"Gaming? Nicotine? Fisticuffs? We're moving in a descending spiral of iniquity!" So says the head of St. Swithen's upon inspecting the master's common at Nutbourne. The faculty and students of St. Swithen's have been ordered to share facilities at Nutbourne to avoid German bombs during World War II.
Then there's the masters' library. "The Diary of Samuel Pepys? Abridged...well, that's something to be thankful for. What's up here? The Memoirs of Casanova? Wasn't that the book we caught Jessica James reading in the closet? Decameron Nights! Well, really! What ever else this place may or may not be, it's no place to bring carefully nurtured girls!"
Yes, a terrible mistake has been made by the Ministry of Education. Nutbourne is a school for boys. St. Swithen's is a school for girls. What makes The Happiest Days of Your Life one of the best post-WWII British comedies is Nutbourne's head master, Wetherby Pond, is played by Alastair Sim, while St. Swithen's head mistress, Muriel Whitchurch, is played by Margaret Rutherford.
"St. Swithen's?" says Pond. "You don't mean to say that yours is a school for boys and girls?" he asks one of the early girls.
"Only girls" she says cheerfully.
"Does this mean, sir," asks one of Nutbourne's teachers, "that we are to expect 100 young girls?"
"It means that not only have the ministry made a mistake in sending a school here at all, but that it is guilty of an appalling sexual aberration!"
Margaret Rutherford's Miss Whitchurch, as positive and implacable as a battleship, intends to make the best of it by briskly taking over Nutbourne. Alastair Sim's Pond is exasperated up to his big bald head and is determined to salvage his school. In the meantime, there are 100 young girls and 170 young boys to be fed and places found for them to sleep (along with all their teachers). The cooks and caretakers, totally put upon, walk out. Miss Whitchurch and her girls, however, are up to the cooking tasks.
"Come now, Angela," she says to one girl who is trying to stir something in a big pot, "haven't you made porridge before?"
"Yes, but no one ever had to eat it."
"That's a defeatist attitude, my dear. Stir it well and don't shilly shally."
Things are hardly going well when Pond discovers four governors from a school he hopes to lead are arriving at any moment to see for themselves how well led Nutbourne is. And Miss Whitchurch learns that four wealthy and influential parents have just arrived to see how their daughters are doing in the new -- boy free, they were told -- facilities. The only solution? Miss Whitchurch and Pond, their teachers and their students, concoct a split-second shifting of classes to give the allusion that Nutbourne has no girls and that St. Swithen's has no boys. After the parents inspect a dorm and leave for a class, the girls in the beds duck under and the boys who'd been hidden under leap up into the beds, just as the governors walk in. The boys are observed at rugby and, as soon as the governors turn their backs, the goal posts are taken down, nets for lacrosse are put up, and just then the parents walk over to observe the girls.
One parent spots her daughter in a science class, then moments later sees her in a choir practice, then moments later....
"There's Angela again," she says to Miss Whitchurch.
"Why so it is," Miss Whitchurch replies, hustling the parents out to avoid the governors who are approaching just around the corner. "The child's quite ubiquitous."
When we leave Nutbourne, everything has been discovered. The students are milling about. The teachers are dazed (except for two who are kissing.) The Education Ministry has just sent several more busloads of students. The parents are speechless but the governors are not.
"We're waiting for an explanation," one says sharply. Pond holds his head and shudders. "Can't you see I'm trying to think of one."
The film moves from one complicated and ridiculous situation after another, braced by a funny script and two hugely comedic performances by Rutherford and Sim. Sim's droll exasperation and Rutherford's iron determination are so well matched that's it's a shame this is the only movie they ever made together. Joyce Grenfell as Gossage, St. Swithen's tall, awkward, loping sports teacher, gives them some competition. If you keep your eyes open, you'll also find some amusing references director Frank Launder works in, including a gong at Nutbourne that looks just like a midget version of J. Arthur Rank's, a faint echo of the zither theme from The Third Man and a shot stolen from David Lean's Oliver Twist, except this time the little boy walks up holding his porridge bowl and says, "Please, sir. I don't want anymore."
Frank Launder and his partner, Sidney Gilliat, were responsible for some of the best films produced in Britain during the Thirties, Forties and Fifties. They wrote, produced and directed, sometimes doing one, sometimes the other. In one way or another they were responsible for such first-rate films as Green for Danger (with a masterly droll performance by Sim), I See a Dark Stranger, The Lady Vanishes, Night Train to Munich, Wee Geordie, The Belles of St. Trinian's, The Rake's Progress and many others. With The Happiest Days of Your Life, Launder wrote and directed while both produced. It's one of their best.
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About the reviewer
C. O. DeRiemer (Charley2)
Since I retired in 1995 I have tried to hone skills in muttering to myself, writing and napping. At 75, I live in one of those places where one moves from independent living to hospice. I expect to begin … more
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