Monday, September 11, 2017

Sandy Dennis Goes Up the Down Staircase

I confess that I have never been a Sandy Dennis fan. Perhaps, it was her choice of roles, but her characters always came across as a contrived combination of exaggerated emotions. But after recently watching Up the Down Staircase (1967), maybe Ms. Dennis deserves a reassessment. Her incredibly natural performance as a dedicated young teacher is the highlight of this slightly more realistic variation of the same year's more popular To Sir, With Love.

She plays Sylvia Barrett, a fresh out-of-college teacher at Calvin Coolidge High School in an impoverished New York City neighborhood. It's the kind of school where one of the routine announcements is: "All assaults and attempted assaults suffered by teachers in connection with their employment must be reported at once."

Sylvia has no illusions about her new job, but she's still surprised to find limited supplies (one piece of chalk), broken glass on the classroom floor, and a lack of textbooks. Her complaints are ignored, as the head administrator is consumed with disciplining students and ensuring that the school's myriad forms are completed. Undeterred, Sylvia buys her own supplies, cleans up the broken glass, and sets out to teach literature to her unruly students.

Ellen O'Mara as a lovesick student.
Three students pose particular challenges for the young teacher: a teenage girl who thinks every plot is a love story (even Macbeth) and who has a crush on a handsome male English teacher; a leather-clad young man with a high IQ who is constantly on probation and in danger of being expelled; and Jose Rodriguez, the boy at the back of the class who never says a word.

Based on Bel Kaufman's autobiographical bestseller, Up the Down Staircase shares many similarities with To Sir, With Love...right down to a feel-good ending. However, its setting--the film's exterior scenes were shot in East Harlem--does a better job of evoking the socioeconomic conditions faced by the students and their families.

In one of the best scenes, a woman asks if she can stay during a teacher meeting even though she is not a student's mother. We learn that the youth in question has drifted from family to family after being abandoned by his prostitute mother. He sleeps on a sofa, works in a garage all night, and falls asleep during class. His "mother" wants Sylvia to pass the young man just so he can graduate.

Sylvia in a moment of frustration.
Sandy Dennis captures Sylvia's determination, frustrations, and love of teaching. When she finally reaches a student--if only momentarily--her face lights up with joy. It's a quiet, lovely performance and, in my opinion, superior to her Oscar-winning turn in the previous year's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Dennis followed Up the Down Staircase with a handful of leading roles in films like Sweet November (1968) and The Out of Towners (1970). Her film work decreased in the 1970s, leaving her to focus again on the stage where she had her greatest successes as an actress. She won two Tonys in the 1960s, as lead actress in Any Wednesday (1964) and as featured actress in A Thousand Clowns (1963). Sandy Dennis died of ovarian cancer in 1992 at age 54.

"Boss Hogg" as an educator?
Her supporting cast includes a handful of familiar faces, such as future Oscar winner Eileen Heckart (Butterflies Are Free) and Jean Stapleton (All in the Family). The scholarly principal Dr. Bester is played by Sorrell Booke--later famous for playing Boss Hogg on The Dukes of Hazzard TV series. I was surprised to learn that Ellen O'Mara, who gives a very appealing performance as the lovesick Alice, had only three film and TV credits.

Here's a clip from Up the Down Staircase. You can view it full-screen on the Classic Film & TV Cafe's YouTube Channel. You can also stream the entire movie at


  1. This is one of those films I have been meaning to get to, but it's been on the back burner for so long I must have forgotten it is there. I enjoyed learning more about it and must move it forward.

  2. I remember picking up the book at a yard sale to read before seeing it. I remember my mom talking about it when I was little as she'd begun her teaching career. Thanks for reminding me! Will read and see soon.

  3. My grandmother was a teacher and she encouraged me to read the book. I then saw the movie. Now, I am retired after 40 years of teaching secondary students. The world really hasn't changed that much . . . no matter how many new initiatives, there are still problems that seem insurmountable at times.

  4. I've never been a Sandy Dennis fan, either, so I was interested in your review of this film. It sounds like a good adaptation, and I'll look for it on Warner Archive.

    P.S. My mother had a hardcover copy of this book on her shelf for years when I was growing up. I was never tempted to read it, but now I'm going to see if she still has that copy...

    1. You're at least the third person to mention the book on social media!

  5. Sandy Dennis was an actress of many tics and idiosyncrasies which often got in the way of my enjoying her performances fully (or even slightly-I hate her performance in Virginia Woolf). But in this film she manages to subsume her most egregious quirks and turn in her most accessible and I think best performance. I would have much rather seen her competing for this in the Oscar race. Add in to that the film that the performance is contained in is both intelligent and entertaining and it comes up a winner.

    1. Well said, Joel! That pretty much sums up my assessment, too.

  6. You really sold me on this one, Rick. The title has always rung a bell but I never took the time to sit down and watch the film. I have a weakness for teacher-features and since it's on Warner Archive I'll try and view it this week. Enjoyed this review!

  7. Fascinating post and comments. I will need to try and see this and tell myself it has nothing to do with, gag, "Virginia Woolf."