The Belles of St Trinian's (d. Launder, 1954) reunited Alastair Sim andJoyce Grenfell and threw in a bevy of 1950s character actors. The standout is George Cole as Flash Harry, Arthur Daley's spiritual ancestor, but there's sterling support from Hermione Baddeley, Irene Handl, Beryl Reid, Joan Sims and Sid James, while cameos include Searle and his wife and editor Kaye Webb as concerned parents.
St Trinian's is presided over the genial Miss Millicent Fritton (Sim in drag), whose philosophy is summed up as: "in other schools girls are sent out quite unprepared into a merciless world, but when our girls leave here, it is the merciless world which has to be prepared".
The girls themselves come in two categories - the fourth form, most closely resembling Searle's original drawings of ink-stained, ungovernable pranksters, and the much older sixth form (one of them is even married), sexually precocious to a degree that must have seemed somewhat alarming in 1954.
Sex, smoking, drinking and especially gambling aren't on the official curriculum, but they're not exactly frowned upon, and one of the most telling moments comes when the spiv Flash Harry is asked if he's a teacher and he replies "In a way" - his role as their bookie has certainly taught the girls plenty about economics.
Although much sillier than Launder and co-writer/co-producer Sidney Gilliat's previous films, there are glimpses of more sophisticated satire drawing upon images of (then) contemporary British society. Here, targets include "progressive" education (usually anything but) and the precarious situation faced by private boarding schools in the postwar years, extreme cash shortages affecting not only facilities and staff salaries but also basic necessities like food. It's no wonder Miss Fritton turns to gambling to keep the school afloat - there's precious little else holding it together.
Four sequels followed - Blue Murder at St Trinian's (1957), The Pure Hell of St Trinian's (1960), The Great St Trinian's Train Robbery (1966) andThe Wildcats of St Trinian's (1980). All were directed and co-written byLaunder, with both Gilliat's involvement and the films' quality progressively diminishing. Sim dropped out after Blue Murder, Grenfelland Cole after Pure Hell.
Alastair Sim (Miss Millicent Fritton/Clarence Fritton); Joyce Grenfell (Police Sergeant Ruby Gates); George Cole (Flash Harry); Hermione Baddeley (Miss Drownder); Betty Ann Davies (Miss Waters)
MONTHLY FILM BULLETIN
THE BRITISH FILM INSTITUTE
Volume 21, No.249, October 1954, page 142
BELLES OF ST TRINIAN'S, THE (1954)
Miss Fitton is headmistress-proprietor of the unruly and near bankrupt St. Trinians. She is delighted to receive a new pupil, the daughter of a wealthy race-horse owner, but dismayed when her bookmaker brother Clarence plants his daughter Arabella in the sixth form, to pick up racing information from the new girl. Clarence, having heavily backed a horse of his own, learns that Arab Boy, a horse belonging to the new girl's father, is running to much better form. Arabella and the sixth form decide to kidnap Arab Boy, but they are forestalled by the fourth form, whose money, like Miss Fitton's and the entire school funds, is on the horse. The Fourth take Arab Boy to their dormitory, where they are besieged by the Sixth and Clarence's men. The besiegers are finally driven off by St. Trinians' O.G.S., though not before the resourceful Fourth have smuggled Arab Boy out of the school between the shafts of a milk-cart. Arab Boy wins the race and St. Trinians is saved.
It is generally impossible to transmute a creation from one medium to another without loss. This transportation of Ronald Searle's awful school has been effected with the greatest possible success. Only once or twice - the explosion in the stinks lab; the sneak on the rack-does the film directly imitate the original drawings, and it is then at its weakest. For the rest, the quintessential spirit has been distilled, transported and reconstituted in proper film terms. Quite new, but in spirit perfectly faithful to the original, are Miss Fitton (a gigantic creation, superbly played with ineffable majesty and langour by Alastair Sim), her disreputable staff, and George Cole's excellent Flash Harry. The farcical story holds itself together pretty well, and every corner, as in Searle's own drawings, has been filled with wildly imaginative images and incidents: at some corner of the screen there is always a blank lunatic child with bird's-nest hair, or a fiendish innocent peering through banisters, or poor Hermione Baddeley trampled underfoot. Joyce Grenfell's business in the film is best known to herself, but it provides the indispensable picture of her desperate horseback ride to deliver a roll of chequered lino, on which she happens to have written a report to her superiors in the police force. And so on.Belles of St. Trinians is not so much a film as an entertainment on celluloid, a huge charade, a rich pile of idiot and splendidly senseless images.
The Monthly Film Bulletin was published by the British Film Institute between 1934 and 1991. Initially aimed at distributors and exhibitors as well as filmgoers, it carried reviews and details of all UK film releases. In 1991, the Bulletin was absorbed by Sight and Sound magazine.