk with her daughter. An awkward strain runs through their brief conversation, Thackeray sensing some unpleasantness transpired between Pam and her father, whom Mrs. Dare lies about.
Thackeray confronts Pamela with her familial problems, telling her to grow up and give her mother another chance. Pamela is stubborn and wounded by this suggestion, much more so because she suddenly realizes her own romantic fantasies about Thackeray are simply that and destined never to go further. Henceforth, she tearfully refuses to fulfill her commitment with the flowers and storms out of the classroom. Florian tells Thackeray because of the incident with Mr. Bell all future fieldtrips for his class is suspended. Florian also informs Thackeray he will be taking over the P.T. class for the time being. It’s the perfect storm for Denham, who decides to test the class’ growing animosity by forcing Thackeray into a few rounds of fisticuffs with him in the school’s gymnasium. Very reluctantly, Thackeray agrees, holding Denham at bay for as long as he can, even allowing him to throw a few very angry, though well-timed punches before diffusing the situation for good with a quick upper cut to the stomach, leaving Denham winded and sidelined. The bout teaches everyone a lesson, but particularly Denham. Life is about more than the art of self-defense. Thackeray has, in fact, illustrated the more subtle and refined strength of humility. Through Denham, Thackeray wins back the respect of the entire class. He is invited to their farewell party; an invitation he cagily accepts.
On Saturday, Thackeray elects to meet the hearse carrying Seale’s mother on Juniper St., believing he will be the only attendee to extend such a kindness. Instead, he is utterly bewildered, and humbled to discover his entire class, properly dressed and mannered, turned out for the burial. That evening, the students gather for their final dance together; Pamela urging Thackeray to call her by her Christian name just this once and committing him to a slow dance. Weston is amazed by the transformation of the senior class. He even indulges in some homemade food prepared by Miss Peg. Once on the dance floor, Pamela reneges on her promise, forcing Thackeray to bring his dancing skills up to her speed. We hear a third reprise of the title song with slightly altered lyrics, the class presenting Thackeray with a present of their esteem; an engraved silver drinking cup. Overcome with emotion, Thackeray retires to his classroom without telling anyone except Gillian he has already accepted a position as third engineer with a local train manufacturer.  Thackeray’s moment of solitude does not last for too long; a pair of uncouth undergraduates (Kevin Hubbard, Sally Gosselin) bursting in and confronting Thackeray with the knowledge they will be his next educational assignment after the summer’s respite. Thackeray contemplates his future for a brief moment, removing the offer of employment from the train company from his breast pocket and tearing it up. He has found his niche as well as his chosen calling at last.
Fifty years later, To Sir With Love remains an affecting piece of cinema, despite its shortcomings and, primarily, because Sidney Poitier’s central performance is so undeniably heartfelt and sincere. Time has been kind, or perhaps, weathered the saccharine of the exercise, enough to expose its perennial appeal. The film really is all Poitier’s show and he gives us just about the greatest one man charmer of the decade.  In hindsight, the passionate men of integrity Poitier became typecast to play are an obvious bridge from the old ensconced social mores critiquing – and arguably, plaguing – black actors from a certain generation to our own present era, where their proliferation in roles as diverse as their Caucasian counterparts in the mainstream has become equally as commonplace. Poitier is a celebrated figure in this transformation of the cinema arts and rightly so. He reveals so much with just a single raised brow or penetrating stare projected into the audience. Is it any wonder his career soared to new heights in 1967; his popularity breaching racial boundaries?
The film is on less solid ground with James Clavell’s direction; his last plum assignment before effectively retiring; only to periodically resurface with marginal successes on television. In hindsight, To Sir With Love plays very much like television programming than a full-fledged movie; Clavell giving us the cinematic equivalent of an ABC ‘after school’ special. In some ways, To Sir With Love has always played better on television than it ever did inside a big movie house; Clavell’s concentration of static close-ups, indiscriminately inserted whenever and wherever to punctuate an actors’ reactions, a page ripped straight from the ‘how to’ handbook for a TV melodrama.  Paul Beeson’s cinematography effectively captures the grunge of London’s east end, a world apart from the socially affluent, enjoying their pleasures off Tottenham Court Road. In the final analysis, To Sir With Love retains a soft spot in our hearts not so much because we were all young once; rather, because most can recall at least one teacher from these formative years who made such a positive impact in their lives. Poitier’s Mark Thackeray is the right man for this job; the novice who quickly takes his job seriously and becomes entrenched in finding the goodness in his pupils. We all would wish for a Mark Thackeray in our lives.
Indicator/Powerhouse, a U.K. distributor, trump Twilight Time’s North American release of To Sir With Love; besting with a superior 1080p transfer (it’s slightly darker, but with vastly improved contrast and more accurate colors). There’s no skimping here. I have stated it in the past, but it bears repeating herein: Sony remains the only studio in Hollywood to have consistently maintained a high level of quality for all product released in hi-def. To Sir With Love is yet the latest benefactor of Grover Crisp’s enduring commitment to both the old Columbia library and the Blu-ray format. What a treat to see To Sir With Love looking so vibrant and rejuvenated in 1080p. Curious that TT’s release doesn’t sport the same transfer quality, given that its disc was presumably derived from Sony sanctioned digital files. But Indicator’s disc has better color and contrast. Regrettably, the main title sequence still looks as though it has been fed through a meat grinder; gritty, weak colors and poor contrast. Again, we are at the mercy of originally archived elements. I suspect these did not survive for a restoration. But immediately following the credits the image snaps together with startling clarity and color density. You’ll like what’s here for the most part. Contrast, on the whole is exceptional, and fine grain appears indigenous to its source. Colors are the biggest improvement on this transfer; bold, rich and eye-popping. Flesh tones, always a solid barometer by which to measure the integrity of color balancing, are very natural in appearance. We can see the minutest blemishes on skin, strands of hair and fiber in costuming as never before.
The original mono audio has been faithfully replicated in DTS 1.0; a good solid dialogue-driven track with nothing to complain about. Indicator’s extras are virtually identical to TT’s: an ‘isolated score’, a pair of audio commentaries, the first with Judy Geeson, TT’s founder, Nick Redman and film historian, Julie Kirgo; the other featuring author, E.R. Braithwaite and author/teacher Salome Thomas El. We get a few short subjects too: E.R. Braithwaite: In His Own Words; Lulu and the B-Side; Miniskirts, Blue Jeans and Pop Music; To Sidney with Love, and finally, Principal El: He Chose to Stay, plus the original theatrical trailer. Bottom line: To Sir With Love is a great – if flawed – entertainment. This Blu-ray is tops and deserves consideration on everyone’s list of ‘must haves’. Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


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