A Classic

Amos Lassen

 “The Bells of St. Trinian’s” was originally released in 1954 and starred Alastair Sim in a dual role as the school’s headmistress, Miss Fritton, and her shady bookmaker brother Clarence. St. Trinian’s School for Young Ladies is an English boarding school in a traditional country house setting, with uniforms, a motto, hockey matches and supposed lessons. However, the teachers are a mixture of criminals and low lives with no qualifications among them. The pupils have a tendency for violence and are do as they please and create chaos wherever they go, involving themselves in assorted mischief and illicit activities. The school’s official motto is In Flagrante Delicto, meaning “caught in the act”.

The students are seemingly responsible for a series of unsolved crimes in the local area. When the girls head back to school for the beginning of the new term, local shops are boarded up, the bank closes and army vehicles go in the opposite direction. The police chief immediately reaches for alcohol in his office and the local policeman locks himself up in the town’s jail for safety. Even the animals in the town hide.

The only local businesses that seem to make any money from the presence of the school are the bookmakers and the pawnbrokers. In fact, the only reason one of the teachers is there is because she is on the run from the police. When they learn that one of the students has been given £100 spending money by her wealthy father, there is a race between the teachers to see which one can get to the money first.

The plot is a convoluted involving a Sultan (Eric Pohlmann), who chooses the school for his young daughter Fatima (Lorna Henderson), because it’s close to the stables where he keeps his horses. Learning of this, Miss Fritton (Alastair Sim) is persuaded by her shady brother Clarence (also Sim) to take his expelled daughter Arabella (Vivienne Martin) back at the school. There he hopes that she will be able to get the lowdown on the Sheikh’s horses, particularly his star horse, Arab Boy.

Miss Fritton is very reluctant to take Clarence’s daughter back, because she was expelled for burning down the sports pavilion but Clarence bribes her. When she learns that the Sheikh’s horse is a certainty for the Gold Cup, she decides to stake the last £400 of the school’s funds on the race, in a desperate attempt to make enough money to pay off its debts.

The pupils have ideas of their own. The fourth form girls want to make sure that Arab Boy takes part in the race, while their counterparts in the sixth form are equally determined to make sure that it doesn’t. They kidnap the horse and attempt to hide it in the school because they placed bets on a rival.

At the same time, the local police want to investigate the many crimes in the area and gather evidence against the staff and pupils of St. Trinian’s. Given that the school is constantly in need of new teachers, the local police superintendent decides to send his Sergeant, Ruby Gates (Joyce Grenfell), undercover as the school’s new mistress. This is quite a dangerous assignment because of the pupils’ violent tendencies on the sports field. You can guess where this is going but I guarantee that it will not spoil your fun watching the film.

Thanks to the magic of special effects, Sim is able to play two roles, share scenes and take part in conversations with himself. This is a simple concept, but one that was difficult to do in 1954. The idea of the two Sims is carried out convincingly and Sim plays his scenes with great timing. His performance turns the matronly Miss Fritton into a memorable creation. She oversees the school like a mother hen.

St. Trinian’s is partly a parody and a subversion of the “school stories” genre of the 1950s and it’s also in part a satire of progressive, pupil-centered educational methods, as well as of the supposed value of a private education.

Frank Launder directs with a light touch and maintains it throughout. If the script isn’t as strong as it could be and the plotting a bit crass, the performers more than make up for it.

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