The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969) from Tuna and Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and a reader
Tuna's notes in yellow:
Jean Brodie is a liberated school teacher at a
private school for girls in 1932 Edinburgh. All of her girls are the
"creme-de-la-creme," and she informs them that she realized over her
summer holiday in Italy that she was now in her prime. Her girls
adore her, but the headmistress feels very differently about Miss
Brodie and her teaching methods. Miss Brodie believes passionately
about things. Unfortunately, they are often the wrong things. She is
a big fan of Mussolini, and later, Franco. She had an affair with
the art instructor, but broke it off, possibly because of his wife
and five kids. She is now beguiling another professor, and she and
her pet girls spend Sundays at his estate.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was actually released in October of 1969, at which time, there was a particularly syrupy movie song which was played several times per hour on all Top 40 radio stations throughout the United States. In fact, although it was not a rock or R&B song, but a sappy love poem set to insipid music, it actually rose to #2 on the record charts, and stayed on the charts for 12 weeks, alongside The Rolling Stones, The Temptations, and Sly & the Family Stone.
Can you guess what it was? If you guessed "Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head", you get no points.
The correct answer is "Jean", the theme song from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, as sung by some sap named Oliver, and written by the even sappier would-be poet, Rod McKuen. Needless to say, if you were into real music at the time, the appearance of "Jean" on a radio was an occasion to throw your beer at the offending device, since the song consisted of the perfect combination of syrupy music which would cause any self-respecting elevator to eject its MUZAK cartridge, and lyrics which could have been written by a 12 year old girl. Except of course that a 12 year old girl could have written "Jean", but would have thrown the poem away once she re-read it. Rod McKuen never had that much sense.
As Dave Barry once wrote, the lyrics to "Jean" should have been:
Mr Oliver and Mr McKuen, by the way, probably contributed as much to bad music as any two men in the 20th century. I suppose that the two songs which most often appear on All-Time Bad Lyrics lists are "Seasons in the Sun" and "Good Morning Starshine". McKuen actually wrote the awful lyrics to "Seasons in the Sun" ("skinned our hearts and skinned our knees"), and Oliver had a big hit singing the even worse lyrics to "Good Morning Starshine". (Actual lyrics: "Gliddy glub gloopy nibby nabby noopy, La la la lo lo, Sabba sibby sabba nooby abba nabba, Le le lo lo, Tooby ooby walla nooby abba naba").
For these two giants of bad music to team together on one song was a serendipitous concatenation of circumstances which may never be re-created, so we who were there can only marvel at our fortune.
Oliver had two or three more truly awful hits, then disappeared for two decades, but his name came into the public eye again in the '90s when he became one of only three groups or artists (along with Paul Anka and the Captain and Tennille) to have more than one song named among the notorious "Worst 100 Singles of the Last 25 Years," by David Browne and David Hinckley for The New York Daily News. Both "Jean" and "Good Morning Starshine" made the list.
You go, girl!
Oliver passed away of cancer in 2000, aged only 54.
Rod McKuen, on the other hand, may live forever, and is still writing, although it has been about 20 years since anyone published any of his books, and nearly thirty years since he has had a music credit listed at IMDb. If you want to read his unpublished stuff, here is his home page.
Getting back to the narrative for a moment, "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head" doesn't usually make the Worst 100 lists, but the competition is incredibly stiff. It ain't easy to top Mack Davis and Richard Harris, not to mention McKuen and Oliver. "Raindrops", however, did go on to be an even bigger hit than "Jean", reaching number one at one point, and appearing on the charts for nineteen weeks. While not quite as sappy and irritating as "Jean", it became even more intrusive.
One thing that fascinated me about this quaint movie is the character of Miss Jean Brodie, because I knew a woman exactly like this. I mean EXACTLY like this. She was a teacher at an private women's college in upstate New York in the late 60's. She talked exactly as Maggie Smith did in this film - the same pompous and commanding pronouncements, the same diva persona and egocentricity, the same mannered and affected grande dame style. Precisely the same except for Jean Brodie's Scottish accent. They both rattled on and on about Florence, Italy and Dante when it was irrelevant to their subject matter. In the main, they were both quite well loved by their students. They both had repeated catch-phrases. The woman I knew preferred hyphenated Homeric epithets as her personal catch phrases, like "the great white-walled city of Florence". She was just as eccentric and passionate and "progressive" as Jean Brodie. Her name was Francesca Guli. Francesca was just as certain of her convictions as Jean Brodie. Thankfully she had much less malevolent convictions, and was teaching university students. By the way, Francesca was semi-famous, in that she had a few books of poetry published in limited editions (I have one of her books, signed by her - it's a children's book about Dante as a child - what else?), and you can probably find some references to her somewhere on the internet.
What is my point? I'm getting there.
If I had never met Francesca, I would say that Miss Jean Brodie is an unrealistic over-the-top character. But I know, or knew, a woman exactly like her. I therefore conclude that one of two things must be true. Either (1) this actually is a realistic portrayal of a certain type of woman who existed in the middle 20th century, or (2) Muriel Spark's novel, the source of the character, must actually have been based on Francesca. I do not think the second could be true, which leads me to conclude that the first is correct. There were others like Francesca. Perhaps many others.
The essence of the character of Jean Brodie is summed up perfectly by Tuna. She has strong, passionate opinions about everything, and they are usually wrong. She has contempt for any Catholic. She is an ardent supporter of Fascism. She encourages one young girl to die for Franco. When she's not screwing up the girls with Fascism and bigotry, she's leading them into having sex with older married men. She leads the girls with such certainty, delivers her pronouncements with such a complete absence of self-doubt, that many students seem to follow her willingly and unquestioningly, however silly her causes.
This creates an atypical film. In certain ways, it is preaching anarchy to the "caring teacher" genre. On the surface, it is one of those films where the renegade teacher fights against the repressive system to bring her students more enrichment and to give their lives more value. Beneath the surface, however, it subverts all of our expectations. This is no "To Sir With Love", because in this case the system is acting in the best interests of the students, and the caring, renegade teacher is screwing the kids up.
To use the old cliché, Jean Brodie is a teacher who really cares. The problem is she cares about all the wrong things, and has all the wrong attitudes toward those things!
The film, by the way, is essentially a talky stage play that was brought to the screen with no particular cinematic flair. It is a good, solid play, typical of the times in British drama, but it has very little plot development and far too little humor, and is only for those of you who are really into the theater and in-depth character studies.
|Letter from a reader:
"The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" is
the Book of the Month on BBC Radio 4 this month. (See
Last week they broadcast a lengthy interview with Dame Muriel where she
talked at length about the novel, which school it is based on, which
woman/women it is based on, etc. She thought the theme of betrayal was
the key (the Pamela Franklin character), but that is sort of muted in
the movie, I think.
I guess this is as good a point as any to introduce the fact that Maggie Smith was not the original choice to play the role.
Brian Koller's review at Epinions points out:
Maggie Smith had extraordinary fortune with second-hand roles. She would be nominated for another Oscar in 1972, for playing another eccentric role in Travels With My Aunt, and that time the industry scuttlebutt was that she inherited the role from Kate Hepburn!
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