An Alastair Sim-Margaret Rutherford Masterpiece: The Happiest Days of Your Life

Silverwolf was tempted to call this essay “The Happiest Eighty-one Minutes of Your Life”, but since this is a film review, and not a description of a roll in the hay, it seemed more appropriate to call it by the title of the film.

“The Happiest Days of Your Life” is a masterpiece, and we wish we could have included Frank Launder and John Dighton in the hyphenated part of our title. Launder was the director and script collaborator, while John Dighton wrote the screenplay, based on his stage play of the same name. The material is of the highest, and the acting is of the highest, and in combination this film will take you out of your world, and throw you back into the world of British boy’s private schools in the 1950s.

The plot is a bit silly, and of course unbelievable, but on it is hung a whole series of very witty and clever episodes, with sparkling dialogue. It commences with the arrival of a new teacher at Nutbourne College, a boys private school presided over by the misogynistic Alastair Sim as Wetherby Pond, the headmaster. Due to an error at the British Bureaucratic Educational Ministry, a girls school, which is being evacuated, is mistakenly relocated to Nutbourne, but Sim does not find out until the last minute, and is forced to accomodate a hundred girls plus staff at short notice. The girls school, St. Swithin’s, is headed by headmistress Margaret Rutherford, who is both adamant and forthright, and will brook no nonsense. When these two personalities clash, the sparks fly.

At the same time as Pond and Whitchurch (Rutherford) are figuring out a way to deal with the situation, new spanners are thrown in the works. Whitchurch suddenly remembers that she has invited some of the girls’ parents down to see the new school, while Pond is unexpectedly visited by three of the Directors of the Harlingham School, an institution of which Pond has been aspiring to become headmaster, as he tells his staff in the introductory scenes of the film.

The efforts of Pond and Whitchurch to keep the two sets of visitors separate, and to not let them know that now the school is co-ed, require split-second timing. And there are awkward moments, as when a locker door swings open in the supposed girls’ locker room, only to reveal three pin-ups taped to the inside. See how Miss Whitchurch explains her way out of that one!

Then there are some very clever lines that the casual observer may miss the intent of: Pond laments in one scene that the British Railways “don’t know their L.M.S. from their Southern Region”, or Pond’s complaint of the Ministry of Education, which has been passing the school’s dossier from one department to another for days, that “We’ve got to sit here while they keep on passing around.” Or, while analysing John Knox’s Latin tirade, “The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women”, Pond asks the class what they should do with the word “trumpet”. Talbot, one of the students, leans forward and whispers in the ear of the boy in front of him. Pond explodes with “Talbot, take another hundred lines!”

Then there are some nice touches, like the great comedienne, Joyce Grenfell, suddenly writing here name in the dust of a table-top. Or the French Master, Jouet, who is perpetually asleep, being awakened, and coming out of his sleep conjugating a French irregular verb.

John Dighton, the playwright who turned to film, may be the most essential ingredient in this masterpiece of cinema, for it was his play on which it is based, and we imagine many of the best lines of the film must come directly from it. Dighton went on to work on two other British Comedy Masterpieces, Kind Hearts and Coronets with Denis Price, which is also a must-see, and The Man in the White Suit with Alec Guinness. Dighton also has credits for two other excellent films, “Brandy for the Parson” and “Folly to Be Wise”. 

Standouts in the supporting cast, besides Joyce Grenfell, are the ubiquitous Richard Wattis, who must have been in virtually every good British Comedy Film ever made back then, Guy Middleton as Victor Hyde-Brown, the sports master who loves to drink and smoke, gamble and chase girls, and Edward Rigby as Rainbow, the caretaker who can get you blackmarket whiskey or petrol. “Times is difficult” is his justification. Amongst the Directors of the Harlingham School we find the great actor, Laurence Naismith, whom Sir Laurence Olivier chose to act in his incredible “Richard III”, and also the very genial Stringer Davis, who was married to Margaret Rutherford, and who starred with her in several of the later Miss Marple films.

One also should mention the zippy musical score written by Mischa Spoliansky. The upbeat music has the viewer going from the get-go, and, though you probably won’t notice it on the first viewing, the score is used very wisely during the progression of the film.

The great Zen Japanese artists believed that a great work of art should always contain a flaw, since perfection was against the state of Nature, and there is one minor flaw in “The Happiest Days”. You’d never catch it if we didn’t live in the age of digital video, where you can observe a clip over and over in a short space of time. Imagine trying it with a 16mm or 35mm projector and film.

The flaw comes when Victor Hyde-Brown picks up the phone to check on his racing results with his bookie, and begins to speak to the operator (Joan dear) before he actually has the receiver and mouthpiece in place. We’ve seen this error over and over in old movies, and we suspect they didn’t bother to reshoot the scenes because they figured the audience would never catch it on the first viewing (when the mind must put itself into a state of belief in the reality of what it is seeing, or else it cannot play the game of watching and enjoying a film).

But the greatest strength of the film comes from Alastair Sim’s absolutely-flawless acting. Every gesture, every facial expression, every inflection of the voice is so professionally done, that one is aware one is watching a Master perform. Ten years earlier, Sim was an excellent actor, as can be seen in the Inspector Hornleigh series with the great Gordon Harker. By 1950 he was himself a Great Actor.

“The Happiest Days of Your Life” was also a trailblazer in the sense that it showed a comedy about a British private school could be a commercial success. This film undoubtedly was an influence on the creation of the St. Trinians series of comedies, also with Alistair Sim. You’ll note that Frank Launder, the director, also directed, wrote, and produced the five St Trinian’s Films, the first three of which are top-hole, while Ronald Serle, who did the background drawings behind the main titles, also did similar drawings for the St Trinian’s films.

All in all, “The Happiest Days of Your Life” will give you a very happy 81 minutes of viewing. It’s humor is wholesome enough that children can enjoy it, while quick-witted adults will garner an entirely different level of pleasure from its dialogue.

“The Happiest Days of Your Life” — a real Masterpiece.

Hoooooooooooooooooooooowwwwwwwwwwwwwwww! — Silverwolf

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