Dead Poets Society
Dead Poets Society

Walking down my lane it isn’t uncommon for folks to bid you the time of day. But today a rather loud “Good Morning,” sent memory bells ringing and into the frame came

“Good Morning, Miss Dove,” a movie I saw in 1955 with my parents.

So I Googled to find it was Jennifer Jones who played the teacher Miss Dove, the epitome of gentility and wisdom, and well loved in the area. She was in her mid-40s, quite sedate and a decade after playing the sexy “Madame Bovary.”

There were many other teacher-student movies I saw later but the point one is making is that in those days the teacher’s role was considered of prime importance. And in India too it was the best who went in for that “noble profession.” That was before stenos and their ilk took that pride of place.

But let’s briefly go through some of those teacher-student movies though in some the teacher’s role is questionable. In “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” (1969) Maggie Smith plays the questionable Jean Brodie who says “Give me a girl at an impressionable age, and she’ll be mine for life.”

That is when ego takes over and for that very reason student Sandy (Pamela Franklin) confronts her because she will be a bad influence on her wards. Director Ronald Neame stays close to the book of the same name by Muriel Spark and brings out the fierce conflict that ensues but it is Maggie Smith who steals the show with an excellent Oscar-winning performance.

Good Morning, Miss Dove
Good Morning, Miss Dove

But even before “Jean Brodie,” came “Up the Down Staircase” (1967) set in Calvin Coolidge High School in New York where the students of various races and ethnicities, some with criminal backgrounds, and it falls upon Sylvia Barrett (Sandy Dennis), fresh from graduate school. What an ordeal it is for Sylvia.
One girl has a crush on a male teacher and tries to jump out of the window, another appears with a black eye. A boy on Court probation with a high IQ but a mixed academic record is there and so is another who works on the night shift and falls asleep in class. Miss Barrett is to make “good citizens” of this rabble.

Just after her Best Supporting Actress Oscar in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf ?,”an ebullient Sandy Dennis gets under the skin of this utterly challenging role, using her own inventive methods to transform this unruly bunch into proper students.

Around the same time came “To Sir, With Love,” a somewhat melodramatic drama with Sidney Poitier in the lead role as an African emigrant Mark Thackeray teaching in an East London school where chaos is the order of the day.

That noted singer Lulu also sang the theme song “To Sir, With Love” gave the film a further boost and among the disparate students were Christian Roberts, Judy Geeson and Suzy Kendall with major problems to iron out. They also stayed on to become major Hollywood names. It was around that time that an article “Guess Who’s that Phoney Actor?” appeared in the Indian press. It referred to Poitier who played the goody-goody black, or a black as a white man would have him be. But at that time it was the only way a black was accepted in Hollywood.

Later, Spike Lee (“Do the Right Thing”) and John Singleton (Boyz N the Hood”) corrected that image by portraying the raw, no-holds-barred black. It had to be a metamorphosis and it wasn’t fair to label Poitier a “phoney actor”

Much later came “Dead Poet’s Society” (1989), as disturbing as “Jean Brodie” where the focal point is English teacher John Keating (Robin Williams) whose mantra is “make your lives extraordinary.” Not surprisingly he revolutionizes his wards at Weltons, an elite prep boarding school.

His wards include shy Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke) who is assigned Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard) one of the most brilliant students as his room-mate. Neil’s friends are over smart Knox Overstreet (Josh Charles), an overachiever Richard Cameron (Dylan Kussman) among others.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Keating is believed to have been a member of the unsanctioned Dead Poet’s Society and his wards want to revive it much to the angst of Headmaster Gale Nolan (Norman Lloyd).

Reading of poetry late into the night and organizing of plays by Keating rubs the authorities wrongly. Parents are also involved and when Neil Perry commits suicide Welton makes headlines. Keating is sacked.

But is that the end? No. The seeds are expected to sprout again. Which all goes to show how controversial teachers can be. And dealing with them can be as sensitive as handling the students themselves. But it surely provokes thought as it deals with the tight-rope walk on this delicate but always popular subject.

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