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.