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Saturday, May 30, 2009


Way back in the days when British humor was very much a “safe” and staid animal, a series of cartoon illustrations by renowned cartoonist Ronald Searle launched a minor dynasty of anarchic humor. Searle’s original concept was a skewering of the British private school system, focusing on the fictional St. Trinian’s school for girls, and his sense of then-transgressive humor was very much akin to our own homegrown Charles Addams, or even the yet-to-come National Lampoon. St. Trinian’s itself was a haven for budding sociopaths and children of highly questionable breeding, and a training ground for all the things young British girls were never supposed to get up to — especially not during the post-WWII, pre-rock’n’roll Britain — such as drunkenness, gambling, torture (with medieval implements), arson, mucking about with automatic weapons, smoking (of tobacco and, well, you know), witchcraft/Satanism (which comes as little surprise since Satan himself was depicted arriving for parents’ day), profanity, sports hooliganism, flagrant promiscuity, and outright murder (of innocents, each other, the school’s rivals, and even their teachers). This was quite radical stuff for pre-punk England and was apparently quite shocking during its day, but it struck a chord and become something of an institution, so much so that Searle sought to distance himself from his creation by penning the following statement in 1953:


ST. TRINIAN’S is gone. Encouraged by the success of recent atomic explosions in the Pacific, the school Nuclear Fission experts threw themselves into their experiments with renewed enthusiasm and with the help (thanks to certain old girls) of some newly acquired top secret information, achieved their objective at midnight last night. The remains of the school are still smouldering. By some miracle the statue of our patron saint, scorched but uncracked, still stands where once the ripple of girlish laughter could be heard on a clear frosty morning. The fate of the teaching staff is unknown, nay, will never be known, and a few young ladies are believed to have survived. Early morning reports from various parts of the country bring news of blackened figures trotting through sleeping villages, but bloodhounds have failed to pick up a scent — however radioactive. This blow from which St. Trinian’s cannot recover (the building fund has been embezzled anyway) may bring a sigh of relief to many a parent and a quiet tear from true lovers of healthy girlhood. Let it suffice for us to say (before we draw a veil over the last broken limb) we are proud that the name of St. Trinian’s has echoed through this land. R.S.

But, much like Ian Fleming’s completely and utterly failed attempt at killing off James Bond in the novel of FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE (1957), the miscreants of St. Trinian’s have proven unkillable and spawned a series of movies that continues to the present day (the seventh film is due for release this year), all stemming from 1954’s THE BELLES OF ST. TRINIAN’S.

Widely hailed as one of the all-time classics of British comedy, the first entry in the series introduces us to the school and its girls, a largely faceless group who serve as a wild white rabble not too far removed from what one would imagine the most savage of headhunting tribes might be like had they been transplanted to the English countryside and played for laughs. When first we see them, the girls are returning from school break and as they return the locals board up their windows and flee, all of which is apparently par for the course when living so close to the posh dumping ground of estrogenic delinquents. Even the local police dread the girls, and the board of education turns a blind eye to the school’s flouting of the law and general decency following the disappearance of two of its inspectors (who, unbeknownst to the board, have taken up residence at St. Trinian’s in order enjoy the attentions of its horny teachers and older students).

The story proper is rather slight, intending to amuse the audience more with the overall symbol of the school's very existence being a "fuck you" to British propriety than giving the girls much by way of true character, so the focus is mostly on the school's headmistress, one Miss Fritton, played in drag by Alistair Sim, one of the most beloved of the old school English thesps.

Not Bea Arthur: Alistair Sim as Miss Fritton.

Miss Fritton is considerably more sweet and traditional than her charges, so she's at a bit of a loss when faced with the school going under due to lack of funds (she accepts checks for student tuition that are post-dated as far in advance as four years), but salvation rears its head when her sleazy brother, Clarence (also played by Sim), arrives and announces that the daughter of an Arab sultan has come on board as a new student. The princess' father owns a can't-miss race horse named Arab Boy that Clarence seeks info on in order to further his own illegal betting endeavours (he wants the horse to lose), so he blackmails his sister into re-admitting his expelled daughter to St. Trinian's so she can be his intelligence gatherer.

From there it's the loosest of plots involving Miss Fritton betting what remains of the school's cash on Arab Boy to win the money that will save the school's ass, and the war between the older girls who are working on Clarence's behalf and the younger girls who are on the side of Miss Fritton and the school. That totally predictable plot's pretty much there to serve as something resembling a narrative so as to appease the more persnickety members of the audience while the rest of the film allows viewers a very amusing look into the everyday goings on at St. Trinian's, shenanigans that are kind of like ANIMAL HOUSE only with the anarchic fraternity brothers being a pack pre-collegiate females; we get to know the avaricious, dissatisfied, drunken (and in one case hiding out from the law) teaching staff and also witness the doings of the younger girls, a violent if industrious lot who brew commercial quantities of gin in the school's science lab for sale by the hilariously sleazy and shady cockney quasi-crook Flash Harry (George Cole). There's a chaotic Parents' Day thrown in that corresponds with the return of a small army of the school's "old girls" (previous graduates), as well as a devastating field hockey match, and it's all quite amusing, but to today's viewer it will most likely be seen as a case of the film's reputation as being its own worst enemy. It's good, but I really think this is one of those you either had to be there for in the first place, or else have grown up with it. By the standards of the average American viewer this is pretty tame when stacked up against U.S. comedies from the same period.

The thing that strikes me most about THE BELLES OF ST. TRINIAN'S and its iconic status is how staid it is for something once considered shocking. I'm sure that's a matter of what one culture would find transgressive while another would not necessarily, and much of the film's humor reminded me of such 1960's American sitcoms as BEWITCHED and THE ADDAMS FAMILY. In fact, St. Trinian's would have been the ideal school for Wednesday Addams to attend, and there's even a teacher who's a dead ringer for Carolyn Jones as Morticia Addams. Anyway, it's fun and definitely worth checking out, but don't expect anything that'll really knock you out. And in case you're wondering why I bothered with THE BELLES OF ST. TRINIAN'S in the first place, I wanted wanted to see the movie that served as the template for the 2007 remake, a film I saw the latter half of on cable during my recent visit to England. I finally got around to watching the remake last night, so expect a look at that flick sometime soon.

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