Monday, June 13, 2011

Favourite movies: The Happiest Days of Your Life (1950)

The writing/producing/directing team of Gilliat and Launder, and their 40 some films, are probably responsible for the image most of us have of British humour. Humour in the face of adversity and absurdity - that stiff upper lip resourcefulness and ready wit to which we would all like to claim ownership. It's an amazing partnership beginning with the screenplay for The Lady Vanishes through to Oh, Mr. Porter! for Will Hay, the Inspector Hornleigh series, Geordie, Green for Danger, The Smallest Show on Earth, The Belles of St. Trinians plus sequels, and more. If laughter is indeed the best medicine then Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder were the world's pharmacists.

Frank Launder collaborated with John Dighton, screenwriter of The Man in the White Suit and Went the Day Well? in bringing his 1948 stage hit, starring Margaret Rutherford, The Happiest Days of Your Life to the screen.

Margaret Rutherford, Joyce Grenfell, Alastair Sim

Mythology tells us that the happiest days of your life are your school days and while that may be true for some, the staff of a boy's school in rural England, Nutbourne College, exemplified by teacher Mr. Briggs played by Richard Wattis, does not agree wholeheartedly with that sentiment. In fact, Briggs keeps up a sarcastic running commentary about everything that occurs at benighted Nutbourne. "Benighted", you ask? Well, the college is a bit seedy, as is its Games Master played by Guy Middleton. The Headmaster, one Wetherby Pond played by Alastair Sim, is hoping soon to see the last of dear old Nutbourne. Much to the amazement of his fellows, Pond has been short-listed for the position of Headmaster at Harlingham. "That's a good school!"

The first day of the school year presents a problem in the form of an unaccountable number of bags from the railway station and a letter from the Ministry of Education, Department of Resettlement. A further 100 students, plus staff have been foisted upon dear old Nutbourne. Rising to the occasion, Pond decides this will be the perfect opportunity to show Harlingham what he is made of. The domestic staff of Nutbourne has no such lofty goal and walk out en masse, leaving the teachers to sort out such problems as where to place the incoming boys and what to feed them.

While the teachers are thus engaged, the interlopers arrive. The staff of St. Swithin's all-girls school is just as put out with the high-handedness of post-war bureaucracy, but Headmistress Miss Whitchurch played by Margaret Rutherford is a take-charge person and take charge she does. Her staff includes Joyce Grenfell as gawky gym teacher Miss Gossage ("Call me sausage.") and the sometimes reliable Miss Jezzard played by Muriel Aked. They become increasingly disheartened as they tour their new facilities, ending in the staff room. "Gaming, nicotine, fisticuffs - we're moving in a descending spiral of inequity. Whatever else this establishment may or may not be, it's clearly not a suitable place to bring carefully nurtured young girls to."

Miss Whitchurch's misgivings are felt just as keenly when the horror of having a girls school billeted in Nutbourne is brought home to Mr. Pond. "It means that not only has the Ministry made a mistake in sending a school here at all, but they have apparently been guilty of an appalling sexual aberration."

The Displaced and the Distracting

Repeated calls - urgent calls - to the Ministry are of no assistance whatsoever so staff and students make do in what Miss Whitchurch calls a "rough and ready harmony". All of the harmony falling to the side of that formidable lady.

At his wits end, Pond responds when being urged to vote in an upcoming election for a Miss Wilson that: "If there is a male candidate - whether he be conservative, socialist, communist or anarchist - or, for that matter, liberal, he will have my vote."

Margaret Rutherford, Alastair Sim

Second Tuesday of the term arrives. The day some of the girl's parents have been invited for tea and a tour of St. Swithin's new facility. The day Miss Whitchurch forgot and the day Miss Jezzard forgot to remind her of. This is the day the Board of Governors of Harlingham decide would be opportune for an unscheduled visit to Nutbourne to check out their new Headmaster candidate. Miss Whitchurch cannot afford to lose any students and Mr. Pond cannot afford to lose his career opportunity. Thus, the entire staff and student body are roused to great feats of hilarious deception to keep up the pretence of being either a girl's or boy's school depending on which group turns which corner.

The Happiest Days of Your Life is perfectly executed and perfectly delightful, capped off by the magnificent Margaret and the sublime Sim. It is the ultimate battle of the sexes and a timeless comedy classic.


  1. This sounds delightful. Regret I've never seen it, but they've got some winners in Margaret Rutherford and Alistair Sim.

  2. I am SO jealous! I have never had the opportunity to see this and am sure it'd be right up my alley. I loved GREEN FOR DANGER, made by and starring many of the same folks.

  3. Jacqueline and Rick, there is both joy and anguish in finding a new/old movie you want/must have. I hope I played the role of a guide and not that of a torturer.

    Currently the movie only seems to be available on Region 2 DVDs. There are a couple of clips on YouTube, but that would just be torture!

    My copy is a second hand VHS tape that was, in my view, criminally under-valued. Second-hand shops can be like pirate treasure chests.

  4. My daughter, at 23, is just getting into these movies. Most of the films that you just mentioned are currently on my Netflix list for her. Fans live on.

  5. I would expect your daughter to be a girl of discernment and taste.

    A great thing about sharing the movies is that she'll always remember seeing it with dad.

  6. CW,
    You did a great job on this review as always.
    A very funny film with the British wit at it's best. If you're a fan of M. Rutherford or not familiar with her work and brilliance, this is one to make you want to run out and rent a few of her films.
    A classic that stands the test of time.

  7. Thank you, Page.

    Margaret Rutherford was indeed a very special actress and so accomplished that I sometimes take her for granted.

  8. Great review Caftan Woman! With Rutherford, Sim and Joyce Grenfell together in a film scripted by Launder and Gilliatt hilarity was sure to ensue.
    A couple of other Launder & Gilliatt films I like, apart from those mentioned, would be 'Night Train to Munich' a 'The Lady Vanishes' type film with Caldicott and Charters returning and 'London Belongs to Me' (AKA 'Dulcimer Street').

  9. Stefan Oakes (may I call you Clive?), thanks for your comment and thanks for putting "London Belongs to Me" on my radar.



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