Sunday, January 17, 2010

To Ma'am with love

Tomorrow being Martin Luther King Day, TCM is marking the occasion by showing a number of movies with predominantly black casts. One of the lesser-known movies showing up is Bright Road, at 10:30 AM.

There isn't much to Bright Road on the face of it. Dorothy Dandridge stars as Jane Richards, a new teacher at a school in a small black town. Among the students is the troubled C.T. Young (played by Philip Hepburn, in his only screen appearance), who habitually rebels against authority. However, Miss Richards believes -- perhaps naïvely -- that she can reach all of the children, including C.T., and sets out to make a difference in his life. It's not easy of course, since various misfortunes befall C.T. and the rest of the school, including a serious illness striking one of the students.

Although the movie has a fairly simple plot, it's quite well-made. It's the sort of little movie that MGM started making in the early 1950s, after Louis B. Mayer was pushed out and new head man Dore Schary (who was responsible for bringing last Saturday night's Essential, Battleground, to MGM) began to authorize movies that were less glamorous in storyline, but had the slick production values of MGM behind them. Bright Road says a lot without saying much, offering a subtle lesson in human dignity.

As for the cast, most of them were relative unknowns since this was an almost all-black movie. Dandridge is pretty darn good in the lead, although the best of the cast is Hepburn. Also appearing is Harry Belafonte, in his screen debut, playing the school principal. Frankly, he's not very good in most of his movies, and Bright Road is no different. However, he was a capable singer, and MGM used this to effect, shoehorning a Belafonte song into the movie despite it really having no bearing to the plot. Dandridge gets to sing, too, although at least in her case, she's singing in church where it fits with the plot.

Bright Road might also be reminiscent of To Sir, With Love, which is also airing on TCM on Monday 6:00 PM, in that both are episodic movies looking at a year in the life of a teacher who tries to influence his/her charges. But To Sir, With Love deals with much older students, and more grown-up themes. Bright Road is a more innocent movie -- but an endearing one, at that. Sadly, Bright Road has yet to be released to DVD.

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