Wednesday, 31 August 2011

The Happiest Days of your Life (1950)

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Thanks to a slip-up at the Ministry of Education, the girls of St. Swithin's School are billeted with the boys of Nutbourne College, and their warring head teachers have to join forces to conceal this from parents and inspectors.
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Although Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat already had a strong track record in light comedy, the hugely successful The Happiest Days of Your Life (d. Launder, 1950) saw them move decisively in the direction of broad farce.

Based on a play by John Dighton (co-writer of Ealing comedies Kind Hearts and Coronets, d. Robert Hamer, 1949, and The Man in the White Suit, d. Alexander Mackendrick, 1951), it exploits the chaos caused by the Blitz during World War II, where entire schools were shipped to different locations, often at a moment's notice.

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Here, a mix-up at the Ministry of Education causes St Swithin's School for Girls to be sent to the boys-only Nutbourne College, with predictably disastrous results - especially when a simultaneous inspection from two different groups leads to an elaborate cover-up, with classrooms and sports fields switching from male to female at the blow of a whistle.

Alastair Sim was always at his best playing put-upon authority figures, and his headmaster Wetherby Pond is one of his greatest creations. Though essentially a kindly man, the one thing that truly matters to him is order and discipline achieved by mutual respect and, ideally, a complete absence of the opposite sex above the level of domestic staff.

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By contrast, his opposite number Miss Muriel Whitchurch (Margaret Rutherford) has no respect for anyone, least of all mere men. A feminist before her time, she has no truck with convention or protocol and is quite comfortable taking over Pond's office, living quarters and indeed his entire school. If it seems like perfect casting, that's because the part was specifically written for her - she first played it on stage at London's Apollo Theatre in 1948.

But both Sim and Rutherford are decisively upstaged by Joyce Grenfell - no mean feat considering both the competition and a character so incidental to the main plot that she isn't even mentioned in the attached synopsis. As the gawky, love-lorn Miss Gossage ("call me Sausage"), little more than an overgrown schoolgirl herself, she effortlessly steals every scene she's in, whether over-enthusiastically banging gongs, idly writing her name in the dust or staging impromptu lacrosse matches at a second's notice.

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Sim, Grenfell and several supporting actors would return in similar roles in Launder and Gilliat's unofficial sequel The Belles of St Trinian's (d. Launder, 1954), an even more anarchic - and considerably sillier - school farce.

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Published by


Volume 17, No.195, April 1950, page 49


Uninhibited and energetically handled farce about a girls' school billeted by mistake on a boys' school. Alastair Sim and Margaret Rutherford in excellent form as the respective principals. Occasionally slapdash, but frequently amusing.

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.