The Belles of St Trinian’s (1954)

 “I’ve been lenient with her to the point of imbecility.”

“The natives have risen, old sport.”
“I propose to storm the barricades.”
“I thought hockey was a game, but with you girls it’s more like jungle warfare.”
“You’ve no idea what’s going on in the summerhouse. It’s practically an orgy.”
“I’ve never seen such an exhibition of savagery.”

The Belles of St Trinian’s is the first of four British comedy films centered on the infamous girls boarding school, St Trinian’s. Cartoonist Ronald Searle created the idea of St. Trinian’s, and this first film appeared in 1954. These immensely popular films quickly earned cult status, and they remain some of my all-time favourite comedy films. The films appeared in this order:

The Belles of St Trinian’s (1954)
Blue Murder at St Trinian’s (1957)
The Pure Hell of St Trinian’s (1960)
The Great St Trinian’s Train Robbery (1966)

belles1There have been some cheesy knock-off St Trinian’s films over the years, but in my mind, these films don’t ‘count,’ so they are not included here.

St Trinian’s is the antithesis of the snotty, private school for ‘young ladies.’ We tend to think of British schoolgirls as demure, obedient and well behaved. Well leave that idea behind and enter the World of St Trinian’s and see a very different sort of intrepid British schoolgirl. Indeed as Miss Millicent Fritton (Alistair Sim in drag) is fond of saying:

“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.”

The Belles of St Trinian’s begins with a wealthy Arab sheik (Eric Pohlmann) deciding to send his precious daughter, Princess Fatima (Lorna Henderson) to a proper British boarding school, and the Princess’s current governess, dressed in modest tweeds, suggests sending the Princess to St Trinian’s–a school run by a former chum. The Sheik, blissfully unaware of the school’s awful reputation but impressed with the school’s proximity to the racetrack, agrees and little Fatima embarks for the boarding school.

Meanwhile back in England, it’s the start of a new school year with the return of the girls. Pandemonium reigns at the train station and locals who live in the nearby village board up their shop windows when news breaks of the girls’ imminent arrival. From the local police constabulary all the way to the Ministry of Education, St Trinian’s school is perceived as a blot on the British educational system. Indeed Superintendent Samuel ‘Sammy’ Kemp-Bird (Lloyd Lamble) would love to shut the place down, and Manton Bassett (Richard Wattis) at the Ministry of Education has sent a number of inspectors to the school, but attempts to reign in this out-of-control school for delinquents has led to the mysterious disappearance of several school inspectors, and the subsequent formation of a club known as ‘The Lotus Eaters’ in the school’s greenhouse. So the region suffers from an unchecked crime wave involving: “arson, forged fivers, poison pen letters.” Bassett and the police superintendent join forces and decide to send policewoman Ruby Gates (Joyce Grenfell) undercover into the school posing as games mistress, Chloe Crawley (she rapidly becomes known as Creepy Crawley).

St. Trinian’s is beleaguered by financial problems, and the headmistress, Miss Fritton, has been forced to pawn the school trophies, so it is with delight that the teachers and headmistress receive the wealthy Princess Fatima and her allowance of one hundred pounds. Clarence, Miss Fritton’s evil twin brother is an avid gambler, and he is also delighted that Fatima is attending the school. He intends–along with his daughter (another St Trinian’s pupil)–to nobble the Sheik’s horse, Arab Boy in the upcoming races and thereby win a bundle. To complicate matters, Miss Fritton also bets on Arab Boy to win.

Things turn ugly when the fourth form (who put aside their gin-making temporarily) battle against the sixth form, and it’s every man for himself on Parent’s Day when war wages between the besieged fourth formers and the aggressive sixth. Fortunately, a bus full of ‘old girls’ comes to the rescue armed with Zulu spears and shields.

Alastair Sim doubles for both the delightfully distracted Miss Fritton and her twin brother, the conniving Clarence. Miss Fritton has a marvelous way of ignoring the unpleasant aspects of the girls’ behaviour, chalking it up to ‘high spirits,’ and she positively encourages the St Trinian’s girls in their violent behavior during the hockey match. Joyce Grenfell is extremely funny as the besotted, long-suffering, lovelorn police woman Ruby Gates–persuaded against her better judgment to operate undercover as Creepy Crawlie, St Trinian’s Games Mistress. And George Cole is marvelous as Flash Harry–the odd character who haunts the bushes of St Trinian’s–and who imagines that he is the soul of discretion. I think he’s my favourite character in the entire film.

Keep your eyes open for comediennes Beryl Reid (Miss Wilson), Irene Handl (Miss Gale), and Joan Sims (Miss Dawn). Sid James also stars as Clarence’s side kick, Benny, and very young Barbara Windsor and Shirley Eaton appear as St Trinian’s girls. Directed by Frank Launder and with the script co-written by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder.

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Filed under British, Comedy, St Trinian's

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