School for Scoundrels, that cheery, malicious British comedy of one-upmanship, was based on Stephen Potter's classic of underhanded winning, Gamesmanship - Or How To Win Without Really Cheating, and its follow-up, Lifemanship. (Potter wrote several others, too.) What is lifemanship? "Well, gentlemen," says the avuncular head of school played by Alastair Sim to a new class, "lifemanship is the science of being one up on your opponents at all times. It's the art of making him feel that somewhere, some how, he's become less that you. He who is not one up, is one down."
Getting ready to sign up for the courses is Henry Palfrey (Ian Carmichael), so nice, so pleasant, so helpful that he usually finds himself either ignored, taken advantage of or walked all over. His employees pay him little attention. He meets April Smith (Janette Scott), an attractive young woman, and invites her to dinner, only to see himself turned into the extra man while that bounder, Raymond Delauney (Terry-Thomas) moves in and takes over. He decides to buy a car to impress April and winds up with a moveable piece of smoking, chugging, wheezing metal courtesy of two smarmy used car salesmen, Dunstan (Dennis Price) and Dudley (Peter Jones) Dorchester. And when he agrees to play tennis at the club with Raymond while April watches them...oh, my. Raymond reduces Henry to an impotent lamb in front of April. "Hard cheese," says Raymond sympathetically, every time he maneuvers Henry into looking foolish and losing a point.
The worm strikes back, however, when Henry signs up for courses at Mr. Potter's College of Lifemanship. There Henry learns all the little gambits that will put him one up...the cough just as his opponent begins to strike the ball at snooker, hearing a joke about a cripple then standing and limping out of the room, the spilled drink on the dress that leads to a bit of solicitous dress drying after the girl takes it off, the apparently well-meaning delays that drive a competitor to distraction, and on. With Professor S. Potter's help, Henry becomes a one-upsman to be proud of. He learns to make his employees nervous, how to deal with used car salesmen, ways to innocently seduce young women, and how to deal with Raymond Delauney. The person who has to grind his teeth and hear "Oh, hard cheese" is now Delauney. It's almost as satisfying as eating a double portion of sticky toffee pudding. Henry's final tennis match with that cad Delauney is the funniest, most satisfying game of tennis I've seen since Billie Jean King slowly dismembered Bobby Riggs.
Is there a lesson for us in all this? Yes, but fortunately it's saved for the very last. And that lesson Henry learns while gazing lovingly at April and telling her he loves her. "We're witnessing the birth of a new gambit," Professor Potter says proudly. No, we're witnessing the moment when love, and the person we love, requires sincerity.
All the one-upman gambits are so outrageous and so familiar, and served up with such good-natured manipulation, that all we can do is sit back and smile. School for Scandal is a witty, almost innocent and sweet-natured movie with a fine, dry script, credited to Patricia Moyes and the producer, Hal Chester. In fact it was written by Peter Ustinov and the blacklisted American writer, Frank Tarloff. Robert Hamer, the director of Kind Hearts and Coronets, is credited with directing. When Hamer, an alcoholic, fell off the wagon half way through, however, the producer immediately fired him, brought in another director, Cyril Frank, and the two of them finished the movie unbilled.
In addition to the script, of course, what makes this movie so funny and memorable are the performances. Terry-Thomas was never better as the unctuous cad who finally gets his. Ian Carmichael plays another innocent with great ineffectual likeability, and then comes through for us. And Alastair Sim as Professor S. Potter is a joy. Watching Professor Potter introduce Henry Palfrey to one-upmanship during their first meeting is to watch one of the cleverest examples of Sim's timing and expression you'd ever hope to see. The only sad spot is seeing Dennis Price in a decidedly secondary role and not looking all that healthy.
For many of us, this is a movie to watch while taking notes.
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