The Happiest Days of Your Life

Alastair Sim, who died two years ago in his late 70s, contributed a remarkable series of performances to British films between 1935 and 1975 - and of course was an equally distinguished stage actor as well. (In fact, in those periods when he seemed to have vanished from film, it was usually because of a return to the stage.) Starting out with small parts and comic supports, including zany villains, he became a popular and important character actor at the end of the 30s, attaining stardom in the mid-40s, and achieving real stature and prestige in the 50s. Despite the marvellous flexibility and subtlety of that seemingly elastic face, which made him much in demand for comedy, he was a superb straight dramatic actor too.

“British comic ‘types,' in both plays and film, seem to be neatly divided and to reflect the two ‘types' into which the British as a whole are divided - the smug, mildly pompous and totally self-absorbed individuals so beautifully played (one cannot even say caricatured) by Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne in The Lady Vanishes and Night Train to Munich. At the other end of the scale are the comic eccentrics - the Alastair Sims and the Margaret Rutherfords - who represent those select few British to whom a retreat (or advance) into eccentricity is the only solution, and indeed the only alternative to a life of complacent normalcy. Most of the great Britishers have been eccentrics - from King Alfred and Lord Wellington on to Winston Churchill, who of course was a kind of blood-brother to Robert Morley.

The Happiest Days of Your Life celebrates these two dominating characteristics in the British character, with a marvellous parade of eccentrics (Sim, Rutherford, Grenfell) and an equally impressive if less endearing collection of clods - John Turnbull, Richard Wattis, Arthur Howard.
“Moreover, despite its farcical nature, The Happiest Days of Your Life is almost documentarian in its comments on British governmental bureaucracy, and the futility of trying to win against such a system. The only solution, as the protagonists find, is escape to the colonies....
“The film is based on a play which starred Margaret Rutherford, with George Howe in the Sim role. The screen teaming of Sim and Rutherford is a mating to rank with Anthony and Cleopatra and Laurel and Hardy; sheer inspiration. Both underplay (and very occasionally, mug their underplaying, a unique and delicate art) and provide a superb text-book illustration of facial pantomime, and how to get the very most out of every single line.
“The film was made at the small Riverside Studios in Hammersmith in West London - a studio not large enough to accommodate more than one production at a time. It is to this that Launder attributes much of the success of the film: the unit becoming a kind of family, living and working together, the studio itself devoted to the one film and no other. Location work was done at a girls' school in Hampshire. The success of the film led, of course, to the whole series of St. Trinian's farces....”

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