Monday, January 15, 2018

THOSE DREADFUL GIRLS!: The Belles of St. Trinian's (1954)

"Searle! We studied him in school."
- Bachelor of Animation grad Janet as the credits rolled by.

Artist/cartoonist Ronald Searle (1920-2011) first published account of St. Trinian's appeared in a magazine in 1941. Searle sadly spent the war as a guest of the Japanese. When the comic strip series reappeared on the scene in 1946 the naughty girls of the boarding school had become hysterically humourous over-the-top delinquents.

The filmmaking team of Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, having adapted John Dighton's boarding school comedy The Happiest Days of Your Life for the screen in 1950, turned their experienced eye on the Searle series.

The fall term is about to begin and that news, spurred on by the raucous sounds emanating from a busload of students, spreads through the village adjacent to St. Trinian's School for Young Ladies. Citizens board up the windows of their establishments and flee for their lives! A police sergeant locks himself in a jail cell. The superintendent of police takes to strong drink. 

Miss Fritton: "You see, in other schools, girls are sent out quite unprepared into a merciless world. But when our girls leave here, it is the merciless world which has to be prepared."

When Miss Fritton (Alastair Sim) and Miss Buckland (Mary Merrall) formed St. Trinian's in the 1920s it was a model school of lighthearted abandonment suitable to the era. Miss Fritton blames the subsequent war and its "black market mentality" for the lack of morals and manners that have created such high-spirited girls among the student body. Over the years Miss Fritton has adapted to the changing times. 

Perpetually lacking in funds and behind in payments, the staff grumbles about revolt. However, since most of the teachers lack qualifications and one is hiding from a prison sentence, Miss Fritton need only worry about filling new positions. Take note of how Hermione Baddeley as a solidly soused geography teacher steals focus by simply snoring in a chair.

Among the returning students is one Arabella "Bella" Fritton (Vivienne Martin), niece of the headmistress. Miss Fritton's twin Clarence (Alastair Sim) seeks the return to academia of his expelled, and overage, daughter so that she can pump new student Princess Fatima (Lorna Henderson) for information about her father's race horses. Clarence is a bookmaker and information is his stock-in-trade.

An unofficial member of the staff is "Flash" Harry (George Cole) who acts as a go-between for the girls and their various enterprises, which include concocting homemade gin in the school's lab for sale to the outside world. Very enterprising youngsters! Harry's belief in himself as an entrepreneur and his amusing deference to Miss Fritton is very funny indeed.

Miss Fritton (when asked about Harry's identity): "You know, I'm not absolutely sure. It could be Harry, a boot boy I engaged in 1940. Of course, he was only 12 and didn't have any moustache then, but, apart from that, I see no reason why it shouldn't be Harry."

Miss Crawley (Sgt. Gates): "I thought they might like to help the police. I mean, Guide's Honour. We're all Girl Guides, aren't we?"

Miss Fritton: "Are we? Some of us may have aspired beyond that happy state, Miss Crawley."

The Ministry of Education, from which two inspectors have gone to St. Trinian's and disappeared (!!) and Police Superintendent Bird (Lloyd Lamble) of the local district are determined to break the terror that is St. Trinian's School for Young Ladies. Sergeant Ruby Gates (Joyce Grenfell) is assigned to infiltrate the school as their new games mistress. Ruby accepts this assignment with the greatest reluctance. She optimistically believes success in the job will assist in moving along her romance with the superintendent.

The under cover name of Chloe Crawley does Sgt. Gates no good with the student body. She rightly predicted the nickname "Creepy Crawley". Her can-do spirit is certainly put to the test in a hockey match that never sees a referee or a second half! Bopped on the head and confined in a locked bathroom, no woman ever suffered for love as did our Ruby.

Miss Fritton (referring to Arab Boy): "It is leaving here in time for the race. I shall see to that."

Clarence Fritton (referring to that same Arab Boy): "And I'll see that it doesn't."

It is not only brother against sister as time nears for the big race upon which Clarence's business is so dependent. The sixth form girls are instrumental in a devious plan to kidnap the racehorse Arab Boy to help Bella's dad, whose horse Blue Prince must win. The just as devious, if not more so, fourth form girls have bet their pin money on new pal Fatima's stable and can purloin livestock with the best of them. Meanwhile, Miss Fritton has thrown caution to the wind and bet the remaining school funds on Arab Boy in hopes of making a killing and paying off the mortgage. 

Miss Fritton: "Girls, girls, you know perfectly well that pets are not allowed in the dormitories, and under the same rule, Mr. Harry, I doubt if you should be here either."

Law enforcement throughout the country is searching for Arab Boy on the very day of the Gold Cup race. It is Parent's Day at St. Trinian's School for Young Ladies. It is also the reunion of the "old girls" at the school. Arab Boy is trapped in the fourth form dormitory by the overwhelming forces of the sixth form. Only a battle worthy of Zulu warriors, and superior ingenuity will win the day.

This laugh-out-loud comedy led to the Launder and Gilliat follow-up movies Blue Murder at St. Trinian's in 1956, The Pure Hell of St. Trinian's in 1960, and The Great St. Trinian's Train Robbery in 1966. 1980 saw Launder directing The Wildcats of St. Trinian's. In 2007 there was St. Trinian's with Rupert Everett in the dual roles of Carnaby and Camilla Fritton, followed by St. Trinian's 2: The Legend of Fritton's Gold in 2009 with Everett taking on three roles. These sequels and revivals fall on various degrees on the laugh metre, but it appears there may be no end in sight for Searle's sadistic students.


  1. I did not study Ronald Searle in art school, but I'm beginning to wish I had. What did he think of the movies?

    1. I've never read where he said anything derogatory about the movies. However, like Doyle with Holmes, he grew tired of the comics.

      When I was younger TV Guide commissioned him to do covers, and it was always a treat. I Googled those images a few days ago, and they still make me smile.

  2. The 1954 film looks fabulous – look at that cast! I'm going to track it down for Alastair Sim and Joyce Grenfell alone.

    1. Miss Grenfell and Mr. Sim will not disappoint! I start laughing just thinking about it.

  3. Frank Launder, Sidney Gilliat, and Alastair Sim in dual roles--what's not to like about THE BELLES OF ST. TRINIAN'S. After all Gilliat and Sim were responsible for GREEN FOR DANGER, one of my all-time favorite movies. I am fan of BELLES (and BLUE MURDER is pretty funny, too). No one made these kinds of movies as well as the British (perhaps because the style of comedy was so...British!).

    1. Guaranteed laughs in these movies. Your admiration for Green for Danger speaks most glowingly of your character, my friend.



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