The Happiest Days Of Your Life


Reviewed by: Rebecca Naughten

The Happiest Days Of Your Life
"As you would expect with actors of this calibre, there are some delightful sequences where the two leads display their acute comic timing by playing off each other."

A precursor of the original St Trinian's films - signalled by Ronald Searle's illustrations in the opening credits - The Happiest Days of Your Life occupies similarly anarchical territory in the grounds of another British boarding school. Nutbourne College is an all-boys school presided over by headmaster Wetherby Pond (Alastair Sim, here an embodiment of exasperation), who is hoping to take up a post at a bigger school subject to an inspection by the other institution's board of governors. The spanner in the works arrives courtesy of a mix-up at the Ministry and in the form of the redoubtable Miss Muriel Whitchurch (Margaret Rutherford, also on sublime form), headmistress of St Swithin's, and her cohorts of female staff and students - all of whom have been billeted to Nutbourne.

A battle of the sexes develops between Pond and Whitchurch as they vie for control of the school and its grounds - while simultaneously acting in unison to try to get the Ministry to rectify the error - each believing that the staff and students of the other school represent a malign influence over their own. Matters come to a head when some of the girls' parents arrive for a school tour at the same time as the governors unexpectedly materialise to inspect Pond's management of Nutbourne - either party discovering the presence of the other would spell disaster for both principals. They join forces to stage manage what the respective parties see of the school and its occupants - an operation of clockwork precision that builds with ever greater hysteria to a state of pandemonium.

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As you would expect with actors of this calibre, there are some delightful sequences where the two leads display their acute comic timing by playing off each other - such as the scene of one-upmanship where whoever has possession of the chair behind the headmaster's desk has overall control of the situation (the way in which they manage to repeatedly switch places as the scene progresses is handled with a combination of naturalistic movement and comic dexterity). The other adult cast members are effectively there as a sounding board for their comedic interplay, with the possible exception of Joyce Grenfell who is a standout in one of her archetypal roles as Miss Gossage ("Call me sausage").

The Happiest Days Of Your Life is a Frank Launder/Sidney Gilliat production and perhaps one of the lesser-known of the 40 or so films that they wrote, directed, and produced together. In addition to making films such as Millions Like Us (1943) and Two Thousand Women (1944), they were also screenwriters for other high-profile filmmakers (for example, The Lady Vanishes (Alfred Hitchcock, 1938) and Night Train To Munich (Carol Reed, 1940)) - they were particularly skilled at rendering coherent the organised chaos of large ensemble casts, of which this film is a clear exemplar.

Launder and Gilliat were reunited with Sim on the St Trinian's films but had previously worked with him on Green For Danger (1946), as well as writing the screenplays for several others of his films - it seems to have been a productive collaboration wherein their style of satirical and ironic comedy chimed with Sim's own comedic manner. The Happiest Days Of Your Life may be overshadowed by its more famous descendants but it deserves to find an audience with the re-issued DVD/Blu-Ray, not least because it is one of the surprisingly few occasions when Sim and Rutherford shared a screen, and both are in a state of comedic grace.

Reviewed on: 05 Oct 2015
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A mix-up at the Ministry sees a respectable girls' school evacuated to the all-male Nutbourne College, much to the horror of their respective headteachers.


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