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Belles Of St Trinians, The (British Lion 1954, Alastair Sim, Joyce Grenfell)

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If school performance tables had been in existence in the ’50s, there’s no doubt where St Trinian’s would have appeared, thanks to its conniving, unruly miscreants – and that was just the teachers; the kids were much worse. The Belles of St Trinian’s was the first of five comedies based on the drawings of Ronald Searle (who even appears in the film as an outraged parent) and is undoubtedly the best and funniest in the series. With a wonderful cast, wicked sense of humour and knowing demolition of the image of the British public schoolgirl, Franker Launder’s film actually gets better with age. Whether the same can be said of Barbara Windsor – who appears here uncredited as one of the schoolgirls – is another question.

“Everything I know about acting comes from Alastair Sim,” George Cole (playing Flash Harry) once said, and Sim gives a mini-masterclass here in two roles. He gets dragged up to play St Trinian’s headmistress Miss Fitton, and also plays Clarence, the head’s bookmaker brother. Clarence is at the heart of a betting scam which quickly involves all of St Trinian’s – after Miss Fitton has put all of the debt-ridden school’s money on a horse belonging to the father of one of her fourth form pupils, Clarence has the horse kidnapped by St Trinian’s sixth-formers. Naturally, when the fourth-formers hear of his actions, they come up with a rescue strategy of their own. Joyce Grenfell is the undercover police officer trying to bring some law to the disorder.

With its riotous scenes, such as girls concocting gin in chemistry lessons and trampling the opposition underfoot in hockey matches, The Belles was all too much for some countries. Children in South Africa were banned outright from seeing the film, while the New York Times called the schoolgirls ‘frighteningly abnormal’. Some critics actually argued that the film didn’t capture the true viciousness of Ronald Searle’s drawings, although The Spectator noted that it was ‘full of ravishing absurdities, splendid lunacies and is a fitting tribute to the creative artist’s genius.’

production details
UK | British Lion | 91 minutes | 1954

Director: Frank Launder
Script: Sidney Gilliat, Frank Launder,

cast
Joan Sims as Miss Dawn
Irene Handl as Miss Gale
Renée Houston as Miss Brimmer (as Renée Houston)
Alastair Sim as Millicent Fritton / Clarence Fritton
George Cole as Flash Harry
Beryl Reid as Miss Wilson
Joyce Grenfell as P.W. Sgt. Ruby Gates
Hermione Baddeley as Miss Drownder
Betty Ann Davies as Miss Waters
Mary Merrall as Miss Buckland
Balbina as Mlle de St. Emilion
Jane Henderson as Miss Holland
Diana Day as Jackie
Lloyd Lamble as Superintendent Kemp Bird

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