I was eleven in 1967 when this film came out and I can’t say I remember much of the story. The title song, though. We used to slow dance to it at parties and my graduating sixth grade class sang it to our teachers, none of whom were anywhere near as cool as Sidney Poitier.
So, how does “To Sir With Love” stand up today? Not very well, I’m afraid. British theater was dealing with “serious” issues of class and, to a lesser extent, race. Poitier had already acted in the first production of A Raisin in the Sun on Broadway, then starred in the film version. In that play, he had a much angrier role; even Virgil Tibbs, his character in the award-winning “In the Heat of the Night,” had his edgy side.
But this film largely side-steps the issues, indulging in the kind of reverse-psychology approach to dealing with “troubled youth” that was common among guidance counselors and social workers of the era. Poitier teaches the inner-city London hoodlums to treat him and one another with respect. “No man likes a slut for long,” he tells the girls. “Only the worst type will marry them.” Straight talk from a straight guy. He takes them to a couple of museums and shows sensitivity for their personal problems. Once or twice he loses his temper — these are probably the most genuine moments in the film — but there are plenty of embarrassing scenes.
I don’t blame Poitier, mind you. A grown man in a suit, doing The Frug, is not a pretty sight. But that title song’s a keeper. When they sang it on the first-season “Glee” finale, even coach Sue Sylvester teared up.
(13 February 2011)