The First Rock Movie: "Blackboard Jungle"

There have been many rock films, from “A Hard Day’s Night” to “Don’t Look Back” to “This is Spinal Tap.” (A Top Ten list is here.)

But what was the first rock and roll movie? It was 1955’s “Blackboard Jungle,” which featured Bill Haley and the Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock.”

In 1954, MGM decided to develop Evan Hunter’s controversial best seller about juvenile delinquents in a New York City school and cast Glenn Ford as teacher Richard Dadier. “Rock Around the Clock” set the rebellious tone of the film right from the start, as it blared over the opening credits. It was the first major film to use a rock song.

Peter Ford, the actor’s son, was instrumental in getting the film onto the sound track. In 1954, Peter was a music-loving fifth-grader who had liked Haley’s first hit, “Crazy, Man, Crazy” and bought the follow-up, “Thirteen Women (and Only One Man in Town),” with “Rock Around the Clock” as its b-side.

(Director) Richard Brooks and my father would meet away from MGM during production to discuss the film. Working on a short schedule with no rehearsals with mainly non-actors was a test for everyone. Richard stopped by our house on occasion to visit Dad and talk about the production. It was on one of these visits that Richard heard some of my records. One of them was “Rock Around the Clock.” I now know that he borrowed that record and some others on one of his visits.

Joel Freeman, who was the assistant director on the film, recalled that toward the end of production, which would have been mid-December 1954, Brooks called him into his office to hear some records that he thought might possibly be used in the opening of the film. He played Joel three songs and they agreed that Haley’s up-tempo “jump blues” tune was the perfect choice for inclusion the film.

Bill Haley was not the first to record “Rock Around the Clock.” In fact, Haley was not even a rock and roller when he started. While rhythm & blues propelled pioneers like Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Bo Diddley to create rock and roll, Bill Haley took a different path: Western swing. By 1950, Haley's group The Saddlemen were recording horsey tunes like “Deal Me a Hand” and “Ten Gallon Stetson” on the small Philadelphia label Keystone.

By 1952, the band had become “Bill Haley and his Comets” thanks to a suggestion from WPWA program director Bob Johnson. With the new name came a new sound: early rockers like “Rock the Joint” and “Crazy, Man, Crazy,” the Comets first hit.

In 1954, everything changed with the recording of “Rock Around the Clock.” Originally recorded by novelty group Sonny Dae and the Knights, the song went nowhere. Haley's version became a huge international hit, with eight weeks at number one. The song busted out after its appearance in "Blackboard Jungle."

Ellen Barnes describes what was really behind the lyrics.

This was music that throbbed and ached, gyrated and squirmed. You couldn’t bring this music home to Mom and Dad. “Rock Around the Clock,” which may or may not have been about dancing all night, seemed to insinuate something naughtier – that it wasn’t dancing but sex that would be happening “’til broad daylight.”

Haley, who died in 1981, followed “Clock” with great hits like “Shake, Rattle & Roll,” “See You Later Alligator,” and “Dim, Dim the Lights.” But “Rock Around the Clock” would remain his greatest hit, even making it back into the Top 40 after its use as the theme of the TV show “Happy Days.”

(An exhaustive history of “Rock Around the Clock” was written by Alex Frazer-Harrison.)

 

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