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The Belles of St. Trinian’s; Review by Robin Franson Pruter

127Originally released in the UK 28 September 1954
Written by Frank Launder & Sidney Gilliat and Val Valentine
Directed by Frank Launder

Starring Alastair Sim, Joyce Grenfell, and George Cole

My rating: ★ 1/2 stars

Tedious, dated comedy about the worst girls’ school in the world.

The Belles of St. Trinian’s, based on the cartoons of Ronald Searle, was the first of the St. Trinian’s film series. As such, we can assume that it was financially successful in its time, and the reviews show that it was critically successful as well. However, time has not been kind to the film. Most of the gags fall flat, and those that don’t fail elicit mere smiles rather than audible laughter.

The movie tells the story of the worst girls’ boarding school in Britain. Both the teachers and the students are social misfits. School buildings regularly blow up or burn down. Chemistry class consists of running an illegal still. The dismal state of the school’s finances sends the teachers in a race to steal pocket money from the students.

Most of the jokes in the movie stem from the premise that the school is outrageously out of control. Something like a plot develops in the latter half of the film when the school’s headmistress, Miss Millicent Fritton, a fussy old maid type played by Alastair Sim in drag, bets the school’s dwindling cash reserve on a horse race in order to pay off the school’s massive debt. This scheme is good for a few more jokes. There is also a subplot about a bumbling police detective, played by Joyce Grenfell, going undercover to expose the shenanigans at St. Trinian’s, but it goes nowhere. The film tries to mine some laughs out of Grenfell’s over-the-top mugging, but this type of humor has dated poorly.

A big problem is the lack of a character that the viewers can identify with and from whose point-of-view they’ll experience the film. The point-of-view shifts relentlessly in the early scenes before eventually settling on Miss Fritton. The film shows a notable improvement when it does, largely due to Sim’s able performance. He also plays Miss Fritton’s ne’er-do-well brother, but that second role requires little skill from an actor of Sim’s proficiency. George Cole is amusing as a mysterious character named Flash Harry, who hangs around the school peddling the girls’ gin and placing their bets. However, the rest of the cast of notable British character actors is wasted in roles that are underdeveloped, and, because the characters are usually presented in groups, none of the individuals gets a chance to stand out. Fans of Hermione Baddeley and Beryl Reid will be disappointed to find that they disappear into the background.

For a comedy, The Belles of St. Trinian’s suffers from molasses-like pacing. A film like this one needs to rush from joke to joke to keep the humorous momentum, but the story gets lost in tedium. Many of the scenes and individual shots go on excessively long. Also, too much time is spent in Miss Fritton’s office, giving the film a stagey feel without the rapid-fire entrances and exits that a good stage farce needs.

Ultimately, the movie just isn’t funny. It may have been when it was released in the 1950s. But, while the issues with pacing and with most of the jokes foundering can be explained by changing standards of humor and aesthetics in the last 60 years, two key problems, the lack of a stable point-of-view and the essentially one-joke nature of the premise, can’t be excused by the passage of time.

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4 comments on “The Belles of St. Trinian’s; Review by Robin Franson Pruter

  1. I think you wrote a good review, but I think you missed a lot in the film. How could you do a review and not mention the wonderful Richard Wattis character, who represents droll British humor at its finest. I do not find the film slow-paced, and I did not find the film tedious. Different strokes for different folks, I guess.

  2. Richard Wattis was one of the people I was thinking of when I said, “However, the rest of the cast of notable British character actors is wasted in roles that are underdeveloped, and, because the characters are usually presented in groups, none of the individuals get a chance to stand out.”

  3. […] Trinian’s reboots the successful St. Trinian’s franchise that began with The Belles of St. Trinian’s in 1954 and produced four sequels. In the new film, St. Trinian’s, run by Miss Camilla Fritton […]

  4. I revisited The Belles of St. Trinians because I was dissatisfied with some of the remarks made by Ms. Pruter in her review. I was surprised to read of the film’s “molasses-like pacing.” That was not what I remembered, and revisiting the film only confirmed that this is a rousingly fast-paced film. As far as “something like a plot develops in the second half of the film” is a comment that left me perplexed. The plot was being developed from the very first scene of the Arab monarch deciding to enroll his daughter in St. Trinians, then on to scenes where the gangster brother of the Headmistress Fritten reenrolling his daughter into St. Trinians to get the scoop on the Arab monarch’s horses, which are stabled and raced in the same county as St. Trininians. The first part which the reviewer saw too many POVs were establishment scenes, which are marvelous. The viewer is clearly prepared for the big struggle between the Fourth Form girls and the Sixth Form girls, each group backing rival horses, the Sixth Form behind the gangster brother’s horse, and Fourth Form behind the Arab monarch’s horse. I think that there was sufficient character development in the main characters, as far as lack of development for such great character actors as Richard Wattis, a lot of movies have interesting characters in small roles. And what Wattis did in two scenes was marvelous. He made his character memorable. I will concede that the Joyce Grenfell character does not wear well. Back in the 1950s she came across as delightful, but by today’s standards it is a little mannered. There is a lot of subtle British humor in this film, but there is also a lot of broad humor that now falls a bit flat. Nonetheless, I think Ms. Pruter’s review sorely missed the mark, and I still rank the Belles of St. Trinians as a classic British comedy, based on such performances by Alistair Sims, George Cole, and Richard Wattis.

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