Saturday, February 28, 2015

Review: 'To Sir, with Love' Blu-ray



To Sir, with Love is one of those movies that are impossible to separate from the period in which it was made. That period is Sixties London, and the film’s most enjoyable elements are knotted up with that swinging setting. You’ve got period pop-star Lulu serenading period movie-star Sidney Poitier with the lovely/corny title song, one of the period’s biggest smash hits. There are a bunch of teenagers fruging to The Mindbenders’ generic R&B and serious discussions about how revolutionary long hair and The Beatles are. There isn’t a ton going on under such surface elements. The “compassionate teacher swoops in and tries to save the souls of delinquent classroom” trope wasn’t new in ’67— in fact, this film’s teacher, Sidney Poitier, played a delinquent in another such movie, Blackboard Jungle, twelve years earlier—and the fact that this particular film features a Guyanese teacher presiding over a classroom of mostly white English kids is not explored in any meaningful way. We don’t get to know that much about Poitier’s Mark “Sir” Thackeray, or his three prominent students: Pamela (Judy Geeson), a minor-league upstart with a heart of gold, Denham (Christian Roberts), the requisite leather-jacketed rebel without a wit, and Babs (Lulu), the sassy one. You’d never know that these cardboard cut outs were based on real people (the kids even wear the same outfits every day like cartoon characters).

The plot is not really developed beyond the aforementioned trope, and To Sir, with Love mostly functions as a string of vignettes, the best of which break out of Sir’s classroom. The museum outing sequence, a montage of still pictures set to the title song, is quaint and delightful, a sort of super-restrained flipside to the abandoned “Can’t Buy Me Love” sequence in A Hard Day’s Night. The climactic school dance is great fun, as Poitier drops his cool to dance with Geeson. Lulu performs the song again as all the kids stare at their emotionally overcome teacher in a genuinely poignant moment. 

Poitier is celebrated for his “dignity,” a dull designation that doesn’t do justice to his abilities. Screenwriter (and director and producer) James Clavell translated the real Sir, E.R. Braithewaite, into a movie character in sketchy strokes. Poitier breathes life into Clavell’s creation with flashes of bemusement (I love his reaction to an old woman who says she wants Sir Thackeray “in her Christmas stocking” on a bus), joy (ditto how he dances around when he gets a new job offer) and scary anger. Sir has come to symbolize the perfect teacher in the same way Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey has come to symbolize the all-American husband and dad, but both characters are much darker than such malformed distinctions imply. Sir rightfully freaks out when his female students burn a mysterious object in his classroom (those who read Braithewaite’s book will know it’s a used maxi pad; the rest of us have to figure it out for ourselves), but it’s really ugly when he calls them “sluts.” A lot of his teaching methods—such as having his students read random phrases from their textbooks or giving them salad recipes—are pretty strange too.

For the most part, the bad kids really aren’t that bad, which makes the whole affair a pretty low-stakes one. The worst thing they do is saw a leg off Sir’s desk. A more typical transgression is when Denham gets caught playing with a rubber chew toy in class. Call the cops!

It’s considerable flaws aside, To Sir, with Love is generally a sweet and enjoyable period piece, and Twilight Time’s new blu-ray does right by the film in every way. The well-grained picture adds a layer of grittiness the sweet kids in Sir’s class can’t always deliver and colors are good. Unlike a lot of Twilight Time discs, there is an abundance of special features. The best is a 23-minute talk with E.R. Braithewaite, who discusses the issues of race the film doesn’t wade into very deeply, including his relationship with a white teacher (played by Suzy Kendall in the film) her small-minded father brought to a sad conclusion. Braithewaite also gets a commentary track he shares with Salome Thomas El, an author and contemporary African-American principal, who discusses how the film reflects the actual classroom experience (El also gets his own 11-minute on screen featurette). Twilight Time’s Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman host an alternate commentary track with Judy Geeson, who discusses the film’s making (strangely, those costumes the cast wear over and over are their own clothes) and impact. Featurettes featuring Lulu and Michael Des Barres discussing the hit title song (which producer Mickie Most repressed from being an A-side in the UK!) and the film’s making, agent Marty Baum discussing client Sidney Poitier’s work in it, and an isolated score track round out this thoughtfully produced blu-ray. Get it on Screen Archives.com here.
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