“A woman’s bookshelf is an infallible guide to her character.”
The title of the film The Happiest days of Your Life refers, of course, to the nonsense that is told to children who are unhappy about attending school for a range of reasons. What the teachers don’t say is the happy part is not the school–but perhaps the innocence of childhood, and even that’s arguable depending on the sort of childhood you had. This classic British comedy is directed by Frank Launder of the marvellously funny St Trinian’s films, and you can see the same hand at work in The Happiest Days of Your Life. Launder started his career as a scriptwriter, but it was with Sidney Gilliat that the highly successful St Trinians films were created. For The Happiest Days of Your Life, Launder teamed with playwright John Dighton to adapt his play for the big screen.
The Happiest Days of Your Life is set during WWII. During the Blitz, children from the city were evacuated to the countryside, and in the film, an all-girls school, St Swithin’s, is evacuated by the Ministry of Education to the village of Nutbourne with the expectation that St Swithin’s will ‘share’ with the all-boys boarding school, Nutbourne College. Wetherby Pond (played by the wonderful actor Alastair Sim) is headmaster of Nutborough College. The film begins with the arrival of a weary professor, Arnold Billings (played by Richard Wattis, who later appeared in the St Trinian’s films) and the brand new English professor, Richard Tassell (John Bentley). Billings notices that the college looks a bit tidier than usual, and as it turns out, this is due to the fact that Wetherby Pond is hoping to win a new, better position as headmaster at a much more prestigious, Harlingham School.
Just as the term seems on the verge of beginning as usual, all hell breaks loose with the arrival of an entire girl’s school, their headmistress, Muriel Whitchurch (Margaret Rutherford) and her complete entourage of mistresses. A battle begins over resources, and the females, led by the cunning, strategic planning of Muriel Whitchurch soon dominate. Under the insufferable conditions, Wetherby Pond tries his best to get the Ministry of Education to correct this error, and Whitchurch resorts to blackmail in order to gain an uneasy truce.
The fun really begins when a passel of St Swithin’s parents descend upon the Nutbourne College to witness the new environment for themselves. As bad luck would have it on the very same day, a team of inspectors from Harlingham School arrive to witness Wetherby Pond’s school management. It’s in the vested interest of both Pond and Whitchurch to cooperate with each other to create an atmosphere of normalcy at the school, and that means that the girls and the boy’s school both pretend that there are no members of the opposite sex on the premises.
Alastair Sim is, as always, pure joy to watch–from his long-suffering submission, to his moral outrage, his performance is perfect. Margaret Rutherford, as his administrative opposite is equally excellent. She plays an indomitable force–she sees men as superfluous and contaminants. The battle (and attraction) of the sexes plays throughout the film. Of course, the boys cannot concentrate on lessons when the older girls wiggle by in their PE outfits, and the male English master falls in love with his female counterpart. And then there’s the outrageously wonderful Joyce Grenfell (who also later appeared in St Trinian’s). Here she plays the gauche Miss Gossage (“call me Sausage“) and she rather incongruously sets her cap at the suave wolfish games master, Victor Hyde-Brown (Guy Middleton), who’s also known as “Whizzo.” Hyde-Brown does his best to avoid Miss Gossage–he’s much more interested in the 17 year-olds and their botany lesson. George Cole also appears in a miniscule but memorable role as a caretaker in the Ministry of Education.
Wetherby Pond (when asked how he will vote): “You can tell your lady that if there is a male candidate whether he is conservative, socialist, communist or anarchist, or for that matter, liberal, he may have my vote.”
“There appear to be no depths to which you will not sink.”
“I don’t want your sympathy, man, I want action. I want these women removed, bag and baggage.”
“There are only two types of schoolmistress, chum, the battle-ax and the amazon.”
“Cards, the race horse,gaming, nicotine, fisticuffs…we’re moving in a descending spiral of inequity.”
“I once won thirty bob. It’s led me astray ever since