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The Belles of St. Trinian's (1954)


The anarchic schoolgirls and disreputable teachers of Ronald Searle's St. Trinian's cartoons were first brought to the screen in a series of comedies in the 1950s and 1960s. The first film, The Belles of St. Trinian's, was released in 1954 and starred Alastair Sim in a dual role as the school's headmistress, Miss Fritton, and her shady bookmaker brother Clarence.

St. Trinian's School for Young Ladies is an English boarding school in a traditional country house setting, with uniforms, a motto, hockey matches and a semblance of lessons. But the teachers are a mixture of criminals and seedy low lives with barely a qualification between them. The pupils have an alarming tendency for violence and are allowed to run amuck, creating chaos wherever they go and involving themselves in assorted mischief and illicit activities. The school's official motto is In Flagrante Delicto, meaning "caught in the act".

As the headmistress Miss Fritton explains to the new girls:

"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 pupils at St Trinian's are mischievous and unruly, and seemingly responsible for a series of unsolved crimes in the local area. When the girls head back to school for the beginning of the new term, local shops are seen being boarded up, the bank safely closed and army vehicles turned around to head in the opposite direction. The police chief immediately reaches for the drinks cabinet in his office, while the local policeman locks himself up safely in the town's jail. Even the chickens on the local farm dash quickly back into their coop, thanks to a bit of speeded up film.


The only local businesses that seem to benefit from the presence of the school are the bookmakers and the pawnbrokers. The latter is where the school trophies inevitably end up, whenever Miss Fritton is in need of funds. Which she usually is, as a school as unorthodox as St. Trinian's is constantly short of cash.

Finding good staff for such a school is, of course, impossible. The teachers aren't much better than the pupils, with at least one teacher only staying on at the school because she is on the run from the police. When they learn that one of the students has been given £100 spending money by her wealthy father, it's inevitably a race between the teachers to see which one can get to the money first.

The plot of The Belles of St. Trinian's is a slightly convoluted effort, involving a Sultan (Eric Pohlmann), who chooses the school for his young daughter Fatima (Lorna Henderson), because it's close to the stables where he keeps his horses.

Learning of this, Miss Fritton (Alastair Sim) is persuaded by her shady brother Clarence (also Sim) to take his expelled daughter Arabella (Vivienne Martin) back at the school. There he hopes that she will be able to get the lowdown on the form of the Sheikh's horses, in particular his star horse, Arab Boy.


Miss Fritton is very reluctant to take Clarence's daughter back, because she was expelled for burning down the sports pavilion. This allows Sim as Miss Fritton to utter the immortal line "I can no longer afford to have continual arson about in my school!"

As usual, greasing Miss Fritton's palm is enough to change her mind, and when she learns that the Sheikh's horse is a certainty for the Gold Cup, she decides to stake the last £400 of the school's funds on the outcome of the race, in a desperate attempt to make enough money to pay off its £4,000 in debts.

The pupils, though, have ideas of their own. The fourth form girls want to make sure that Arab Boy takes part in the race, while their counterparts in the sixth form are equally determined to make sure that it doesn't. They kidnap the horse and attempt to hide it in the school, as their money is on a rival.

Meanwhile, the local police want to investigate the spate of crimes in the area and gather evidence against the obvious suspects - the staff and pupils of St. Trinian's. Given that the school is constantly in need of new teachers, the local police superintendent decides to send his Sergeant, Ruby Gates (Joyce Grenfell), undercover as the school's new games mistress. This is a dangerous assignment, given the pupils' violent tendencies on the sports field.


The Belles of St. Trinian's was made by the writer-director-producer team of Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat. The two had originally come to prominence as writers, particularly on Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes (1938) and its semi-sequel Night Train to Munich (1940). They later set up their own production company, Individual Pictures, and began writing, directing and producing dramas, comedies and thrillers, including Millions Like Us (1943), Waterloo Road (1944), Green for Danger (1946) and London Belongs to Me (1948).

In the 1950s they began to specialise in making comedy films, and these were the boom years for British film comedy. The Belles of St. Trinian's was produced by Launder and Gilliat, directed by Launder and co-written by both, together with Val Valentine. This creative team would remain in place for the next two films in the series.

Although The Belles of St. Trinian's was inspired by the exploits of the young girls in the St. Trinian's cartoons, the focus of the film series was more on the older generation of teachers, and assorted hangers on, than on the schoolgirls themselves. The original cartoons were also quite dark, with a morbid sense of humour that may have owed something to Searle's World War II experiences, whereas the film is more of a boisterous, family-friendly farce.

The Belles of St. Trinian's draws inspiration not only from Ronald Searle's cartoons, but also from an earlier Launder and Gilliat success, The Happiest Days of Your Life. This 1950 film was another school days comedy, based on a play by John Dighton, and involving a mix up of a boys' school and a girls' school, and the efforts of the staff of the two schools to stop visiting parents from discovering the mistake.


The Belles of St. Trinian's borrows several of the stars and supporting players from The Happiest Days of Your Life, including Alastair Sim, Joyce Grenfell, Richard Wattis, George Cole and Guy Middleton. While the St. Trinian's film is broader and not as well plotted as The Happiest Days of Your Life, it does benefit greatly from recycling that film's cast of character actors.

The Happiest Days of Your Life was headlined by the formidable pairing of Alastair Sim and Margaret Rutherford, as the head teachers of the two respective schools. Without the presence of the indomitable Rutherford, The Belles of St. Trinian's finds perhaps the only other comedy star who could compete with Alastair Sim on screen - another Alastair Sim.

Thanks to the magic of special effects, Sim is able to play two roles, share scenes and take part in conversations with himself. This is a simple concept, but one that was more difficult to achieve in 1954 than in the era of computer effects. But it's one of the most pleasing uses of special effects, expanding the star's acting performance and showing us something that would be impossible in real life.

The concept of the two Sims is carried out quite convincingly and Sim plays his scenes with impeccable timing, rising to the challenge of playing two characters interacting with one another. So much so that you quickly forget that there's actually only one actor on screen.


Sim successfully differentiates his two characters in The Belles of St. Trinian's, although it's not that hard when one is wearing a dress, and the shady Clarence is simply the warm up act for his star turn as Miss Fritton.

Sim's performance turns the matronly Miss Fritton into a memorable creation. She oversees the school like a mother hen, appreciating as much as tolerating its foibles, regarding her charges with indulgence, and turning a blind eye to their worst failings.

Sim succeeds admirably in making Miss Fritton a plausible character, albeit a comic one, without resorting to cheap laughs or mugging as a man in a dress. Being much too good an actor to descend to the level of a simple drag act, he is careful to allow Miss Fritton her dignity as a character in her own right. Inevitably, the sight of an actor as obviously masculine and as lugubrious as Alastair Sim playing a woman means that the part has a slight element of the grotesque about it, but Sim himself never plays to that.

According to Mark Simpson in Alastair Sim: The Real Belle of St. Trinian's, Alastair Sim was originally offered only the part of Miss Fritton's brother Clarence. But when Launder and Gilliat were unable to find an actress to play the role of the headmistress, he suggested he could play both roles.

Sim was already established as a favourite of Launder and Gilliat, appearing in their dramas Waterloo Road and London Belongs to Me and their thriller Green for Danger, as well as their 1950s comedies The Happiest Days of Your Life and Folly to be Wise, and later Geordie, The Green Man and Left, Right and Centre.

George Cole is also memorable as "Flash" Harry, a boot boy taken on by Miss Fritton in 1940. To Miss Fritton's surprise, it seems that he is still hanging around the school, to help the pupils in their mostly dubious schemes. These include taking their bets and assisting in the brewing of illicit booze in chemistry classes. Harry bottles the stuff and sells it as "St. Trinians Gin".


Harry is a cheap spiv with a pencil moustache, wearing a trench coat and trilby hat. The shoulders on the coat are so wide that he almost looks as if he's left the coat hanger inside it, while the hat is invariably pulled down over his eyes to disguise his face, making it comically obvious that he's up to no good. Harry seems to be permanently skulking somewhere in the school grounds and can usually be summoned with a strong whistle. When he finds out that a policewoman has been sent to the school undercover, he is indignant: "It's a blooming nerve! Ain't been no murders 'ere. Not so far."

George Cole was Alastair Sim's protege and appeared in several films with him, including The Happiest Days of Your LifeScrooge (as the young Ebenezer Scrooge), Laughter in Paradise and The Green Man. The character of Flash Harry helped Cole to develop as a character actor and move away from the slightly pallid juvenile roles he had often been stuck with.

Also memorable is Joyce Grenfell as the police Sergeant Ruby Gates, who would do anything for her dear fiancé Sammy (Lloyd Lamble). Unfortunately, Sammy is also the local police superintendent, and therefore her boss. Which is why Ruby goes along with the plan to infiltrate the school, even though she rightly guesses that her alias "Miss Crawley" will lead to the inevitable nickname "Creepy Crawley".

Ruby Gates is a variation on the relentlessly cheery games mistress, Miss Gossage, played by Grenfell in The Happiest Days of Your Life. In this case there's a touch more pathos for the perpetually disappointed Gates, although Grenfell invests the part with her usual gangling gait and goofy charm.


The supporting cast is a mine of familiar comedy actors, with the disreputable teachers of St. Trinian's including Irene Handl, Joan Sims and Beryl Reid. Richard Wattis appears as a long-suffering civil servant from the Ministry of Education, who has to reach for his pills at the very mention of the name of St. Trinian's. Guy Middleton and Arthur Howard play two former school inspectors who went missing, only to go native to stay on as staff in the more carefree environment at St. Trinian's. Hammer horror regular Michael Ripper also turns up as a jockey, and future Carry On star Sid James appears as Benny, Clarence's chief accomplice.

St. Trinian's is partly a parody and a subversion of the "school stories" genre of the 1950s, popularised by Enid Blyton. But it's also in part a satire of progressive, pupil-centred educational methods, as well as of the supposed value of a private education. New private schools would occasionally spring up in Britain, with the aim of rejecting a traditional curriculum and allowing pupils to follow their own inclinations and interests instead.

In the case of St. Trinian's, those interests include crime, cheating, gambling and making illicit booze. St. Trinian's then is depicted initially in the films as a sort of progressive school gone to seed. As Miss Fritton says in the film, St. Trinians is "Perhaps just a teeny-weeny bit unorthodox, but then that's better than being old-fashioned, isn't it?"

This anarchic portrayal of school life inevitably made the films tremendously popular with British schoolchildren in the 1950s, as a fantasy version of the kind of school where the pupils are really the ones in charge, something children in the stricter post-war years could only dream about.

The film also has some humour based on the undesirability of American servicemen being based nearby when you have teenage daughters, and jokes about Arab sheikhs not knowing how many wives they have, or which wife is the mother of which child ("Look in the files" the sheikh imperiously tells his secretary). For some reason, oil-rich Arab sheikhs are a recurring plot element in the St. Trinian's films.


Malcolm Arnold's score also adds to the film's air of jollity, and is entertaining and inventive enough to make you regret his move into war films and dramas later in the decade, where he tended to recycle the same themes. Arnold's skills were better displayed in his earlier films, including David Lean's The Sound Barrier (1952) and Hobson's Choice (1954).

Malcolm Arnold's comic sensibilities serve him particularly well in The Belles of St. Trinian's. His main theme is a rambunctious version of the school song, raggedly played as if it's being bashed out by the school orchestra. Flash Harry also gets his own theme, a high speed comical march, to complement his shady shuffle.

That Malcolm Arnold had a playful side and a sense of humour wasn't a great surprise, given that his works included "A Grand Overture for Orchestra, Organ, Rifles, Three Hoovers and an Electric Floor Polisher", a parody of a grand 19th century overture, written for the Hoffnung Music Festival.

For those who are interested, St Trinian's School and its home in the fictional county of Barsetshire seems to be located in the Home Counties, west of London. Presumably somewhere near Berkshire, as this film makes reference to Newbury Races and the sequel, Blue Murder at St. Trinian'shas a signpost near the school showing that it's 10 miles from Wantage. The county name of Barsetshire is borrowed from the novels of Anthony Trollope.

Although it's not quite the indelible classic that its fans like to think it is, The Belles of St. Trinian's is an amusing romp. The plot is a bit of a ramshackle construction, but the film's freewheeling nature is in tune with its anarchic subject matter. Frank Launder directs with a light touch and maintains an air of spirited high jinx throughout. If the script isn't as strong as it could be and the plotting a little inelegant, the performers more than make up for it. Alastair Sim gives a comic tour de force, and he is ably supported by George Cole and Joyce Grenfell in particular.

The Belles of St. Trinian's was a big hit when it was released in Britain in 1954, competing at the box office with another huge homegrown comedy success, Doctor in the House, starring Dirk Bogarde and Kenneth More. Both films would spawn successful series and, together with the Carry On films that began four years later in 1958, constituted British cinema's three great long-running comedy series.

Joyce Grenfell and George Cole were joined by Terry-Thomas for the first St. Trinian's sequel, Blue Murder at St. Trinian's in 1957, with Sim returning in a cameo appearance. Grenfell and Cole returned for the second sequel, The Pure Hell of St. Trinian's in 1960, alongside Cecil Parker.

The films appeared intermittently over the next two decades with Dora Bryan playing the school's new headmistress in The Great St. Trinian's Train Robbery in 1966, a film that also saw George Cole make his final appearance in the series. 14 years later in 1980 came the last St. Trinian's film directed by Frank Launder, The Wildcats of St. Trinian's, with Sheila Hancock as the headmistress.

The St. Trinian's films were unexpectedly revived almost three decades later with Rupert Everett starring as Miss Fritton in two films, St. Trinian's in 2007, and St. Trinian's 2: The Legend of Fritton's Gold in 2009.


The Belles of St. Trinian's

Year: 1954
Genre: Comedy
Country: UK
Director: Frank Launder

Cast  Alastair Sim (Miss Fritton), George Cole ('Flash' Harry), Joyce Grenfell (Ruby Gates), Hermione Baddeley (Miss Drownder), Betty Ann Davies (Miss Waters), Renee Houston (Miss Brimmer), Beryl Reid (Miss Wilson), Irene Handl (Miss Gale), Mary Merrall (Miss Buckland), Joan Sims (Miss Dawn), Balbina (Mlle de St. Emilion), Jane Henderson (Miss Holland), Diana Day (Jackie), Jill Braidwood (Florrie), Annabelle Covey (Maudie), Pauline Drewett (Celia), Jean Langston (Rosie), Lloyd Lamble (Superintendent Kemp Bird), Richard Wattis (Manton Bassett), Guy Middleton (Eric Rowbottom-Smith), Arthur Howard (Wilfred Woodley), Michael Ripper (Albert Faning), Eric Pohlmann (The Sultan), Sidney James (Benny), Martin Walker (Hankinson), Noel Hood (Bilston school mistress), Vivienne Martin (Arabella), Elizabeth Griffiths (Gladys), Andree Melly (Lucretia), Belinda Lee (Amanda), Michael Kelly (Bill), Tommy Duggan (Joe), Paul Connell (Sam), Lorna Henderson (Fatima), Vivienne Wood (Miss Anderson), Cara Stevens (Sultan's secretary), Jerry Verno (Alf, the bookmaker), Jack Doyle (Assistant trainer)

Screenplay Frank Launder, Sidney Gilliat, Val Valentine  Producers Frank Launder, Sidney Gilliat  Cinematography Stanley Pavey  Art director Joseph Bato  Editor Thelma Connell  Music Malcolm Arnold  Costume designer Anna Duse

Running time 91 mins (black & white)

Production company London Film Productions, in association with British Lion Films  Distributor British Lion (UK)

See also: Blue Murder at St. Trinian's (1957)

This post is part of the Rule Britannia Blogathon hosted by A Shroud of Thoughts, and is the first part in the new series Two Cheers for St Trinian's!, covering all five of the original St. Trinian's films.

Comments

  1. Poor Ruby! No woman ever suffered so for the sake of romance.

    Both "Belles" and "Happiest" are favourites around here. Both, come to think of it, fall under the category of most quoted movies. You don't have to watch them to get the necessary chuckles.

    This was a delightful Sunday morning article. The coffee and strudel accompaniment with all of the information and insights went down easily.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The amazing character actors, like Joyce Grenfell, are one of the joys of British comedy in this era. I think she is even better in Blue Murder at St. Trinian's.

      Delete
  2. Apologies in advance, but I have to be honest here...

    The combination of "English boarding school for young ladies" and "In Flagrante Delicto" took part of my brain to a very "Cinemax at 2 a.m." kind of place :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That phrase now seems to have an almost exclusively sexual connotation, but presumably it didn't in 1954.

      I'm afraid the "dirty old man" angle is something we're going to have to consider as this series goes on...

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  3. I've heard about the St. Trinian's films but have never seen them. But you said the magic word, Alastair Sim. So I must watch at least the first one.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, I'd watch Alastair Sim in just about anything as well. He's always brilliant and endlessly inventive.

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  4. I have long been a fan of the St. Trinian's films, to the point that I have often joked that if I were a woman I would put St. Trinian's School downa s my alma mater on social media sites! I don't know that I would call any of them "classics," not even Belles... (which is my favourite), but hey are certainly fun. And Alistair Sim is just so good as Millicent and Clarence Fritton. Anyway, thank you so much for taking part in the blogathon!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for hosting. And look out for more coming up on St. Trinian's this week!

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  5. Alastair Sim in drag? I need to watch this! [laugh]

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Luckily, it's not quite as disturbing as it sounds!

      Delete

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