of a young teacher who inspires a group of undisciplined, uncouth young
people headed for dismal futures, is an ages old
story. You can trace it back to the old Bette Davis 1945 Warner Bros chestnut “The
Corn is Green,” and it goes back even farther than that. There have been many
variations of the same story, from MGM’s 1955 “The Backboard Jungle” co-staring a young Sidney Poitier as a manipulative juvenile delinquent, to “Up the Down Staircase,” “Stand and Deliver,” “Lean on Me,” “Dangerous Minds” and similar others.
But for my
money, one of the best is the British made 1967 Columbia Pictures movie, “To Sir
with Love,” written and directed by James Clavell, and starring Sidney Poitier, this time, moving up from a delinquent to the teacher who’s combating some wild youth, seriously in need of life makeovers.
Part of what
makes the film special is the fact that the story is based on a memoir written by E.R. Braithwaite (still alive now
in his mid-90’s) – a Guyanese/ British author, based on his real life experiences as a
teacher. Though with a Ph.D in Psychics, Braithwaite was not able to find a job
in his field and became a teacher who decided to throw away the class books, and teach
his unruly students about life and becoming self respecting young men and
after teaching, became a novelist, concentrating on social issues and
racism, and went on to an extraordinary career as an ambassador, as well as an internationally
renowned education expect and consultant. For a while, he also worked for the
But the film
itself is genuinely engaging and heartfelt, with real a charming quality to it, mainly thanks to the period and place the film was made – the psychedelic
“swinging London” of the mid-60s, when everything was “fab” and “mod,” with the mini dresses and go-go boots.
was a box office smash and not only solidified Poitier’s status as one of the
biggest movie stars in the world at the time, but also spawned a hit song by the then popular singing sensation, Lulu, who also has a supporting role
in the film.
and director of the film, James Clavell, also wrote the screenplay for the original version of sci-fi classic “The Fly,” as well as a
really solid but overlooked and underrated sci-fi paranoid thriller, “The Satan Bug,” and the World War II movie classic, “The Great
Escape” – the last two both directed by John Sturges.
And later in
the mid-70s, now working as a best selling novelist, Clavell wrote the mega
blockbuster book “Shogun,” which became the basis for the 1980 NBC TV mini-series, which is still one of the most watch programs
in TV history.
But what is
little known is how Poitier changed the game in the movie business with “To Sir, Love,” which had an effect that carried on into today. Something which I didn’t know myself – until
I read an interview with Clavell (who died in 1994): Columbia Pictures was eventually not all that convinced on the film and, as a result, gave it a very modest production budget of around
$700,000 (which would be around $5.2 million today). But Clavell
and the producers badly wanted Poitier for the lead role of Braithwaite, since it
was perfect casting, and there was no one else at the time who would have played
the role better.
The problem was
that, by the mid-60’s, Poitier was one of the biggest movie stars in the world, commanding
$1 million a picture – a staggering sum for an actor back then. So getting Poitier
for their very modestly budgeted film was going to be a real problem.
However, Poitier, the filmmakers and the studio made a
deal that, at the time, was novel and quite radical, and totally changed how business was done in Hollywood. The deal was for Poitier to make “Love” for scale, the lowest amount of money you could pay a
lead actor in a feature film at the time, according to the Screen Actors Guild. But, in exchange, Poitier got a back-end deal of a percentage of the net gross of the
film, also known as “dollar one participation.”
Now I’m not
talking about a percentage of the net profits. That has been around for decades, and, in fact, big name actors started getting that type deal in the early 1950’s, which meant that an actor got a percentage of the profits of a film after the
studio deducted production, marketing and distribution costs, and whatever accounting
chicanery, to make it appear that a film was still in the red, even though it was well into the black.
deal meant that he got a percentage of the world wide box office gross from the
first ticket sold, and not from the movie profits, if the studio ever decided
that the film had made one. Not surprisingly, he made more money from “Love” than
if he had just been paid a flat salary. And, of course, net gross deals have become very common today for many A-listers, but someone had to do it first.
And with all
this background, I can now tell you that “To
Sir, with Love” is coming out, for the first time, remastered on blu-ray, from
Twilight Time, on February 10, 2015. And that’s the story of how a little low budget
film secretly transformed Hollywood.