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“The Teacher's Unexpected Bath”: Plumbing the Meaning of Mayhem in the Celluloid Schoolroom

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 January 2017

Heather A. Weaver*
University of Sydney, Australia


Since the late 1930s, cinematic depictions of schooling have generally affirmed the necessity of school as a social institution and underscored the importance of formalized education for children and youth. Movies ranging from Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939) to Dead Poets Society (1989) have represented school as a place of tradition and order, and films such as The Corn Is Green (1945); Blackboard Jungle (1955); Good Morning, Miss Dove (1955); Up the Down Staircase (1967); and Stand and Deliver (1988) have portrayed teachers as heroic figures. It could seem that the film industry has always portrayed schooling in idealistic terms. But that is not the case. This essay examines the familiar cultural genre of films about schooling, but it does so by looking backward before Blackboard Jungle, even before Goodbye, Mr. Chips, to the first four decades of cinema—a period when schooling was rendered not as a necessity, but as a joke.

Copyright © 2014 History of Education Society 

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1 See, for example, Ayers, William, “A Teacher Ain't Nothin’ But a Hero: Teachers and Teaching in Film,” in Images of Schoolteachers in Twentieth-Century America: Paragons, Polarities, Complexities, ed. Pamela Bolotin Joseph and Gail E. Burnaford (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994), 686–94; McCloskey, Gary N., “Conformity, Conflict, and Curriculum: Film Images of Boys’ Preparatory Schools,” in Schooling in the Light of Popular Culture, ed. Farber, Paul, Provenzo, Eugene F., Jr., and Holm, Gunilla (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994), 173–89; Dalton, Mary M., The Hollywood Curriculum: Teachers in the Movies, rev. ed. (New York: Lang, Peter, 2004); and Farber, Paul and Holm, Gunilla, “A Brotherhood of Heroes: The Charismatic Educator in Recent American Movies,” in Schooling in the Light of Popular Culture, 153–72.

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2 None of these films survive today. All five were likely photographed by G. W. “Billy” Bitzer, who would go on to collaborate closely with Griffith, D. W. in making hundreds of motion pictures, including The Little Teacher in 1909 and the The School Teacher and the Waif in 1912. D. W. Griffith, the most successful director of the pre-Hollywood period, is primarily remembered for his highly racist feature-length picture, The Birth of a Nation (1915). He first made a name for himself as a director of hundreds of movie shorts with the Biograph Company beginning in 1908.

3 The American Film Institute Catalog of Motion Pictures Produced in the United States: Film Beginnings, 1893–1910, compiled by Elias Savada (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1995), 562, 719, 953, 1047, and 1094; and Marion, F. J., Picture Catalogue (New York: American Mutoscope and Biograph, 1902), 15, 217–18. It was in 1899 that American Mutoscope added “and Biograph” to its name. In 1909, it became simply the Biograph Company.

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4 For some thoughts on “what made popular culture ‘popular” in the years from 1880 to 1935, see Susan A. Glenn, “‘A Hero? Is Dot a Business:’ Vaudeville Comedy and American Popular Entertainment,” Reviews in American History 23, no. 4 (December 1995): 686–94.

5 As mentioned, the historical period of this study extends to around 1940. To be sure, the cinema would remain strong beyond this period. Yet by the late 1930s, a new visual medium, the television, was emerging that would eclipse the relative importance of films and other cultural formats. In 1938, the first commercial televisions were sold in the United States. The following year saw the beginning of regular television broadcasts. I see the advent of television, together with the threat of WWII, as signaling a new cultural era. For more about how WWII, the incipient Cold War, and the rise of television brought about the specific decline of movie culture in the 1940s, see Robert Sklar, Movie-Made America: A Cultural History of the Movies, rev. ed. (New York: Vintage Books, 1994), chapters 15–16.

6 Czitrom, Daniel cites 1907–1914 figures from The Saturday Evening Post, Moving Picture World, Harper's Weekly, and Outlook to establish that by 1914 U.S. movie theatres had more than 7 million daily admissions. See his Media and the American Mind: From Morse to McLuhan (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982), 42. Lary May more conservatively judges the number during the 1920s at between 20 and 30 million per week. Nonetheless, he calculates that by this time “movies absorbed the largest portion of the average American's recreation budget.” See his Screening Out the Past, chapter 6. As a guidepost for understanding the above numbers, it is usefulto know that the U.S. Census Bureau estimated the national population at just under 100 million in 1910 and around 123 million by 1930.

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7 See Gomery, Douglas, Shared Pleasures: A History of Movie Presentation in the United States (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992), chapters 5–6.

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8 See Butsch, Richard, The Making of American Audiences: From Stage to Television, 1150–1990 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000); Jackson Lears, Fables of Abundance: A Cultural History of Advertising in America (New York: Basic Books, 1994); Roland Marchand, Advertising the American Dream: Making Way for Modernity, 1920–1940 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994); Richard Ohmann, Selling Culture: Magazines, Markets, and Class at the Turn of the Century (New York: Verso, 1996); and Lary May, Screening Out the Past.

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9 Whereas social history examines societal phenomena using techniques of analysis found in economics, sociology, and psychology, cultural history by comparison explores the phenomena of popular culture using techniques found in cultural studies, literary criticism, and anthropology. For a seminal example of this approach, see Hunt, Lynn, ed., The New Cultural History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989).

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10 Nóvoa, António, “Texts, Images, and Memories: Writing ‘New’ Histories of Education,” in Cultural History and Education: Critical Essays on Knowledge and Schooling, ed. Popkewitz, Thomas S., Franklin, Barry M., and Pereya, Miguel A. (New York: RoutledgeFalmer, 2001); and Cohen, Sol, Challenging Orthodoxies: Toward a New Cultural History of Education (New York: Lang, Peter, 1999). As a study of images of schooling, this research also relates to the growing body of work on visuality and the material world that has been produced by historians of education. See for example: Marc Depaepe, “Belgian Images of the Psycho-Pedagogical Potential of the Congolese During the Colonial Era, 1908–1960,” Paedagogica Historica 45 (December 2009): 686–94; Burke, Catherine and Grosvenor, Ian, School (London: Reaktion Books, 2008); Lawn, Martin and Grosvenor, Ian, eds., Materialities of Schooling: Design, Technology, Objects, Routines (Oxford: Symposium Books, 2005); Malcolm Vick, “What Does a Teacher Look Like?” Paedagogica Historica 36, no. 1 (2000): 247–63; and Grosvenor, Ian, Lawn, Marin, and Rousmaniere, Kate, Silences and Images: The Social History of the Classroom (New York: Peter Lang, 1999).

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11 For wide-ranging examples of this work, see Chennault, Ronald E., Hollywood Films about Schools: Where Race, Politics, and Education Intersect (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006); Daniel Perlstein, “Imagined Authority: Blackboard Jungle and the Project of Educational Liberalism,” Paedagogica Historica 36, no. 1 (2000); Keroes, Jo, Tales Out of School: Gender, Longing, and the Teacher in Fiction and Film (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1999); Sol Cohen, Challenging Orthodoxies, chapter 6; Ronald D. Cohen, “The Delinquents: Censorship and Youth Culture in Recent U.S. History,” History of Education Quarterly 37 (Fall 1997): 686–94; Gary N. McCloskey, “Conformity, Conflict, and Curriculum: Film Images of Boys’ Preparatory Schools,” in Schooling in the Light of Popular Culture, ed. Farber, Paul, Provenzo, Eugene F., Jr., and Holm, Gunilla (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994), 173–89; and Graebner, William, Coming of Age in Buffalo: Youth and Authority in the Postwar Era (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990).

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12 Cultural histories of education on the period before 1950 include the following: May, Josephine, “A Field of Desire: Visions of Education in Selected Australian Silent Films,” Paedagogica Historica 46 (October 2010): 686–94; and Benjamin Justice, “Thomas Nast and the Public School of the 1870s,” History of Education Quarterly 45 (Summer 2005): 171–206.

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13 See for example Herbert Kliebard, The Struggle for the American Curriculum, 1893–1958, 3rd ed. (New York: RoutledgeFalmer, 2004); Ravitch, Diane, Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform (New York: Touchstone, 2000), chapters 2–8. Kate Rousmaniere, City Teachers: Teaching and School Reform in Historical Perspective (New York: Teachers College Press, 1997); and David Tyack and Larry Cuban, Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995).

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14 To give a sense of the reach of this newspaper, during the year prior to this, Hearst's New York Journal had a circulation of 430,000—compared with 9,000 for the New York Times the same year. See Michael Oriard, Reading Football: How the Popular Press Created an American Spectacle (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993), 75. Distributed currently by King Features Syndicate, the Katzenjammer Kids has the distinction of being the longest-running comic strip on record. The Katzenjammer Kids in School is notable in its own right for being one of the very earliest movies to have drawn its characters from the comics.

15 Procter, Ben, William Randolph Hearst: The Early Years, 1863–1910 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 101; and Richard Marschall, America's Great Comic-Strip Artists: From the Yellow Kid to Peanuts (New York: Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 1997), 42.

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16 Citations and images taken from the first English edition printed in the United States: [Wilhelm] Busch, Max and Maurice: A Juvenile History in Seven Tricks, trans. Charles, T. Brooks (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1871).

17 RTaylor, Loring observes the similarities between Max and Moritz and super-heroes in his “The Ambiguous Legacy of Wilhelm Busch,” Children's Literature 1 (1972): 8587.

18 Referenced from Hearst's syndicated copy in The San Francisco Examiner's “Comic Supplement,” (September 6, 1903), as reprinted in Richard Marschall, America's Great Comic-Strip Artists, 45. By 1903, the Katzenjammer Kids along with other Hearst comics were appearing in a weekly newspaper supplement in cities across the country, including New York, Richmond, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Columbus, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Nashville, Memphis, Minneapolis, Omaha, St. Louis, Denver, Seattle, and Spokane, as well as the city of Hearst's original paper, San Francisco. See Ian Gordon, Comic Strips and Consumer Culture (Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998), 3839.

19 Cuban, Lany has calculated that by 1910, two-thirds of students in the United States were still enrolled in rural schools. See his How Teachers Taught: Constancy and Change in American Classrooms, 1890–1990, 2nd ed. (New York: Teachers College Press, 1993), 25.

20 Eggleston's story set in rural Indiana around 1850 first appeared as a series of installments in 1871 issues of Hearth and Home magazine. Its popularity quickly led to its being published in book form. Harte's tale, not unlike Eggleston's with its backwoods setting and its schoolmaster protagonist, appeared a couple years later, first in a series of installments in The Golden Era, a San Francisco literary journal, and then in book form. Harte again used a schoolteacher as a main character in his novel Cressy. Edward Eggleston, The Hoosier Schoolmaster: A Novel(New York: Orange Judd, 1871); Bret Harte, M'liss: An Idyl of Red Mountain (New York: De Witt, R. M., 1873); and Bret Harte, Cressy (Boston: Houghton and Mifflin, 1889).

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21 For a look at life in early-twentieth-century urban schools, see Kate Rousmaniere, City Teachers: Teaching and School Reform in Historical Perspective (New York: Teachers College Press, 1997).

22 For more on the consensus during the progressive era about expanding the urban school systems, see chapter 2 of Jeffrey Mirel, The Rise and Fall of an Urban School System: Detroit, 1907–1981, 2nd ed. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999).

23 Eggleston, Edward, “Introduction” in The Schoolmaster in Literature, ed. Hubert M. Skinner (New York: American Book Company, 1892), 710.

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24 For a description of contemporary discourse about the “rural school problem,” see Reese, William J., America's Public Schools: From the Common School to “No Child Left Behind” (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), 66.

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25 From his urban vantage point in 1897 as a superintendent in the Boston area, Samuel T. Dutton was moved to pronounce the following: “The isolation of the teacher is a thing of the past.” But as Wayne E. Fuller notes, “Country schoolteachers were not hampered in their teaching by an excess of supervision. If indeed the county superintendent visited them once a year… it was surprising.” See Samuel T. Dutton, “Preface” in My Pedagogic Creed: also The Demands of Sociology Upon Pedagogy by Dewey, John and Small, Albion W. (New York: Kellogg, E. L. & Co., 1897), 1; and Fuller, Wayne E., “The Teacher in the Country School,” in American Teachers: Histories of a Profession at Work, ed. Donald Warren (New York: Macmillan, 1989), 105.

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26 Eggleston, Edward, The Hoosier Schoolmaster, rev. ed. (New York: Orange Judd, 1899), 50.

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27 Ibid., 53–55.

28 The Hoosier Schoolmaster, directed by Edwin August and Max Figman (Alliance Films Corporation, 1914).

29 Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, directed by Marshall Neilan (Artcraft Pictures Corporation, 1917).

30 Simon Louvish compares Griffith and Sennett on this score in his Keystone: The Life and Clowns of Mack Sennett (New York: Faber and Faber, 2003), 37.

31 These are silent and early-sound-era films that depict the experience of schooling and that survive in some form today. In chronological order, the films are The School Teacher and the Waif directed by Griffith, D. W. (Biograph, 1912); The Hoosier Schoolmaster (1914); The Little Teacher, directed by Mack Sennett (Mutual Film, 1915); Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917); The Headless Horseman, directed by Edward Venturini (Hodkinson, W. W., 1922); The New School Teacher, directed by Gregory La Cava (C. C. Burr Pictures, 1924); and Readin’ & Writin', directed by Robert McGowan (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1932).

32 Films from this period that feature audience-style shots of students laughing are The Hoosier Schoolmaster (1914), The Headless Horseman (1922), The New School Teacher (1924), and Readin’ and Writin' (1932).

33 Miriam Hansen addresses early instances of actors gazing directly at the camera, pointing out that some silent films “seem to be testing the boundary between the illusionist space on the screen and the spectator's space in the theater rather aggressively.” See her Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Film (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991), 3738.

34 Two Too Young, directed by Douglas Gordon (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1936).

35 This new image of a capable teacher was mirrored elsewhere, as in the late 1930s magazine advertisement from the National Board of Fire Underwriters, which reads: “The fire gongs sound… and three hundred children march quickly, quietly, without panic, to safety. For this is just like the many previous calls to fire drill… Trusting their elders, children take safety for granted.” National Board of Fire Underwriters, “The School's On Fire!,” Collier's, September 16, 1939, 51.

36 Time Out for Lessons, directed by Edward L. Cahn and Bud Murray (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1939). Hal Roach was no longer producing Our Gang by this time.

37 Goldin states that high-school enrollment went from 18 percent of fourteen-to seventeen-year-olds in 1910, to 73 percent in 1940. High-school graduation rates went from 9 percent of seventeen-year-olds to 51 percent. She notes that “the advance was particularly rapid from 1920 to 1935 in the nonsouthern states.” Claudia Goldin, “America's Graduation from High School: The Evolution and Spread of Secondary Schooling in the Twentieth Century,” Journal of Economic History 58, no. 2 (June 1998): 686–94. For a look at rising high-school enrollment in Depression-era Detroit, see Jeffrey Mirel, The Rise and Fall of an Urban School System, 131–37.

38 This self-censorship by the film industry can be traced back to the 1909 National Board of Censorship founded by the Motion Picture Patents Company. See Lee Grieveson, Policing Cinema: Movies and Censorship in Early-Twentieth-Century America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004); and Joel Spring, Images of American Life: A History of Ideological Management in Schools, Movies, Radio, and Television (New York: State University of New York Press, 1992), chapters 1,5. For more on the shift away from toward “socially affirmative” movies starting around 1935, see Henry Jenkins, What Made Pistachio Nuts: Early Sound Comedy and the Vaudeville Aesthetic (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992), especially 277–81.

39 See Gabler, Neil, An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood (New York: Doubleday, 1989).

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40 Advertisement reprinted in William Everson, American Silent Film (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), 25.

41 Rand, Helen and Lewis, Richard, Film and School: A Handbook for Moving-Picture Evaluation (New York: D. Appleton-Century, 1937), v–vi. For a related study of early educational films, see Barbara Erdman, “The Closely Guided Viewer: Form, Style and Teaching in the Educational Film,” in The Ideology of Images in Educational Media: Hidden Curriculums in the Classroom, ed. Elizabeth Ellsworth and Mariamne H. Whatley (New York: Teachers College Press, 1990), 2742. David Tyack and Larry Cuban believe that “most districts had no [film] projectors at this time.” See David Tyack and Larry Cuban, Tinkering Toward Utopia, 122–23. But their evidence for this claim is a 1936 survey in which, of the 9,000 districts responding, 6,074 confirmed that they had a silent film projector, and 458 confirmed they had a sound film projector. Thus it may be that a very significant number of school districts had acquired cinema technologies by the time Film and School was published in 1937. Indeed, part of the public relations strategy of the MPPDA involved reaching out to schools and providing them with movies for educational use. Be that as it may, the point of Film and School, evidenced by the Admission Paid heading on the scorecard, was to enable students in the school setting to evaluate movies they had seen in theaters.

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42 See Jowett, Garth S., Jarvie, Ian C., and Fuller, Kathryn H., Children and the Movies: Media Influence and the Payne Fund Controversy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

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43 Forman, Henry James, Our Movie Made Children (New York: Macmillan, 1933), 12,6.

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44 Photograph from Margaret Farrand Thorp, America at the Movies (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1939).

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