Home Video Hovel: Alastair Sim’s School for Laughter, by David Bax
Film Movement Classics’ new four movie set of comedies starring Alastair Sim, which they’ve dubbed “Alastair Sim’s School for Laughter,” does not present the films in chronological order (though the essay by Ronald Bergen in the accompanying booklet does address them so). My best guess is that they are arranged according to their popularity, which is not the same thing as quality. Luckily, you can watch them in any order you please but I’ll structure this review the same way as the set, meaning we’re going to start with 1954’s The Belles of St. Trinian’s, directed by Frank Launder, which was based on a popular comic strip and was such a hit in the United Kingdom that it spawned a franchise that lasted decades. Sim takes on a challenging dual role, playing both the headmistress of the school of the title (in drag, obviously and not that humorously) and her brother, an unscrupulous gambler and father to one of St. Trinian’s most unruly students. That’s a high honor, given the ribald and flatly illegal things that pass for lesson plans, homework and activities at this boarding school. The Belles of St. Trinian’s is a precursor to a huge swath of 1980s American comedies like Animal House and Real Genius, except with the more novel conceit of the hooligans and smartasses being teenage girls instead of college boys. There are nice touches in the production design, like shattered windows and locked up silver, but Launder doesn’t have the light touch as a director that he does as a writer (he co-wrote The Lady Vanishes, among others). Add to that the presence of middle eastern characters played by white actors in make-up and you get a movie that’s worthwhile more for its place in history than its content. With that in mind, you can also add it to the very short list of movies featuring field hockey.
Sim takes on another headmaster role, of sorts, in Robert Hamer’s School for Scoundrels (1960). It’s a much smaller part this time, given that–unlike The Belles of St. Trinian’s–very little of School for Scoundrels actually takes place at the school itself. The film’s lengthy first section details how, in one humiliation after another, milquetoast sop Henry (Ian Carmichael) gets his best gal April (Janette Scott) stolen from him by Raymond, a slimeball and a prig played to pristine perfection by Terry-Thomas. Sim enters the picture when Henry enrolls himself in a “gamesmanship” course (based on a tongue-in-cheek 1947 book on the subject by Stephen Potter) in which he learns how to get the upper hand in almost any social or sporting setting. After this stretch of the film–essentially a glorified montage–Henry returns to make as big a fool out of Raymond as possible and win back April’s affections, with Sim’s professor hanging around for support and guidance. It is, to be blunt, a ridiculous premise executed with delightful precision by Hamer and his cast. Speaking of the actors, one of School for Scoundrels‘ standout scenes depicts newly educated Henry conning two used car salesmen, one of whom is played by Dennis Price, the star of Hamer’s masterpiece, Kind Hearts and Coronets.
If School for Scoundrels is a dumb premise well-executed, the opposite can sadly be said about Mario Zampi’s Laughter in Paradise (1951). Here, Sim is again part of an ensemble as one of the members of a family who stand to inherit a great deal of wealth from a recently deceased relative, a notorious prankster who stipulated that his descendants will only receive their money once they’ve each performed a task specifically suited to remove them from their respective comfort zones. Sim plays a meek writer who publishes trashy novels under various pseudonyms and who must find a way to get himself jailed for no less than 28 days in order to come into his fortune. It’s a good showcase for not only Sim’s way with words but also with physicality; a wordless bit of him trying to work up the courage to throw a brick through a shop window provides the film’s biggest laughs. Unfortunately, for a movie that should be chock full of such shenanigans, Laughter in Paradise pointedly avoids farce, instead taking its characters’ journeys a little too seriously and producing a disappointingly tame result. It is notable, however, for including either Audrey Hepburn’s first feature film role or one of her first, depending on whom you ask. And, probably not coincidentally, Sim would reunite with costars George Cole, Joyce Grenfell and Guy Middleton in The Belles of St. Trinian’s.
Sim received top billing for 1947’s Hue and Cry, despite only appearing in three scenes. Maybe the brevity of screen time is why it’s the final film in Film Movement Classics’ set but it’s easily the best of the bunch. It’s the first of the Ealing comedies and it’s helmed by one of the house directors, Charles Crichton, who would go on to make The Lavender Hill Mob and The Titfield Thunderbolt for the studio, as well as his late masterpiece, A Fish Called Wanda. Hue and Cry is also photographed by the great Douglas Slocombe (who shot all three Indiana Jones movie; yep, the entire series). More of a kids’ adventure movie than anything else, Hue and Cry is about a London teenager, Joe (Harry Fowler), who discovers that the low rent detective stories in a cheapo rag called Trump (yeah, it’s weird when Fowler says things like, “Give us a Trump, please”) contain hidden messages shared among a band of dangerous criminals. Disbelieved by the police, he recruits a group of local kids to foil a plot by the nogoodniks. If Laughter in Paradise squandered its chances to have fun, Hue and Cry takes every opportunity it can find. From fun touches like the opening titles painted on the walls of the London neighborhood to the story Joe’s reading in Trump playing out in a kind of thought bubble above his head to one of the gaggle of boys and girls being a mini-Michael Winslow-style sound effects expert, the movie never goes too long without giving you something shiny to look at. And, surreally, all of it plays out in real, bombed out, post-war London locations. Sim gets to have fun playing the pompous recluse who pens those Trump tales, dictating his lowbrow tales with the same flourish as his character in Laughter in Paradise. It might be a bit much to say the whole set is worth the purchase for Hue and Cry alone but, if you’re already predisposed to enjoying Sim’s filmography, this is the one that puts it over the top.
There are variations among the set in picture quality, though none is in any way unacceptable. Hue and Cry probably looks the best, both in Crichton’s shadowy interiors and the rubble-strewn outdoor location shots. Meanwhile, Laughter in Paradise, the only film not previously released on Blu-ray, as far as I can tell, is the roughest. All audio is mono and rewardingly free of hiss or distortion.
Special features, in addition to the booklet and essay mentioned above, include a featurette on St. Trinian’s, interviews with film historians and scholars, an interview with Sim’s daughter, an interview with Peter Bradshaw, an interview with Terry-Thomas’ biographer, an interview with Stephen Potter’s grandson and a featurette on the locations of Hue and Cry.