The Principal seemed to kick-start Hollywood into making a few more films of this genre, however, the true genre-defining film in this case must be the 1955 film "Blackboard Jungle" which, at the time, certainly broached the subject which many refused to listen to - namely the disillusioned (mainly black) youth of America and their relationship with their educators. This is a topic relevant in 1955, in 1987 when the Principal was made, and now.
The Principal is a terrible movie. Blackboard Jungle is a great movie. The script and acting, particularly the excellent Sidney Poitier, are streets ahead of what was done here. But it's unfair to compare the acting skills of James Belushi with the likes of Poitier. To be fair to him, Belushi has attempted to make a drama tackling serious issues, and despite some very shaky parts (let's say, 90% of the film) there is the occasional glimmer of hope.
He does makes the occasional Belushi wise-crack, but in almost every case they aren't funny, and none of his little speeches is any good either. There are scenes which seem like they might provide comic relief, but these opportunities are missed repeatedly. This is a film confusingly caught between - at the start - attempting to be the typical Belushi fare whereby he plays a smart-mouthed slob loser, and a more serious piece. It needs a heavyweight (not in the Belushi sense) actor, but for the budget you can see why all they got was a second-rate comic.
The strange thing is, Lou Gosset Jr - who plays the school security chief - would almost certainly have made a better lead. I'm not suggesting that Gossett could out-act a paper bag, but he can at least do a convincing 'angry' (much in demand in this flick) whereas with Belushi you keep expecting him to flash that pock-marked smile of his and suck back on a beer. When he attempts angry, it seems kind of silly. And it's certainly not convincing when the portly, out of shape JB manages to beat up a number of young thugs who seem helpless before his Kirk-esquire moves.
And yet for some reason I sat and watched the whole thing. At times you can see that there was a really 'good day' on set, and they actually go some way to capturing what the Director was attempting, and for a brief moment it's engrossing. Some of the interplay between Belushi and the young and entirely unknown actors and actresses is very convincing and quite sweet.
There are a lot of extras in this film, and in two scenes they use them to good effect by allowing them to improvise bedlam, and then inserting the lead actors into the scene with some vague direction and some lines. It feels natural, and was actually surprisingly good film-making. It was also entirely out of character with so many films of the era where this sort of thing was attempted and choreographed, and looked horribly fake. There are some really nice 'candid' shots of the kids in the school which could have been lifted straight from a documentary. It was moments like these which convinced, and which made me keep watching.
There is also an interesting denouement where Belushi fights the "school bully" for want of a better term, in the oddly maze-like girls shower room, of all places. It's a strange, tense showdown and I think it works surprisingly well. What's also refreshing is that there is no clearly defined ending, happy or otherwise. JB inevitably beats the main bully, but the rest of the pupils remain outside the school fence hanging onto it like animals, their loyalties still uncertain. There's no fanfare, there's no ticker-tape, and it takes one young boy who is actively pursuing an education to deliver the final line in response to the cry "Who the hell do you think you are?" "He's the Principal!" says the young kid. Belushi echoes the sentiment, credits roll, and I wonder how the hell I just sat through two hours of a bad movie and came out the other side wanting to recommend it. Any help would be appreciated.