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The Pure Hell of St. Trinian's (1960)


This second sequel to The Belles of St. Trinian's begins with the inevitable finally happening. The young tearaways of St. Trinian's School have managed to burn the whole building to the ground.

The entire school of 200 pupils is then put on trial for arson at the Old Bailey. It seems that nothing can save them, until glamorous blonde sixth former Rosalie (Julie Alexander) catches the eye of the Judge (Raymond Huntley), hoping to get the school more lenient treatment.

Thanks to Rosalie, the Judge is better disposed towards St. Trinian's by the time a child psychologist and doctor of philosophy, Professor Canford (Cecil Parker), formerly of the University of Baghdad, steps forward with a proposal to build a new school. These girls aren't bad, he argues, they are simply the inevitable product of today's troubled society. All they need is some love. 

At that point the Judge seems to be lost in reverie thinking about Rosalie again. But Professor Canford regains his attention by explaining that he has the backing of a mysterious benefactor who will fund a new building for the school. He has already selected a new headmistress Miss Harker-Packer (Irene Handl) to take over. Under the influence of Rosalie, the Judge agrees to the proposal. The girls are allowed to go free and St. Trinian's is moved to its new home at Hannington Hall.


George Cole as "Flash" Harry

Professor Canford is suspiciously eager to take the sixth form girls on a cultural tour of Greece, funded by his mystery benefactor. But he needs the consent of the civil servants at the Ministry of Education. So Harker-Packer agrees to stage a cultural festival to impress the Ministry and encourage them to give their permission for the trip.

The men from the Ministry are horrified by the resulting festival, but are overruled by their superiors as old-fashioned and out of touch. The St. Trinian's girls' efforts, including an avant garde fashion show and a striptease version of Hamlet, have unexpectedly found favour with Britain's new cultural establishment, and the Ministry is sufficiently impressed to allow the trip to go ahead. 

Inevitably the local police force, never St. Trinian's greatest fans, become suspicious about the girls' impending tour of Greece. Superintendent Kemp-Bird (Lloyd Lamble) is on the verge of finally marrying his very long term (sixteen years now) fiancée Sergeant Ruby Gates (Joyce Grenfell). But he decides to postpone their wedding and sends Gates to join the school party on their voyage instead, where she stows away on a lifeboat. 

Also on board the yacht for the cultural tour are the school's former boot boy "Flash" Harry (George Cole) and Professor Canford's shady colleague Alphonse (Sid James). As the yacht nears its destination, it seems that the St. Trinian's tour is heading not for Greece, but for somewhere in the Middle East. Canford is in fact secretly working for a sultan, who wants the sixth form girls for his harem. When they protest, Flash Harry and Ruby Gates are cast adrift in a lifeboat, together with Canford, and end up stranded on a desert island. 

When the Ministry of Education learns about the situation, the Minister decides that the St. Trinian's girls have to be rescued in order to avert a crisis. But the only British Army soldiers in the area are a mobile bath unit, led by an officer (Nicholas Phipps) more interested in overseeing the next shipment of Scotch than in seeing any action. Will the bath unit be able to save the day and clean up? Or will the unruly terrors of the St. Trinian's fourth form be more successful?


St. Trinian's girls, including Edina Ronay (2nd from right)

Although there were five films in total in the original St. Trinian's series, the first three films sit together as a complementary set, before things started to go off the rails with the fourth and fifth instalments. 

The Belles of St. Trinian'sBlue Murder at St. Trinian's and The Pure Hell of St. Trinian's all have similar themes, interests and styles, as well as using a shared set of actors and characters, and sometimes even the same jokes.

The Pure Hell of St. Trinian's begins with a joke recycled from the first film. As the school burns to the ground, the narrator tells us:

The moral of our story at the beginning is found,
There's sure to be trouble, when there's arson around.


This is a repeat of Alastair Sim's line as Miss Fritton in The Belles of St. Trinian's that "I cannot afford to have continual arson about in my school!"

Sim, though, underplayed it and delivered the line in an almost throwaway manner, probably because the film makers were concerned that it might not get past the censor. There was obviously less worry about that in 1960, because the joke is now front and centre and delivered in a way that doesn't allow much ambiguity. In its defence though, it is quite a funny line, and perhaps the director, Frank Launder, thought that it had been underplayed so much in the first film that many people had missed it.


There's been some arson about: St. Trinian's in the dock

The fact that The Pure Hell of St. Trinian's begins with a joke borrowed from an earlier film in the series is appropriate. Because this film is less a sequel and more a reunion of characters, situations and ideas from the previous two films.

There's the school being burned to the ground, the army being called in again, another imperious desert sheikh, the continuation of Sergeant Gates's very long engagement, another wealthy foreigner with designs on the St. Trinian's sixth form, Gates going undercover with the school once again, and her falling for another shady character who isn't all that he seems.

Continuity in the series was always a little shaky (Sim's character is called Millicent in the first film, but Amelia in the second), so it probably shouldn't be a surprise that the sign outside the school at the beginning of this film calls it the St. Trinian's Academy for Young Ladies rather than St. Trinian's School.

The Pure Hell of St. Trinian's uses the same creative team as the first two films in the series, being directed by Frank Launder, produced by Launder and Sidney Gilliat and written by Launder, Gilliat and Val Valentine. The composer Malcolm Arnold is also back on board to provide his third score for this series. 


Cecil Parker as Professor Canford

Although George Cole and Joyce Grenfell are the two biggest names returning to the series, they still can't quite get top billing, coming after Cecil Parker in the opening credits. But all three share a title card, suggesting that they were seen as more-or-less of equal importance.

Cecil Parker is a good addition to the cast as the seedy alleged academic, although his romance with Ruby Gates feels like a less funny replay of the one between her character and Terry-Thomas in this film's immediate predecessor Blue Murder at St. Trinian's

As well as Grenfell and Cole, the film brings back Eric Barker as Culpepper-Brown at the Ministry of Education, Michael Ripper as the Ministry lift man and Lloyd Lamble as the Police Superintendent and Gates's fiancé.

Other actors return, albeit in different roles. Thorley Walters, who was an army officer in Blue Murder at St. Trinian's, now plays Butters, an official at the Ministry of Education. Like all civil servants at the Ministry, dealing with St. Trinian's has had a negative effect on Butters' stress levels. This has led him to start doing little calming dances to classical music in his office, on the advice of his doctor. 


Michael Ripper, Eric Barker and Thorley Walters

Sid James also returns to the series. Having played Clarence Fritton's sidekick Benny in The Belles of St. Trinian's, he now plays Cecil Parker's accomplice, Alphonse. Also back for second helpings is Irene Handl, who was seen fairly briefly as an unlikely teacher in The Belles of St. Trinian's. She gets a bigger role this time as the school's new headmistress, the eccentric, if money-minded Harker-Packer, although the film could probably make more of her character. 

Rosalind Knight, who played one of the sixth formers in Blue Murder at St. Trinian's, also appears very briefly as a seamstress, Cyril Chamberlain turns up as a soldier again and Lisa Lee makes her second of three appearances in the series as Miss Brenner. Also added to the cast are Dennis Price as Gore Blackwood, a new civil servant at the Ministry of Education, and John Le Mesurier as the new Minister.

This is a strong cast of character actors, but the film doesn't always know how best to use them. Frank Launder has recruited a very good comic actress in Irene Handl, for example, as the school's new headmistress. But the script loses interest in her character early on, making this the second film in the series to not know quite what to do with Irene Handl. 

The other new cast members are not particularly well served either, especially Dennis Price and John Le Mesurier, while Sid James is just required to look shady and disreputable, although few actors can do that quite so naturally. Raymond Huntley (on his first of two St. Trinian's films playing different characters) does at least get a good part as the Judge in the trial scene. 


Flash Harry on the desert island

The Pure Hell of St. Trinian's starts quite strongly, with the burning down of the school and the trial of the St. Trinian's pupils, but the plotting soon becomes unfocused and even more random than before. Launder, Gilliat and Valentine's script is often content to simply rearrange elements from the previous films, when the writers should really be moving their characters on. The actors are now doing much of the work to make the film amusing, although there are still some funny lines in the script. 

The police involvement in the plot, with Ruby Gates stowing away on board the school party's yacht, seems even more stretched than in its immediate predecessor Blue Murder at St. Trinian's, where Gates joined the school trip to Europe as a translator. As a result, Joyce Grenfell is stuck doing pretty much the same sort of stuff that she did in the previous film, playing the spy, being perpetually disappointed by her fiancé, and falling for another dubious character in Cecil Parker's shady Professor. 

A minor development this time is that Lloyd Lamble, as Gates's fiancé Superintendent Samuel Kemp-Bird, is now tempted by his seductive new assistant, played by Liz Fraser. This no doubt helps in his decision to postpone his wedding to Ruby yet again. Although Ruby is herself tempted once more by another dubious character, there's little doubt that she will return to "Sammy" in the end. The story of Gates and her reluctant fiancé is concluded with The Pure Hell of St. Trinian's and this film marked their final appearance in the series. 


Lloyd Lamble and Liz Fraser

George Cole as Flash Harry, meanwhile, now sports a teddy boy quiff and a hideous checked jacket. The film's desert island scenes also unexpectedly reveal that he has a St. Trinian's tattoo on his chest, which does show a certain amount of devotion. 

The Pure Hell of St. Trinian's gets more value out of the cuteness of the younger pupils than its immediate predecessor, contrasting their innocent looks with the violent charges ranged against them as they are squeezed into the dock at the Old Bailey.

But it's also the sexiest of the first four films and includes two striptease scenes. Although this is 1960, so they are not explicit. The most memorable of these is the St. Trinian's girls' alternative version of Hamlet's soliloquy in their cultural festival, involving a stripping Hamlet. This is carried out by the seductive Rosalie, who is also the girl who charms the Judge at their trial. It's probably best not to think too much about the fate of poor Rosalie, who is later kidnapped and forced to become a stripper in a Middle Eastern den of iniquity.

Somewhere along the way, young girls at St. Trinian's seem to be transformed from grubby and unruly tearaways, when they are in the fourth year, to leggy saucepots when they get to the sixth form. It's not clear when exactly this mysterious process takes place, but perhaps it's the film makers' joke that the older girls have come to realise that sexuality is a more powerful and potent weapon than mere violence.

There are also some off-colour lines in the script, as when Harry says that "I've got all my assets on this boat. Well, 'til the fifth form grows up." Despite that, in the film's finale the sixth formers talk about the need to preserve their honour, which doesn't sound like the St. Trinian's girls at all. In that regard, The Pure Hell of St. Trinian's is a slight outlier among the original films, presenting the older girls as damsels in distress in need of rescue, instead of as the usual scheming minxes.


US one sheet poster

The latter part of the film sees Eric Barker and Thorley Walters' civil servants flown out to the Middle East to deal with the crisis. Eventually, the younger St. Trinian's girls and the army bath unit arrive to save the day and have to get stuck in to the bad guys. The sixth form girls blockade themselves in the sultan's palace in the final scenes, while Cole and Parker's characters try to keep out of the mayhem as much as possible. 

The St. Trinian's girls themselves are fading into the background as individuals now, amidst all the expert comic character actors. The most prominent is Julie Alexander, a model and actress who had a brief film career in the late 1950s and early '60s. Also among their number is an uncredited Edina Ronay, in what appears to be her film debut. Ronay is the daughter of food critic Egon Ronay, and she later gave up acting to become a fashion designer. 

There's also some satire in the film. The mobile bath troop ("a unit of first class ablutionists") are the only British Army unit in the region, a jab at Britain's reduced military ambitions after the Suez Crisis. While the unit's second-in-command is eager to go into action at last in "Operation Gymslip", his commanding officer is more eager to get at some Scotch.  

The St. Trinian's cultural festival finds a surprising level of critical approval, with the girls' dress designs attracting the interest of fashion houses, their paintings being picked up for exhibition at an art gallery and their stripping version of Hamlet considered for Stratford. When the Minister mentions that an art gallery wants to exhibit their paintings, one of the baffled civil servants remarks that this is the same gallery that had an exhibition of "paintings by kangaroos".


The students from Hell: The less sexy British poster

Within these jokes about modern art, theatre and the world of fashion is buried, not too deeply, a fear of the rapidly changing cultural tastes of the time. Once, what was art would have been obvious and what was rubbish equally obvious. Now tastes are changing rapidly and no one is quite sure which is which anymore.

Talking to Geoff Brown for his book Launder and Gilliat, Frank Launder described The Pure Hell of St. Trinian's as:

"Perhaps the most intellectual of the St. Trinian's films, if you'll pardon the description. By this I mean that the jokes tended to be fractionally more subtle, and the production rather more stylised." 

According to Sidney Gilliat, The Pure Hell of St. Trinian's wasn't quite as commercially successful as the previous two entries in the series, something that he put down to the fact that it was "a shade too sophisticated", although he wasn't sure about the title either - "Because the title meant an awful lot with those". 

The real reason the film was slightly less successful than previous instalments is more likely to be because it was all a little too familiar by now. The script shows a slight air of desperation in its plotting and the writers seem to be going around in circles, relying more and more heavily on their actors to get the laughs than their dialogue or situations. But, even if the film is a slight comedown from the first two films, it's still an amiable enough romp, and an easy recommendation for anyone who enjoyed the previous entries in this series. 

After this, the St. Trinian's series would go on hiatus, before returning six years later with the fourth and penultimate entry in the original series, The Great St. Trinian's Train Robbery in 1966.



The Pure Hell of St. Trinian's 

Year: 1960
Genre: Comedy
Country: UK
Director: Frank Launder

Cast Cecil Parker (Professor Canford), George Cole ('Flash' Harry Edwards), Joyce Grenfell (Sergeant Ruby Gates), Eric Barker (Culpepper-Brown), Thorley Walters (Butters), Irene Handl (Miss Harker-Packer), Dennis Price (Gore Blackwood), Sidney James (Alphonse O'Reilly), Julie Alexander (Rosalie Dawn), Lloyd Lamble (Superintendent Samuel Kemp-Bird), Raymond Huntley (Judge), Nicholas Phipps (Major), Lisa Lee (Miss Brenner), John Le Mesurier (Minister), George Benson (Defence Counsel), Elwyn Brook-Jones (Emir), Basil Dignam (Army Officer), Cyril Chamberlain (Army Captain), Michael Ripper (Liftman), Mark Dignam (Prosecuting Counsel), Monte Landis (Octavius), Warren Mitchell (Tailor), Clive Morton (VIP), Wensley Pithey (Chief Constable), Bill Shine (Usher), Harold Berens (British Consul), Liz Fraser (Policewoman Partridge) 

Screenplay Frank Launder, Val Valentine, Sidney Gilliat  Producers Frank Launder, Sidney Gilliat  Cinematography Gerald Gibbs  Art director Wilfred Shingleton  Editor Thelma Connell  Music Malcolm Arnold

Running time 94 mins (black & white)

Production company Vale Film Productions, in association with British Lion Films, Hallmark Productions and Tudor Productions  Distributor British Lion (UK), Continental Distributing (US)

See also: 

Comments

  1. I'm not sure if I'm ever going to watch this film, though the stripping Hamlet got me thinking! It could be funny or it could end up on the level of Borat's mankini. After seeing that I needed eye bleach to get the picture out of my head.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Luckily, Rosalie is played by Julie Alexander, and she's a comely lass:

      https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/686517536943916482/

      Delete
    2. I guess I misunderstood. I thought Hamlet was stripping. That was a weird thought. :)

      Delete
    3. She is! It's a girl's school, so Hamlet has to be played by a girl.

      Delete
    4. Of course. Apparently I'm completely dense. My brain, what little there is left of it, has been melted by the virus. Oh well.

      Delete

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