Alastair Sim's School for Laughter: School for Scoundrels [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray A - America - Film Movement
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (1st June 2020).
The Film

"Perhaps best remembered as Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, Alastair Sim became a leading star of British cinema after spending five years as a lecturer of elocution at the University of Edinburgh. Classes are now back in session, as Sim demonstrates the fine art of comedy in this hilarious 4-disc collection spotlighting his mot laughter-inducing film roles."

The Belles of St. Trinian's: It is a new term at the girls' school St. Trinians and the terrifying tykes that make up the student body are back, much to the dismay of the villagers and the police. So terrified is the local constabulary that Scotland Yard's Superintendent Kemp Bird (Eskimo Nell's Lloyd Lamble), upon learning from the Ministry of Education that the two investigators they sent to the school never came back but still draw a salary, assigns long-suffering sweetheart P.W. Sergeant Ruby Gates (The Old Dark House's Joyce Grenfell) to go undercover as an educator at the school. Among the new students is Fatima (Lorna Henderson), daughter of the Sultan of Makyad (Ashanti's Eric Pohlmann), whose pocket money of £100 endears her quickly to teachers only for them to discover that headmistress Millicent Fritton (Sim) is holding it in trust, having come to believe that the promise of taking on the sultan's nine other daughters in the future will save the school which is literally falling apart around her ears. Her ne'er-do-well twin brother Clarence (also Sim), however, also sees an opportunity in the Sultan since his horse is stabled nearby and is a threat to the winning prospects of his own horse. Upon learning that Millicent has pawned the trophies and bet Fatima's pocket money on her father's horse in hopes of putting a dent in the school's debts, Clarence's daughter Bella (Vivienne Martin) and the other sixth form girls conspire with the stable boy Albert (' Michael Ripper) to nobble the horse. Millicent is not the only one with money on the horse, however, and the fourth form girls conspire with bookie "Flash" Harry (The Vampire Lovers' George Cole) to get the horse to the race, leading to standoff between the girls, Millicent, her brother, and his "partners", and the police all on parents' visiting day.

The first in a series of film spin-offs of the popular Ronald Searle comic strip, The Belles of St. Trinian's is blunted in terms of what the girls get up to for reasons of censorship – apart from the implication of forty-year-old "stable boy" Michael Ripper having a tumble in the barn with one of the sixth form girls – however, the comedy comes not from their antics but from the reactions of the adults: from the disinterest of the staff who were likely juvenile delinquents themselves to the fear of the locals, the shock of strangers, and even the surprise of the adults who have fallen in with their schemes. The girls themselves, as such, make less of an impression that Sim, Grenfell, Cole, and the wonderful supporting cast full of British actors some still then-unknown including: Maude's Hermione Baddeley, Beryl Reid (The Killing of Sister George), and Joan Sims (Carry On Nurse) among the faculty, an uncredited Shirley Eaton (Goldfinger) among the students, and Doctor Who's Roger Delgado as the Sultan's uncredited aide. Director/producer/co-writer Frank Launder and his producer/co-writer partner Sidney Gilliat (Endless Night) had previously collaborated on the screenplays of Alfred Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes, Carol Reed's Night Train to Munich, and the Launder-directed I See a Dark Stranger. The film had three sequels, a 1980 reboot with Launder's The Wildcats of St. Trinian's, and the 2007 film St. Trinian's followed by the 2009 St Trinian's 2: The Legend of Fritton's Gold, both of which feature Rupert Everett (Another Country) in a dual role as the headmistress and her brother.
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School for Scoundrels: His girl April (Paranoiac's Jeanette Scott) stolen away by slick bounder Raymond Delauney (Danger: Diabolik's Terry-Thomas), disrespected by his own employees at work, and swindled into buying a heap by crooked auto salesmen Dunstan (Ten Little Indians' Dennis Price) and Dudley (Smashing Time's Peter Jones), self-confessed failure Henry Palfrey (From Beyond the Grave's Ian Carmichael) enrolls in the Yeoville's School of Lifemanship under the tutelage of Dr. Potter (Sim) to learn the art of one-upmanship since "He who is not one up is one down." Over a period of weeks, he enrolls in courses – among them "Woomanship" and sportsmanship – with the goal of making ones opponent feel "that somewhere, somehow he has become less than you – less desirable, less worthy – less blessed." Palfrey's exams take place in the real world, as Potter accompanies him to set about righting wrongs, conning Dunston and Dudley into buying back his lemon, taking his embezzling office manager (Juno and the Paycock's Edward Chapman) down a peg and frightening his employees, and then one-upping Delauney and winning away April through humiliation of the former and manipulation of the latter.

Based on the gamesmanship novels of Stephen Potter, parodies of self-help novels, School for Scoundrels has the viewer rooting for put-upon lead Carmichael even as he seems to be transforming into someone somehow worse than Terry-Thomas' trademark film persona. The latter's lack of recognizing his own maneuvers used against him suggests a something more impersonal while making Palfrey seem crueler in his deliberation, especially once he moves on to his romantic conquest in Scott's April who is not written as particularly gullible or flighty (indeed, one half expects her to dump both of them once the game is revealed). The supporting cast includes Dad's Army's John Le Mesurier and future Britcom creator Jeremy Lloyd (Are You Being Served?). School for Scoundrels was the last film of director Robert Hamer (Father Brown) who was fired from the production which was finished by producer Hal E. Chester (Night of the Demon) and an uncredited Cyril Frankel (The Witches).
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Laughter in Paradise: When notorious practical joker Henry Augustus Russell (Oliver!'s Hugh Griffith) finally dies, his beneficiaries – retired navy captain and multi-pseudonymous pulp writer Deniston (Sim), shrewish spinster Agnes (The Haunting's Fay Compton), meek bank clerk Herbert (George Cole again), and gambler Simon (Doctor at Large's Guy Middleton) – learn from lawyer Endicott (Bride of Frankenstein's Ernest Thesiger) that their inheritance comes with strings attached. They cannot collect until they have completed certain tasks. Deniston, profiting off of salacious thrills while remaining anonymous to the public, must do something illegal which will get him sentenced to a twenty-eight day stretch in prison; Agnes, so contemptuous of those beneath her, must work the same length of time in service; Simon, "who has gone through life at the expense of others' hearts and pockets," must get the first girl he speaks to after the reading of the will to marry him based solely on his charms; and Herbert, "who has surely failed in the banking world owing to his determination to be bullied" must stick up his bank manager boss Mr. Wagstaffe (The Ruling Class' Ronald Adam) with a toy pistol and mask (mercifully, for only two minutes). If any one of the fails in their task, their share will be divided amongst those who succeed; and if any one of them contests the will, the entire amount will go to charity. They are also forbidden from divulging the reasons why they must do these tasks to anyone who might be understanding. For Deniston, this means fiancιe "Fluffy" (Joyce Grenfell again) and her barrister father Sir Charles Robson (Whiskey Galore!'s A.E. Matthews), so he concocts a story about a secret mission that falls apart as soon as Fluffy sees him in the company of his pining secretary Sheila (The Watcher in the Woods' Eleanor Summerfield) during one of his many attempts to get arrested where he either loses his nerve or the police assume he is researching another crime novel. Hoping to profit from his impending nuptials, Simon depends on his valet Benson (Syncopation's Mackenzie Ward) to shield him from his usual type – including cigarette girl Audrey Hepburn (Charade) – and he thinks he finds the perfect match in Lucille (The Mudlark's Beatrice Campbell) who has been resisting her uncle's attempts to marry her off to a wealthy man. Nerve is something of which Herbert is in desperate need, but the bolstering his ego gets from the sudden interest of teller Susan (Mary Germaine) might just get him killed when he walks into a real stickup. When Agnes is in danger of being fired by crotchety invalid Gordon Webb (Devil Girl from Mars' John Laurie) and offers to pay him to let her stay on for a month, he thinks she is either mad or on the lam and hires private detective Roger Godfrey (The Story of O's Anthony Steel) to investigate her; Godfrey, however, becomes distracted by Webb's daughter Joan (The Maze's Veronica Hurst). None of them, however, suspect that Uncle Henry has one last joke in store for them.

Scripted by Michael Pertwee (The Saint) – who has a supporting role as a lecherous bank clerk – and Jack Davies (Paper Tiger), and directed by Italian-born Hollywood transplant Mario Zampi (Bottoms Up), Laughter in Paradise is pretty predictable in terms of its final prank but it moves along at a good clip thanks to the engaging performances of the central quartet; with Compton getting to provide some sympathetic shadings to her character as she not only experiences servitude from the other side but also gets an insight into her own bitterness observing Joan taking care of her father at the expense of other social interaction. Naturally, each character learns something more valuable than money – and, in some cases, casts off or drives away people they are better off without – and the even the least contrite of the three, left worst off despite completing the task, gets a laugh in the end. The supporting cast includes an uncredited Family Affair's Sebastian Cabot as one of Simon's card-playing buddies and Bond author Ian Fleming as Webb's doctor.
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Hue and Cry: Joe Kirby (The Pickwick Papers' Harry Fowler), the shiftless leader of a group of older schoolboys – and one girl Clarry ( Joan Dowling) – makes fun of younger boy Alec (Douglas Barr) and his choice of reading material in the Selwyn Pike adventure comic strip published weekly in The Trump but quickly becomes engrossed while reading it aloud. Walking home while reading the story of a crime, he stumbles upon the exact scenario as described in the story with a pair of men carrying a crate into Jago furriers from a delivery van with the same license plate as in the story. He goes to the cops claiming that there are dead bodies in the crate only for Inspector Ford (Kidnapped's Jack Lambert) to discover nothing of the kind in the crate. Jago at first wants to press charges against Joe but suspiciously relents when he is told he must go down to the station to do so. Although Ford decides to occupy Joe's time by getting him a job with Covent Garden grocer Jim Nightingale (The Quatermass Xperiment's Jack Warner), Joe cannot shake his suspicions. Although Joe is the laughingstock of his gang and the younger kids, the other kids suggests that the comic is being used as code by a crime boss to his underlings who are ignorant as to his identity, but that the crimes in the story are not to be taken literally (hence, the furriers may have been trading in stolen furs rather than bodies). Joe and Alec track down the strip's author Felix H. Wilkinson (Sim again) who they learn only writes the stories and has never seen the drawings, but that he never uses real places in his stories which have been altered somewhere between him sending them out and their being published using a code Wilkinson himself developed in an earlier adventure. Joe recruits young newspaper errand boy Norman (Ian Dawson) who gets him access to the next story before it is published and the gang plan to foil a robbery set to take place at an Oxford department store; however, someone calls in a tip about the crime and that kids accidentally ambush the cops. They manage to escape but worry about being arrested unless they can catch the criminals themselves; whereupon, Joe decides to become a writer and exercise a little editorial meddling himself to trap the criminal kingpin with his own code.

One of the earliest Ealing Studios comedies made two years before the "proper" cycle of Ealing comedies, Hue and Cry sees several of the key personnel in place including screenwriter T.E.D. Clarke (The Lavender Hill Mob), director Charles Crichton (A Fish Called Wanda), composer Georges Auric (Roman Holiday), and cinematographer Douglas Slocombe (The Titfield Thunderbolt); and yet, it is very different from the comedies to come, being more of a conventional thriller in some respects. While some expressionistic sequences are setups with a jokey punchline – including Joe's and Alec's first encounter with Wilkinson as a disembodied voice that has them standing paralyzed on a spiral staircase made vertiginous by the canted overhead camera angle – the danger to the kids in their mission is quite palpable, particularly during the climax where the criminals do not hesitate to return blows to the kids pummeling them, and Joe's showdown with the master criminal is every bit as exciting and perilous as one would expect between the crook and Selwyn Pike himself. The commentary on wartime and postwar austerity is present, too, with criminal enterprise seemingly an outgrowth of the black market made more sinister by the cloak and dagger aspect of the comic strip messages, while the children run about the bombed out areas of London playing war at first, and then like real soldiers on maneuvers when they set about to ambush the crooks during the climax. While Sim has little screen time in his only Ealing film, the youthful performers here are the focus and more memorable in contrast to the St. Trinian film in this set. The supporting cast includes Robin Hughes (Dial M for Murder) as Wilkinson's comic hero Selwyn Pike, and an uncredited Andrew Sachs (Fawlty Towers) as one of the schoolboys.
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Video

Released theatrically stateside by Associated Artists Productions, The Belles of St. Trinian's came to VHS via Republic Pictures through NTA Entertainment's acquisition purchase of the company. In the latter half of last century, much of the library wound up with MGM, Warner, and Turner while this film seemed to have reverted to British Lion, becoming part of the Lumiere library and then Studio Canal, gaining its first stateside media release as an Amazon burned-on-demand disc during the brief period where they were offering DVD-Rs of Studio Canal properties. The film was released to Blu-ray in the U.K. as part of Studio Canal's Vintage Classics line in 2014, and that is likely the source of Film Movement's "new digital restoration." The 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.37:1 pillarboxed fullscreen transfer is clean overall, exposing some light wear throughout as well as some coarser grain in the opticals (most interesting is the opening title sequence where the credits are opticals imposed over the upper part of the image while the "animated" banner of Searle artwork is not an optical but an actual mechanized prop).

The only widescreen production in the set, School for Scoundrels was released theatrically in the U.S. by Continental Releasing but did not get a home entertainment release stateside until Lionsgate's 2007 DVD. The 2K restoration in Studio Canal's British Blu-ray from 2015 is also likely the source for Film Movement's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.66:1 widescreen transfer which looks overall much cleaner and brighter than the previous film – the latter due to the sixties-era monochrome with a wider range of variegations of gray compared to the noir-ish look of the previous decades – indeed, it is the best-looking transfer of the set, with a slickness that matches the affected "coolness" of the one-upping characters.
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Released theatrically by Stratford Pictures Corporation, Laughter in Paradise as an Associated British Pictures Corporation also wound up with Lumiere and then Studio Canal (also getting its only previous digital release as an Amazon on-demand DVD-R). This time around, the film is making its Blu-ray debut stateside with Film Movement's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.37:1 pillarboxed fullscreen transfer – due out in the U.K. from Studio Canal at the end of June – and this one has not been as rigorously cleaned up as the other titles (although one wonders if Film Movement received the master as-is and whether Studio Canal's release will have undergone another cleanup pass) with a bit of jitter and some scratches as well as coarser-looking opticals; that said, good detail reveals itself in close-ups, with the contrast between shots of Sim and Cole to that of Compton and Middleton suggesting that the latter might have been treated to some on-camera diffusion or at a bit more fill lighting.

Hue and Cry made its Blu-ray debut in the U.K. in 2015 but was hard to see stateside outside of an unauthorized DVD form last decade. Film Movement's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.37:1 pillarboxed fullscreen surprises as the oldest film in the set revealing a noir-ish experience of deep blacks and high contrast lighting in the studio scenes while the location exteriors seem a coarser and less "defined" thanks to harder-to-control lighting situations that nevertheless convey a sense of atmosphere to the environments where the juvenile heroes at first fantasize and then finally go to war during the climax.
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Audio

The LPCM 2.0 mono audio tracks are fairly consistent quality-wise across the set with voices always intelligible along with the sound effects and scoring – some very pointed in the case of the latter like Palfrey's "Swiftmobile" malfunctions and Deniston smashing a window and conking a Bobby on the head with his umbrella – while only revealing the limitations of the recording and mixing technology of the earlier half of the twentieth century during more layered bits like the cacophony of voices in the scenes with St. Trinian's schoolgirls or the war cries of the children in Hue and Cry. While the currently-available Studio Canal Blu-rays of three films in the set – and likely Laughter in Paradise when it comes out – had optional English HoH subtitles, Film Movement has sadly not done so for any of their Ealing titles, or any of their English-language Studio Canal titles.
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Extras

The Belles of St. Trinian's includes the most extras, porting over the contents of the UK disc, starting with an interview with film historian Geoff Brown (18:27) who discusses Searle's comic strip and its popularity, the war POW experiences it was born out of, and Searle feeling boxed in by his own creation around the time of film, even killing off the girls, the faculty, and the school on paper even though St. Trinian's would persist not only in film but also in popular culture. He also discusses the production, the partnership between Launder and Gilliat, with their earlier Sim vehicle The Happiest Days of Your Life about the amalgamation of a boy's school with a girl's school when the latter's building is bombed out as a forerunner to the film; indeed, Sim's co-star Margaret Rutherford (Passport to Pimlico) intended to play the headmistress, with Sims suggesting he do a dual role when she proved unavailable. Also discussed are the relationships of Grenfell and Cole who Sim mentored and would play the younger version of his Scrooge. The interview with Dr. Melanie Williams, Senior Lecturer in Film Studies (12:50) also sheds more light on the violent content comic strip as a coping mechanism for Searle after the war as well as the film's sequels, the interview with Alastair Sim's biographer Merlith McKendrick (5:01) has her noting Sim's talent as a comic actor most strongly in his reactions to his scene partners, even when playing scenes alone on one end of a telephone. The interview with Steve Chibnall, Professor of British Cinema, De Montfort University (11:52) focusses on the Launder/Gilliat relationship, noting that Launder's daughter had first shown him the comics and he was amused by them while Gilliat was less so, with the former seeing potential in the strip for a movie, as well as their division of labor as screenwriters. Finally, "The Girls of St. Trinians" (16:49) features the recollections of surviving cast members Gillian Ferguson, Pauline Drewett, Annabelle Covey, and Diana Day about their acting/pageant educations, auditions, and casting in the film.
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School for Scoundrels also ports over the UK extras starting with an interview with Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw (14:12) focuses on the Potter books, noting that they and the film comment on an upwardly mobile middle class, offering a leg up in the social club as the "new arena of class warfare." In the interview with Terry-Thomas biographer Graham McCann (11:29), the actor is described as the "Anglo version of Jay Gatsby," inventing his own posh persona and growing it through the stage, wartime entertainment, radio and television before refining it for School for Scoundrels and willing to play the "toff" for Americans even as he grew tired of it on the British screen. Also quite informative is the interview with Stephen Potter's grandson Chris Potter (12:15) who recalls that his grandfather's anecdote that inspired the idea, turning it over for several years while working in radio (with Sim collaborator Joyce Grenfell), but it was not until after World War II that Potter had time to write during a period not only of extremely cold weather but also a haitus period for the radio studio. He also notes that although producer Hal E. Chester is credited with the screenplay, the first drafts were actually written by actor Peter Ustinov (Death on the Nile) who had a radio show with Peter Jones, and that Ustinov was originally supposed to play Jones' partner in the film. The disc also includes the film's theatrical trailer (2:35), the only one in the set.

Sadly, Laughter in Paradise has no extras, which is particularly unfortunate since the pre-order listing for Studio Canal's UK disc cites these: "Alastair Sim and Laughter in Paradise" interview with actor Stephen Fry, Ministry of Information short "Nero: Save Fuel" (1943) starring Alastair Sim and George Cole, a behind the scenes gallery, and "Alastair Sim's Rectorial Address at Edinburgh University" (1949). Hue and Cry, on the other hand, ports over its U.K. set extras. In the interview with Steve Chibnall, Professor of British Cinema, De Montfort University (6:23) notes that it is one of the earliest Ealing comedies but not part of the proper cycle, being more of a Boys' Own adventure, discusses the difficulty of casting with many of the young actors not having yet been demobbed from service, filling out the extras with three hundred boy scouts, young leads Fowler and Dowling, Warner playing against type, as well as how the film thematically addresses the impact of the war on children. The only other extra is a location featurette (9:06) in which film historian Richard Dacre looks at the locations as they are today mostly change radically, noting the historical significance of them back in the period of the film.
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Packaging

Packed with the discs is an essay booklet by critic Ronald Bergen discussing all four films but also Sims' cultivated persona, noting that he actually sued the Heinz company because he thought Ron Moody's (Dogpound Shuffle) voiceover was a takeoff on his own, yet seemingly did not mind Alec Guiness' "impeccable" impression of him in Ealing's The Ladykillers.
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Overall

While none of the films in this set could truly be considered star vehicles for Alastair Sim – at most, The Belles of St. Trinian's and Laughter in Paradise in which he has the most screen time are more ensemble pieces – Alastair Sim's School for Laughter is still an ideal overview of the actor's special place in British comedy.
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