Judge Brett Cullum refuses to succumb to petrification and finds Maggie Smith and the crème de la crème in Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie!
Our review of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1978), published March 2nd, 2013, is also available.
"Little Girls! I am in the business of putting old heads on young shoulders, and all my students are the crème de la crème. Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life!"—Jean Brodie
A classic! There is no more fitting word than "classic" for this 1969 release starring Maggie Smith. Teacher themed movies like Dead Poet's Society, Mona Lisa Smiles, Goodbye Mr. Chips, To Sir With Love, and Mr. Holland's Opus are popular about once every decade. But Miss Jean Brodie and her "girls" are truly the crème de la crème, and the movie hits every note perfectly. It's a heady rush of Hollywood at its best! Maggie Smith took home the Best Actress Oscar for the film, but you won't find this story lacking for other great performances. It is Volume 20 in the Fox Studio Classics series, and deservedly so.
Facts of the Case
The story is a simple and familiar one. At a day school in 1932 Edinburgh, a young teacher inspires her students to live life to the fullest by passionately teaching them about art and history. She encourages independent thinking, defends fascism, and runs into friction from the school's conservative head mistress. The students and male members of the faculty love her! She picks out her favorite students and leads them to become models of herself or rather how she wishes to be. Teaching is her life, and she lives through her students. But the world is changing, and Miss Jean Brodie is destined to face a harsh reality that will make her and her students question how much wisdom should temper pure passion.
We follow four students, as they matriculate through the Marcia Blaine school for girls, under Brodie's tutelage. She takes them on day trips to museums, picnics on the grounds, nights at plays or the opera, and weekend jaunts out to one of her suitors' estates. Sandy (Pamela Franklin), the smart and perceptive one, emerges as the girls' ringleader. You also have the pretty Jenny (Diane Grayson), the stuttering orphan Mary MacGregor (Jane Carr), and the emotional Monica (Shirley Steedman). They all blossom, as young girls do, magically becoming more and more aware of themselves and the world, but always tempered and molded by the crafty machinations of their mentor and favorite teacher.
Two men love Brodie and vie for her affections. One is the married art teacher, Teddy Lloyd, played by Robert Stephens the real life husband of Maggie Smith at the time. He is so infatuated with Jean that all of his portraits look like her! Even paintings of his own family reflect his singular obsession with Brodie's face—right down to the family dog. He and Brodie have heat, but ultimately they are doomed by his marriage. The other potential paramour for our single schoolmarm is Gordon Lowther (Gordon Jackson), a doting and faithful yet boring widower who teaches music. He is wealthy, but the heat just isn't there! The girls become very aware of the triangle created by these three, and Brodie does little to shield them from it. In fact, she even tries to dangle one of them to the art teacher as her sexual surrogate.
Miss Brodie's nemesis emerges as Miss Mackay, the conservative head mistress
played by Celia Jackson. She is always trying to find a way to get rid of Jean
Brodie who she sees as a dangerous influence threatening the standard
curriculum. Miss Mackay thinks Brodie's girls are spooky and mature, and do not
adhere to hard wisdom and disciplines such as math and physical fitness.
The first part of the film is all frivolity and light! Brodie is a dash of color moving through the very gray world of Marcia Blaine. Her lectures are inspiring and funny! She digs at classical painters, and rhapsodizes about her times in Italy. But a series of events force an extreme turn, and suddenly events at the school reveal a horrific side to Miss Brodie's unusual methodology. The film grows darker and darker, and we get glimpses of what is behind our favorite teacher's flowery and colorful façade. Brodie has to have everything her way. She does not see herself as a mere teacher, but a born leader and the embodiment of providence. She is ultimately the perfect fascist, and it's going to take somebody willing to move heaven and earth to stop her!
Maggie Smith plays Miss Jean Brodie flawlessly! The Oscar was hers from her first entrance, and it's a joy to watch her performance. One Amazon reviewer notes she has "SASS UP THE WAZOO!" and that's pretty apt. But it is not solely her movie, as one might think. Pamela Franklin holds her own as Sandy, the brightest of her students. She bravely plays a girl who goes from mousy and timid to bold and empowered. It's a shame that, later in life, Pamela ended up in America doing television. She was wasted in fluff like Satan's School for Girls, but here's a star turn worthy of her.
The movie is brilliantly directed by Ronald Neame. He is an old-school filmmaker of the studio system long gone. You may recognize his adventure titles such as 1979's Meteor or 1972's The Poseidon Adventure. He had a 50-year career as a cinematographer and director working with such pros as Robert Mitchum and Hitchcock. He helms this picture, which was adapted from both a novel and successful stage play. What he offers the production is how to keep a dialogue heavy movie interesting and always moving forward with subtle stylistic choices. He's a craftsman who probably deserves more credit than he got when the film was made. Just check out how he uses the Technicolor process to play out his themes. He makes the school and the girls gray and listless, and uses Maggie Smith's wardrobe and hair to virtually pop off the frame. He incorporates subtle themes. Notice the role eyes play in the movie. One character is all pupil, no iris…and she never speaks. Glasses are placed on characters who see the real world. Watch who makes eye contact when, and how he uses the director's eye (the camera) to make editorial statements.
The DVD is a good package, if not spectacular. Basically you get a good transfer of both picture and sound for a movie of this age. Transferring 35-year-old films is always tough. The print used has some age artifacts—dirt and grainy scenes pop up time to time—but they are minimal, and there is almost NO edge enhancement problems. There is some flickering as well, and of course you get shimmer on some of the black and white suits of Miss Mackay. The aspect ratio is preserved at 1.85:1 enhanced for 16X9 TV sets, and you have both a stereo and mono mix of the soundtrack. The dialogue gets a little muddy in both mixes at times, but it is serviceable. The score sounds great, a vast improvement over TV airings which seem to mutilate the original score which is heavy on strings.
Central to the extras is the commentary with director Ronald Neame and Pamela Franklin. They were recorded separately, but it's an engaging track full of anecdotes that illuminate their entire careers. Some of it is scene specific, but largely it's two people with stories to tell. Ronald is into his 90s, but sounds so clear and charming you'd swear he was in his PRIME. He is Hollywood royalty, and explains film in a way that even a layman can relate to. A careful look at the packaging reveals a horrible typo in the synopsis, listing him as ROBERT Neame. Shame on FOX—proof your packaging next time! Pamela's portion is funny and warm. She talks about being 20 and having to square off acting up against the intimidating Maggie Smith. She also tells you why her career took a sharp turn after this movie. For film students and aspiring actors, this is an essential track. For the rest of us, it's an enlightening two hours that is as rewarding as the film itself. You also get some very grainy and SPOILER RIDDEN trailers. There is a still gallery, subtitles, chapter divisions, and a sampling of trailers from other features in the Fox Classics series.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Some will find this film slow. It came from an era when plodding plots were normal, and character development was essential. If you hang in there, the end is truly rewarding and moving. I will probably get hate mail for saying this, but The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is what Dead Poets Society should have been—fearless. No sugar coating and no pandering whatsoever. Political correctness be damned—this movie is the real deal. But viewers raised on the Robin Williams film or Julia Roberts latest incarnation of this story may find themselves on uneasy ground. What makes a great teacher? Well, Hollywood says be careful of the independent free-spirited ones.
At around $10.00 this is an easy addition to your collection. It also makes a perfect gift for that special teacher you suspect may be a Brodie. I think I may send out 10 anonymous packages myself.
Miss Brodie and her girls are free to go into the world, as long as they don't follow the fascists. The movie itself is pure perfection. Kudos to Fox for the commentary, but razzies to them for not proofing the package credits and skimping on any further extras. But they do pass the final exam for an acceptable transfer and labeling the film what it is…a classic.
And don't worry about Miss Brodie…we all know where she ended up. Her new special student has a birthmark on his forehead and an owl for a familiar. Yes, after being accused of being a witch she ended up at…HOGWARTS!
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