Alastair Sim as Millicent Fritton in The Belles of St. Trinian's (1954) (trailer screengrab)

Alastair Sim: A Very English Character Actor Genius

Alastair Sim belongs to those character actors sometimes accused of "hamming it up" because they work at such a high level of internal and external technique that they can't help standing out.

Alastair Sim's School for Laughter
Film Movement Classics
11 April 2020

Alastair Sim is a distinctive and eccentric example of a rare brand of character actor, always good and often great, who at his best can convince you he’s among the finest actors in cinema. He’s famous for starring in the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol, called Scrooge in the UK and directed by Brian Desmond Hurst. Sim captures the role’s sly, crabby wit as well or better than any other actor, and also the hidden depths of a man who must and can change.

He belongs to those actors sometimes accused of “hamming it up” because they work at such a high level of internal and external technique that they can’t help standing out. Such things feel more expected in comedy, and Sim was a master comedian.

Unfortunately, Sim’s career isn’t as well known in the US as he deserves because most of his films haven’t circulated well in Region 1 during the video era. Perhaps that deplorable situation can be partly remedied by Film Movement Classics’
Alastair Sim’s School for Laughter, a Blu-ray gathering of four films that showcase his droll talent.

Hue and Cry (1947) Director: Charles Crichton

img-4115Alastair Sim as Felix H. Wilkinson in Hue and Cry (1947)

The earliest title in the box is Sim’s only film for Ealing Studios, and that means the box partakes in this year’s unveiling of many Ealing restorations on Blu-ray. If Sim only made the one Ealing film, at least it’s a crucial one. Sometimes described as the first of the studio’s famous postwar comedies, it is and it isn’t, and that’s as fair as we can get.

First, the plot. The film opens with boys throwing rocks at each other, playing war. Some boys are stationed atop bombed-out ruins in the background and some are passing before a foreground brick wall upon which the credits are chalked as graffiti, complete with cheeky remarks. Georges Auric’s sprightly music emphasizes child’s play, although the implication is that such play leads to war, and these children play amid the destruction caused by such antics writ large.

In a church choir practice, a smaller Scottish boy, Alec (Douglas Barr), has his boys’ comic magazine confiscated and thrown out the window by the vicar. Although they call it a comic, it’s actually a pulp magazine of sensational adventure serials, and the title of this invented publication is — wait for it — Trump. Our only further comment on this detail is that in 1957, Harvey Kurtzman would put out two issues of a US humor magazine with the same title. Is this an uncanny coincidence, or did Kurtzman remember the movie?

The magazine is picked up outside by other members of the youngster’s neighborhood gang, the Blood and Thunder Boys. They hang out in ruins that decorate a postwar London of rationing, austerity and housing shortages, which this on-location film captures, and which give an interesting resonance to the name of their gang and the type of pulp entertainment they enjoy. You might think kids would be blocked from playing in such rubble, but that doesn’t seem to have been a priority in the world’s demolished postwar cities. A nice detail is one boy, ignored by the others, who perches up high and makes bombing sound effects.

Most of the kids are older teens in the job market, and another of the movie’s sociological observations is that although children are low on the economic totem pole of commerce and rebuilding, they’re so pervasive and vital as delivery boys and messengers as to form a default community of unrecognized power within London, and that if they ever got organized around some scheme, they could become a formidable force.

Now the film introduces its lead, Joe Kirby, played by Harry Fowler, the child actor whose character saved the day in Ealing’s Went the Day Well? (1942). In his early 20s, Fowler is either playing that age or a few years younger, and like all the other kids and young adults, he’s solidly working class with accent and slang to prove it.

While job-hunting, Joe gets absorbed in the magazine’s serial about two-fisted detective Selwyn Pike, whose antics are depicted in a sort of thought balloon in a corner of the screen, and then Joe stumbles onto an uncanny coincidence that makes him think he’s wandered into the story being depicted. It comes close to being a moment we’d later associate with The Twilight Zone, and it caps the whimsical, self-conscious gestures that have driven the movie so far.

Joe’s amateur investigation bumps him against Inspector Ford (Jack Lambert), who discourages Joe’s active imagination and hooks him up with a job as delivery boy in Covent Garden markets for the jolly Nightingale (Jack Warner). One implicit plot point is that Ford would have to be involved in any cover-up of funny business, but the screenplay can’t bring itself to blurt that aloud and perhaps was censored from doing so.

Still, Joe and Alec can’t help wondering if there might be an explanation for the coincidences between pulp story and real life. The other boys express various degrees of skepticism, but the lone girl, Clarry (Joan Dowling, who would marry Fowler), supports the connection with consistently level-headed analysis. It doesn’t take much for them to decide that a criminal gang is using the stories to pass coded messages.

By this point, you may be wondering where the heck is Alastair Sim? As the most recognizable star, he gets top billing for what amounts to a cameo, less than ten minutes of screen time, as the mildly eccentric and nervous Felix H. Wilkinson, creator and author of the breathless Selwyn Pike serials.

“Oh, how I loathe adventurous-minded boys,” he sighs. His only friend seems to be his cat Otto. After the boys interview him (Felix, not the cat), the rest of the story escalates in what would become the patented Ealing manner into a virtual city-wide chaos of excitement at the climax. Ealing producer Michael Balcon expressed the philosophy that his mildly subversive films encouraged the audience to “let off steam” and this film unleashes a whirlwind of youthful energy.

Is this the first Ealing comedy worthy of the name? It’s certainly made by people who would be instrumental in others: director Charles Crichton, writer T.E.B. Clarke, associate producer Henry Cornelius (whose germ of an idea he handed off to Clarke), and master photographer Douglas Slocombe, whose work here ranges from documentary locations to a spooky sewer sequence that pre-dates Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949) without being as extravagant. Hue and Cry is also a very English, very postwar “community” film that, like the later comedies, mixes tones and genres with a mixture of optimism and dark clarity.

On the other hand, the film wasn’t advertised or received as a comedy but as a youth-oriented adventure/suspense thriller. Sim’s role signals its light-hearted elements, but plenty of English thrillers were laced with such things.

A big example is Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938), which introduced the comic double-act of Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford, who rode their team-up into more films, including Ealing’s Passport to Pimlico (1949). Should we call Hitchcock’s film a comedy and a template for Ealing? Actually, that’s a fascinating thought, isn’t it? The Lady Vanishes was written by Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, who formed a partnership that wrote, produced and directed many comedies, including one in this very set.

This 2015 restoration looks and sounds pleasing, although the print has a brief stripe of vertical damage at the start. Extras are a brief talk by historian Steve Chibnall and an excellent survey of where the scenes were shot and how they look today.

Laughter in Paradise (1951) Director: Mario Zampi

img-4116Alastair Sim as Deniston Russell in Laughter in Paradise (1951) (trailer screengrab)

As Deniston Russell, Sim plays exactly the same species of trashy writer as in Hue and Cry, although now he rates a secretary to type his dictation instead of speaking into a machine. That secretary (Eleanor Summerfield) hangs on every word of his literary genius, licking her lips and making doggy eyes as her fingers clatter across the keys.

Russell’s opening lines of his new novel Bloodlust had your reviewer fairly belching with laughter, but it’s not so much the slangy language and absurd melodrama as the contrast with his blasé delivery. “I’m afraid it’s all rather disgusting really,” he tells his spellbound admirer, “but they seem to like the American touch.”

Sim’s line readings and scenes of physical comedy, including a shoplifting spree and a day in court, provide some of the film’s biggest laughs, but the whole thing is funny. The motivating incident is that hardy premise, the reading of the will. When wealthy prankster Henry Russell (Hugh Griffith of the enormous eyebrows) kicks the bucket in a scene that may be a parody of the opening sequence in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941), his four relatives are introduced in the middle of their lives and neuroses as they receive the news.

These are Agnes (Fay Compton), a lonely tyrant who behaves beastly toward her quivering maid; amoral playboy Simon (Guy Middleton), who borrows cash from his valet; mousy bank clerk Herbert (George Cole), who is browbeaten by his manager; and scribbling Deniston. The doddering attorney (Ernest Thesiger) informs them that for each of them to inherit what Simon calls “fifty thousand smackers”, they have 30 days to perform specific acts against their nature. Agnes must take a job as a maid, Simon must marry the first single woman he speaks to, Herbert must rob his own bank, and Deniston must commit a petty crime and land in the clink for 28 days.

The script by Michael Pertwee (who also plays a role) and Jack Davies is a simple comic construction that pushes each character out of his or her comfort zone to delightful effect. Lines and situations are a pleasure, performed by a large cast humming in unison, such that it doesn’t matter if this or that detail is predictable, and a couple of them certainly are. The mixture of what we expect and what surprises us is part of the appeal.

The four relations have their own crew of supporting characters, and a theme common to all is the possibility of romance and the meaning of real happiness. With so many characters, the film can balance the cynical and sweet with aplomb, and the thing goes by in a whirl at 90 minutes. All the films in the box are more or less the same reasonable length.

Joyce Grenfell (with a wicked set of false teeth), Beatrice Campbell, A.E. Matthews, John Laurie (another eyebrow terror), Veronica Hurst, Mackenzie Ward, Anthony Steel, Ronald Adam and Susan Germain lend major support, while Audrey Hepburn is “introduced” in a tiny role (and tiny costume) as a cigarette girl. A peculiar delight is seeing Colin Gordon as a policeman who practically dances a ballet while recounting the moves of a soccer match.

Italian immigrant Zampi is best known for producing and directing a string of ’50s British comedies, and this must be one of his best. The print is full of scratches and artifacts but it’s watchable. The claim for digital restoration must simply mean scanned because nobody went through frame by frame.

The Belles of St. Trinian’s (1954) Director: Frank Launder

img-4117Alastair Sim as Millicent Fritton in The Belles of St. Trinian’s (1954) (trailer screengrab)

Here’s the first of a four-film series inspired by Ronald Searle‘s magazine cartoons about the monstrous inhabitants of a British girls’ school. Their macabre antics get transferred to film in a manner not unlike how the American cartoons of Charles Addams became The Addams Family. There’s even a teacher at St. Trinian’s who uncannily resembles Morticia Addams.

Another analogue is how Hank Ketcham’s juvenile delinquent Dennis the Menace was softened into a TV sitcom, although the St. Trinian’s films retain a subversive sharpness while still avoiding the sheer murderous cruelty seen in the cartoons. Those cartoons, partly inspired by Searle’s horrific POW experiences, imply something about the equivalence of prisoners and schoolgirls and something about the heartless world, and they’re also a fantasy in which the powerless are seizing violent power. Searle got tired of them and finished off the school with an atom bomb.

You might think all four films would be collected into their own set, but apparently we’ll just have to wait. In fact, there’s an unofficial prequel, in that the hardy writer-producer team of Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat first tried their hand at a St. Trinian’s type school in The Happiest Days of Your Life (1950), starring Sim and much of the same cast who’d reprise similar roles in the St. Trinian’s series, and that film even featured credits illustrated by Searle. It really should be here too. Perhaps a sequel box will manifest itself, if we’re lucky.

The Belles of St. Trinian’s opens emblematically. Before Searle’s illustrated credits and Malcolm Arnold’s woozy, percussive, school-band-march theme music, we see a sign advertising St. Trinian’s School for Young Ladies, and then it jitters as sound effects make it appear to be pelted with machine-gun fire, implicitly wielded by the students. So much for society’s standards of what befits young ladies.

The story opens somewhere in Saudi Arabia, where a fabulously rich Sultan (Eric Pohlmann) plans to send one of his 17 daughters, Fatima (Lorna Henderson), to an English private boarding school (paradoxically called “public schools” in England). He’s also sending his racehorse, Arab Boy, who will erase the school’s debts on ten-to-one odds. He laments that the Americans have forced him to allow the construction of military bases, and he gives this as his reason for sending away his daughter. He tells his secretary to inform the girl’s mother. “Her mother?” she asks in confusion. He replies, “Check the files, girl!”

So the film has begun with an alternative to English society’s conventional standards of marriage and sex, if still a patriarchal one, and then it swiftly cuts to the matriarchal all-female enclave somewhere in the English countryside. The noisy, shrieking arrival of the girls on train and bus signals panic in the nearby village, entirely represented by men who flee in terror, board up shops, and leave the streets as deserted as a nuclear aftermath. Male forces of law and order are shown in states of alarm. The quaking bus driver realizes his pants are stolen in what seems to have been a moving violation.

The film concentrates on two classes of girls. The fourth-formers are quite young and dominate the proceedings by mixing homemade hooch and helping Fatima’s horse to win. Their integration of Fatima without prejudice is a nice touch marred only if you realize that the actress is apparently a white girl with very professional dark makeup. Maybe they found it difficult to cast a Middle Eastern girl in England, or maybe they never thought of it.

The sixth-formers use their sexual charms to make fools of men and get their way, accompanied by horn-dog music. The dialogue confirms what the casting also makes clear: these girls are older than school age but apparently their parents pay to keep them out of their hair. One of them is married. “Not officially,” insists the headmistress.

That beleaguered but strangely sedate headmistress is Millicent Fritton, played by Sim in matronly Edwardian drag. Because he’s not exaggerating voice or womanly shape for quick laughs, he’s paradoxically easy to accept in the role. Her attitude with her charges ranges from the gently cautious to indulgent. She gets in a dither over financial troubles but not house-rocking and plaster-shaking explosions from the chemistry lab, and certainly not over the bootleg hooch or the field hockey team’s tendency to win by knocking the opponents out with mallets.

She explains the school’s and film’s philosophy as “perhaps just a teeny-weeny bit unorthodox but there, that’s better than being old-fashioned, isn’t it? You see, 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 major thorn in her side is the machinations of her bookmaker twin brother Clarence (also Sim). His eternally smoking daughter Arabella (Vivienne Martin) had been expelled for burning down a building. When she points out that another girl wasn’t expelled for burning the gymnasium, Millicent points out “The gymnasium was insured.” Arabella gets planted to keep an eye on Arab Boy, and her sixth-form colleagues are recruited to aid Clarence’s all-male organization to “nobble” the horse.

The males recruited to serve the school are Flash Harry (George Cole), a Cockney spiv who sells the hooch on the black market and tutors Millicent in the art of betting on horseflesh, and two renegades from the Ministry of Education who defected to live in the summer house and serve as some kind of instructors while enjoying meals with the sixth-form girls. The minister himself (Richard Wattis) may meet the same fate. It’s a sign of how removed the films are from Searle’s cartoons that Harry can declare, “There ain’t been no murders here, not so far.”

Also in the large cast are Joyce Grenfell, Hermione Baddeley, Betty Ann Davies, Renee Houston, Irene Handl, Beryl Reid, Joan Sims and Mary Merrall as teachers of varied incompetence. Among the students are Belinda Lee (groomed as a blonde bombshell but dying young in a car crash) and the fourth-formers Diana Day, Jill Braidwood, Annabelle Covey, Pauline Drewett and Jean Langston, most of whom are interviewed in an extra. Searle has a cameo as an angry parent.

In another extra, Steve Chibnall notes the film’s celebration of “unruly womanhood” in an era when that was both un-ladylike and un-English, and such was the contemporary view on this popular hit. In another extra, Melanie Williams quotes Dilys Powell’s review of the film as “a burst of disrespect”. The New York Times praised the belles for the “whacky [sic] freedom of expression they exhibit.” Such positive messaging also differentiates the films from the cartoons, and that’s another parallel to The Addams Family. It may have been inescapable in the migration from one medium to another.

School for Scoundrels (1960) Director: Robert Hamer

img-4118Alastair Sim as Mr. S. Potter in School for Scoundrels (1960) (trailer screengrab)

Sim’s character, Potter, still runs a school, this time for grown men who feel like failures in life. His school of Lifemanship is what the title means by School for Scoundrels, further explained by the subtitle “Or how to win without actually cheating”.

As Potter elucidates, Adam biting into the apple had nothing to do with the merely superficial division of the world into sexes but into “winners and losers, top men and underdogs, in a word, the one up and the one down….Lifemanship is the art of being one up on your opponents at all times….Who are your opponents? Everyone, in a word, who is not you.” Potter’s name is borrowed from real-life Stephen Potter, the literary scholar, BBC producer and humorist who wrote three bestselling books of comic essays: Gamesmanship (1947), Lifemanship (1950) and One-Upmanship (1952).

Executive producer Hal E. Chester commissioned Peter Ustinov to turn the real Potter’s satirical essays into a viable script. IMDB claims that blacklisted American scribe Peter Tarloff also worked on it, although the final screenplay is credited only to Chester and mystery novelist Patricia Moyes (who worked with Ustinov for years). The script is cleverer than it may seem at first, as it follows its hero’s life before his training, during the training, and after. He applies the lessons in a series of scenes that revisit his earlier humiliations, this time giving them a satisfying do-over.

Henry Palfrey (Ian Carmichael) has inherited a small company whose employees don’t respect him, as illustrated in the flashback sequence he recounts to Potter. He’s browbeaten by his accountant, whom he also inherited. When he clicks with the dynamic and beautiful April Smith (Janette Scott) after “meeting cute” (crashing into her on a bus), their dinner date is a disaster further ruined by the smooth and dapper Delauney (Terry-Thomas), who impresses April by being much more together than the clumsy and gormless Palfrey.

This scene and those around it, including a tennis match and Palfrey’s being rooked into buying an old heap of a car by a masterfully slick double act of salesmen (Dennis Price and Peter Jones, both priceless), play on the average middle-class male’s excruciating frustrations of inadequacy in careers, mating, and plain daily life. They tug on the secret conviction that you — yes, you, and especially the supposedly dominant male of the species — are a failure. Although this is a comedy, like many comedies it has something bitter under it that amounts to a critique of the status quo.

Potter’s books were a class-conscious English equivalent to a similar American school of hapless middle-class and suburban frustration that was being mined by the likes of James Thurber, Robert Benchley, S.J. Perelman, Edward Streeter, Betty MacDonald and Jean Kerr. Potter offered the vicarious revenge of fighting back by learning the tricks or “ploys” of polite double-dealing and putting down, and perhaps that’s because Potter’s terrain, as with that of George and Weedon Grossmith’s The Diary of a Nobody (1892), the misadventures of a London bank clerk, is so clammily class-bound.

Indeed, all four movies in this set are class statements. The kids of Hue and Cry inhabit a demolished but aspirational working-class world learning to look professional in spiffy suits, like those of Flash Harry in the St. Trinian’s school for hopeless, last-chance girls who are wise to the world and ready to fiddle and nobble their way along. When one little girl learns that her schoolmate doesn’t know about betting the horses, she admonishes the tot, “At your age, it’s time you learned.”

The legatees of Laughter in Paradise think they’ve got a golden ticket for which they’ll be willing to make fools of themselves, and the lesson they must learn is that they were already fooling themselves. All these characters are more or less desperate, more or less scrounging to get by, more or less quietly dying inside. Palfrey is superficially in a very good position and should have little to complain about, yet he’s still plagued by a naked existential dread of the world grinding him down.

It feels like a particular postwar psychosis that even afflicts the supposed winners. Those in really bad shape might have little sympathy, but these books and writers are diagnosing an existential ill of discomfort and “nausea” (Jean-Paul Sartre’s sense) that they’re not inventing. It may have to do with deeper senses of guilt or just the notion that things aren’t right.

So when the fictional Potter explains to his class that lifemanship is about making your opponent feel “less desirable, less worthy, less blessed”, he’s putting into words everyone’s secret fear — that someone is doing this to us.

The idea that it might be ourselves and our own choices is Palfrey’s insight at the very end, just when he seems on the verge of “winning” April. Potter becomes so alarmed at the outbreak of “sincerity” that he breaks the fourth wall and begins calling attention to the artifice of cinema, including the swelling score, thus complicating these ideas of sincerity and artifice. Fortunately, Palfrey’s already had the satisfaction of revisiting and overturning much of what chipped away at his esteem. Along the way, every situation and transaction — tennis match, dinner, car purchase, office labor — crosses from a handy metaphor of life back into life itself.

This film was directed by Robert Hamer of Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) — or rather, half-directed. His uncontrolled alcoholism and DT’s got him fired halfway through. Critic Peter Bradshaw states in an extra that an uncredited Cyril Frankel finished the picture, and Terry-Thomas biographer indicates that Chester stepped in himself. Behind-the-scenes commotion leaves no visible mark, perhaps because of the simple solidity of the script and old-pro performers, who also include John Le Mesurier, Edward Chapman, Irene Handl, Hugh Paddick, Hattie Jacques, Jeremy Lloyd and Anita Sharp-Bolster of the great name and face.

Bradshaw points out the grim, class-ridden parallels of upward mobility between this film and Kind Hearts and Coronets, and I’ll point out that its claustrophobic unease is only one and a half classes upward from It Always Rains on Sunday (1947). This fine director, who understood how society works with one’s personal demons to undermine the self, would never direct again before dying of pneumonia in 1963. Many of his films still require a Blu-ray release for renewed appreciation.

So let’s hope this Sim box is only one more welcome addition to the parade of classic British cinema on Blu-ray. In truth, the more we get to see carefully restored examples of England’s film legacy, the more that country’s reputation for largely drab, uninspired, “uncinematic” cinema begins to feel like a libel.