Retro review: The Happiest Days of Your Life

James Oliver

A mild-mannered head (Alastair Sim) of a boys school crosses more than hockey sticks with the headmistress (Margaret Rutherford) of an academy for young ladies. There’s gold to be found in the comedy classics of old.

What's the film about?

The Happiest Days of Your Life
Image via MovieMail

It’s no secret that actors like to be the centre of attention, the great ones most especially. They’re the ones with reputations to protect and, as such, are reluctant to share the limelight with anyone who might upstage them, the vain old things.

In practice, this means that acting duels, where two actors of similar stature are given similar-sized roles, are unusual in movies. When Robert de Niro agreed to face Al Pacino in Heat, it was a meeting so rare and remarkable that it became the centre of the entire marketing campaign.

The Happiest Days of Your Life is, in most respects, a very different beast to Heat. For a start, it does not take place amidst the criminal netherworlds of Los Angeles in the 1990s but in the English countryside during the late 1940s. And rather than any Wagnerian gun battle, there’s just a bit of frowning and complaining.

Make no mistake, though, it features a meeting of actors the equal (at least) of Pacino and de Niro, with results just as memorable.

 

Who were the stars?

the happiest days of your life
Image via MovieMail

In the red corner is Alastair Sim. He plays Wetherby Pond, amiable headmaster of Nutbourne College, a boarding school of no great distinction, a man quite content to chug along.

He starts the new term in particularly good spirits: the promise of a new job at a slightly better school has been dangled before him, subject to a cursory inspection of his methods. What could possible go wrong?

Well, since you ask… In the blue corner is Margaret Rutherford as Miss Murial Whitchurch, formidable headmistress of St Swithin’s Girls School. Her school is not what it was. To be more exact, its buildings have been requisitioned and her young ladies have been left homeless.

Some bright spark at the Ministry of Education has sent them all to Nutbourne, neglecting to tell either side that they will be expected to share premises. Quite why the Ministry of Education has power over what seem to be private schools is never explained.

Read more: Margaret Rutherford's life in pictures

 

What made it so special?

The Happiest Days of Your Life
Image via BBC

Rutherford most usually played bumbling or dithering women like the scatty medium Madame Arcati in Blithe Spirit. Here she shows she could be more authoritative. In short order, she annexes Pond’s classroom, his study and bedroom for herself and refuses to take any nonsense from the menfolk.

It speaks volumes of Rutherford’s immense talent that Miss Whitchurch is never quite a gorgon. She’s fighting for her girls to get an education in an age that clearly saw such a thing as being of only secondary importance.

These days we can see her as a feminist pioneer, battling patronising men. It's a shame that the curriculum that the filmmakers provided her with is so retrograde: domestic science and lots of dancing amongst the trees waving diaphanous scarves.

Under normal circumstances, Rutherford would have walked away with the entire film. Here, though, she has stiff competition. Alastair Sim is a joy to behold as Pond, that marvellously expressive face registering his bewilderment, his powerlessness and his impotent anger as the invasion force overturns his beautifully dull routine.

 

 

"These days we can see her as a feminist pioneer, battling patronising men"

 

 

It builds to a carefully timed slapstick climax where each school has to persuade unexpected visitors that they are a single-sex establishment, at the same time. In truth, however, the film’s real highlights are the interactions of the stars. The presence of each seems to have spurred on the other to new heights. Both deliver (probably) the best performance of their respective careers.

The film was written and directed by Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat and it’s probably their best film too (although mention should also be made of Green For Danger, a superior wartime thriller also adorned, and elevated, by the blessed Sim). Clearly enthused by the school setting, they returned there for the St Trinian’s films, recruiting Sim to play both the headmistress and her brother.

They’re well known, and well liked, movies but none quite hold a candle to The Happiest Days of Your Life.

Sim and Rutherford never sparred together on screen again. That’s something we can only regret for, quite apart from the pleasures it offers, it also shows the value of collaboration, how two great actors can make each other even better.

 

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