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'The Belles of St. Trinian's': Alastair Sim Classic Comedy

The Belles of St. Trinian's (1954)

Dir.: Frank Launder. Scr.: Frank Launder, Sidney Gilliat, and Val Valentine. Cast: Alastair Sim, Joyce Grenfell, Hermione Baddeley, George Cole, Betty Ann Davies, Renee Houston, Beryl Reid, Irene Handl, Mary Merrall, Joan Sims, Guy Middleton

 

The Belles of St. Trinian's by Frank LaunderFrom the first shot of The Belles of St. Trinian's – which shows the sign of the St. Trinian's School for Young Ladies being fired at by what sounds like a machine gun – I knew what to expect from the remaining 86 minutes. Alastair Sim stars in the picture put on by collaborators Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat (in addition to co-scenarist Val Valentine), whose partnership spanned nearly 40 films during the course of 37 years (1929-1966), including Alfred Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes, Carol Reed's Night Train to Munich, and most of the pictures in the “St. Trinian's” series. The result of such a close team is a miraculously tight film layered with visual and verbal gags.

As to be expected, the plot of The Belles of St. Trinian's, based on Ronald Searle's cartoons (which seems to have influenced Ralph Steadman's work), is set around St. Trinian's School. The school seems more like a house of ill repute or home for juvenile delinquents than a refined academy for “young ladies.” The girls are little terrors; e.g., in a campy but well-suited sequence, when the students come back from holiday the town shuts down, closing shops and boarding windows.

Compounding matters, the school is in dire need of money to pay off its debts. Luckily for headmistress Millicent Fritton (Alastair Sim), her new pupil – the daughter of an Arab sheik – has insider information regarding her father's record-breaking horse. On the other side of the spectrum, Millicent Fritton's twin brother Clarence (also Alastair Sim) has employed his daughter Arabella (Vivienne Martin), a student at the school, to get insider information about the horse racing as he has his own horse in the running.

On top of all this, there are Ministry of Education employees gone missing, an undercover policewoman posing as the Games Mistress, and a secret distillery operated by the young girls out of their chemistry lab.

Alastair Sim in The Belles of St. Trinian'sGoing into the film, I wasn't so sure I would like it. But The Belles of St. Trinian's is one of my girlfriend's favorites; she watched it countless times growing up, so I became curious to see what it was all about. Much to my surprise, I found it hilarious and a pleasure to watch. (As an aside: director and writer Frank Launder is from Hitchin, Herts, England, the same small town as my girlfriend's father.)

In fact, The Belles of St. Trinian's is the perfect film for those who just want to relax and enjoy a plot filled with twists and turns, and some first-rate acting – Alastair Sim, for one, is beautiful in drag (above right). The comedy does seem to incorporate many storylines into its less than ninety minutes, but nothing is added haphazardly as everything comes together nicely in the end. After all, The Belles of St. Trinian's is no average comedy. Many of the jokes were written with adults in mind; the humor is sometimes dark and way over the top. Yet, the film is enjoyable throughout.

Alastair Sim in The Belles of St. Trinian'sOne of my favorite moments was watching Millicent Fritton discovering how to whistle by placing two fingers in her mouth. Sim's facial expression caught me so completely off guard I actually laughed out loud – a rare occurrence while watching films. I must add that Sim's ability to act alongside another amazing actor – himself – was incredible; if I could add anything to The Belles of St. Trinian's it would be more scenes with his two disparate characters together.

Also worth noting is the talented George Cole, who plays the Cockney 'Flash' Harry, the liaison between the St. Trinian's girls and the gin-betting racket. Cole went on to appear in four of the original five St. Trinian's pictures; Sim only appeared in the first sequel, Blue Murder at St. Trinian's (1957).

I have not seen any of the sequels or the recent remake (starring Rupert Everett and Colin Firth), but I find it hard to believe that any of the films would be as good without Alastair Sim.

© Keith Waterfield


         
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