Monday, 20 February 2012

School for Scoundrels (1960)

The poster publicity for School for Scoundrels (1960) described the film as an “hysterical British satire”.  It boasts a heavyweight cast, populated by many of the comic superstars of the day, among them Ian Carmichael, Terry-Thomas, Dennis Price, Peter Jones, Irene Handl, John Le Mesurier, Hattie Jacques, Hugh Paddick,  Gerald Campion and, to top the tree, the inimitable Alastair Sim, albeit in a slightly understated performance as Stephen Potter, Principle of Yeovil’s College of Lifemanship.  School for Scoundrels, although released in 1960, is very much a film of the 1950s in terms of the attitudes and values it both satirises and portrays.  Despite its subject matter it maintains a certain decorum and gentility lacking from the crass innuendo and double entendres which were to characterise British comedy in the 60s, notably in the form of the “Carry On” series.  In addition to it being a genuinely funny film, School for Scoundrels is an interesting and informative snapshot of where a certain echelon of British society was at the point where one largely unremarkable decade tipped over into another which history has celebrated, for better or worse.

School for Scoundrels is based on the 1947 book by Stephen Potter, The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship (or the Art of Winning Games without Actually Cheating).  Indeed, the subtitle of the film is a slight adaptation of this, How to Succeed in Life Without Actually Cheating).  It is notable that the ideas upon which the film is based stem from an earlier decade, since it is certain that the world in which School for Scoundrels is set would have had few echoes for the great majority of its audience.  It is a world of swish, if snooty, West End restaurants, flash cars and exclusive country clubs.  The film manages to hold this world and its characters up to gentle ridicule whilst simultaneously evoking its attraction and the somewhat guilty pleasure in the audience that they would like to share in such a pleasant existence.

The premise of the film is simple: life is divided into winners and losers; you are either one-up or one-down.  Our hero, Henry Palfrey (Ian Carmichael), is decidedly the last of these.  Although wealthy, Henry is clearly a loser.  Nominally the head of a business he has inherited from his uncle, Henry role at work is limited to “signatures” rather than “decisions”; he is dominated by his overbearing chief clerk Gloatbridge (played effectively by Edward Chapman).  He is clumsy, as witnessed by the way he collides with April Smith (Janette Scott) whilst attempting to board a bus she is stepping down from and sending her flying, ruining her stockings into the process.  Initially we may believe that Henry has struck gold when April genuinely takes a shine to him and agrees to dine with him that evening.  Naturally, fate intervenes.  Gloatbridge has either deliberately sabotaged Henry’s instruction to book a table for two at the Camellia Room or got the name wrong accidentally; either way, by the time the booking for Mr. Poultry has been discovered by the overbearingly snooty maitre d’ (John Le Mesurier) it’s too late and the table has gone. 
If you thought things couldn’t get any worse, then the arrival of Raymond Delauney (Terry-Thomas) proves you entirely wrong.  Henry knows Delauney from the Tennis Club and the roguish, caddish Delauney takes one look at April and knows a good thing when he sees one.  Inviting the couple to share his table, he manages to monopolise April and the conversation, make Palfrey look naïve and stupid, and land him with the bill all at the same time.  Delauney and Henry agree to a tennis match the following day and Henry at least manages to fend off the rogue’s invitation to drive April home in his flash yet impressive Bellini two-seater, complete with wolf whistle horn. 
You just know things are not going to improve any time soon and Henry’s chance passing of the car showroom run by Dennis Price and Peter Jones as Dunstan and Dudley Dorchester – The Winsome Welshmen – is no disappointment.  Once more, Henry is revealed as a complete innocent, a lamb to the slaughter.  He is conned into buying an ancient 1924 4-litre Swiftmobile, built by a company, Dudley assures him, too good to stay in business.  Henry falls for the pair’s sales patter hook, line and sinker and hands over his cheque –“make it out to bearer and don’t cross it”.  The Swiftmobile is anything but that, a real Heath Robinson affair which gurgles and bubbles and smokes its way to the Tennis Club whilst its trafficators flap in and out seemingly at will.  Although Henry eventually manages to switch the engine off on arrival, the Swiftmobile seemingly has a life of its own and turns itself back on as soon as he is out of earshot.
The tennis match also proves disastrous: the innocent Henry is made a fool of by Delauney’s gamesmanship and is whitewashed and humiliated in front of April.  Henry’s extracts an agreement from her to give her a lift home, only to narrowly avoid humiliation as the three return to the car park to see the Swiftmobile in full ignoble flight.  “What sort of idiot would buy a car like that?”, she asks, before realising it might be Henry’s.  Henry strenuously denies ownership and April departs with Delauney for swimming and a spot of dinner.  As Henry attempts to drive off, the Swiftmobile runs out of petrol.
This is the impasse which brings Henry to Yeovil and College of Lifemanship.  Alastair Sim’s portrayal of Potter is characteristically wide eyed and lugubrious, masking an inner devilment which slowly exudes from his character.  You are either winner or loser, is the simple philosophy of the College, and your enemies are everyone who is not you.  Potter’s tuition begins immediately with an exercise in name calling and continues as he demonstrates how to make Henry feel guilty for asking Potter to return the pen which he has stolen.  The College’s somewhat steep fee is, however, soon earned as the students enjoy a somewhat unusual curriculum consisting of such classes as “Partymanship”, “Woomanship”, and of course “Gamesmanship” all at beginners and advanced levels.  Henry proves a marked success and, when the students take to the field with a mentor to try out their newly won skills in the real world, he is assigned no less a mentor than Mr. Stephen Potter himself.
The object of Henry’s studies has been to overcome all the slights and advantages taken of him in the first part of the film.  School for Scoundrels is structured in such a way that the second half is an almost exact re-run of the first, only with more agreeable consequences.  First to reap their just rewards are the Winsome Welshmen.  Henry pulls up outside their showroom in the Swiftmobile and parks outside where he is immediately accosted by Potter in the guise of an admiring potential buyer.  The Welshmen are most disturbed by this turn off events, particularly when Henry waves in their direction.  “Look”, says Dudley, “he’s waving!” “No he’s not,” returns Dunstan, “he’s shaking his fist!” Henry proceeds to demonstrate the transformation in himself by completely out-bamboozling them with a cock and bull story about how the Swiftmobile they have sold him is one of a few special models which runs on “one part petrol to two part meths” and is highly sought after by a famous racing driver who has been begging him to sell it to him.  Just as Henry fell for their nonsense in the first half of the film, the Winsome Welshmen are suckered in now and end up swapping the Swiftmobile for an ex-works Austin-Healey 100 Six, plus 100 guineas in cash.  The last we see of Dudley and Dunstan they are forlornly pushing the Swiftmobile to the kerb.
Gloatbridge is the next of Henry’s scores to be settled.  Henry and Potter flounce into the office, on time.  This is unusual, since Henry is traditionally late and his staff have no fear of, or respect for, him at all.  Henry immediately summons his pompous Chief Clerk to the office and demands to see the ledger.  He also insinuates that Potter is in fact the Chairman of their biggest rival, with whom he has been negotiating a merger.  Gloatbridge is initially scathing at such a suggestion, asserting that Henry’s late Uncle would not have approved of such a course of action and is shocked by Henry’s waspish retort that “since he is dead, he is hardly in a position to voice an opinion at all!”  Henry mischievously adds an additional £10 to a column of figures and then asks Gloatbridge to check them.  As they turn out wrong, the formerly self-assured employee becomes flustered and apologetic, and Henry, with menacing charm, departs the office promising that they will discuss this matter further tomorrow.  Gloatbridge promptly disappears beneath a mountain of ledgers with only a cup of tea and an adding machine for solace.
We are, of course, waiting for Delauney to get his comeuppance and this is left until last.  Henry has arranged a return match at the Tennis Club and Delauney offers to pick him up from his flat.  From here on in, Henry shines as a star pupil of the College of Lifemanship as he exacts his revenge in glorious fashion.  He makes Delauney wait and wait outside the flat until he is simmering with rage; he leads him on a delightful wild goose chase across the North London suburbs in a series of “short cuts” to April’s house, until Delauney reverses the Bellini into a wall and arrives there to find she has already departed, having left a terse note on the door; on arrival at the tennis club the neat and tasty Austin-Healey is already parked next to the spot where Delauney draws up, exhaust tied up with string.  They are of course late and Delauney triggers a complaint from the General, a crusty senior figure at the club.  Henry thrashes him with his own racket, employing all the ploys he has learned whilst at Yeovil.  April arrives just in time to witness the final humiliation, as she had done in reverse a few weeks previously.  Delauney’s last-ditch attempt to win her sympathy with a tale of an accident in the Bellini is blown apart by Henry spilling the beans about reversing into the wall.  
Henry eventually leaves with April, but not before Delauney has clocked the disguised figure of Potter, and is informed by the Club Steward that the latter has been “Mr. Palfrey’s guest” and that the two of them had been behaving strangely on the croquet lawn minutes previously.  This was the strange and foreshortened ceremony by which Henry was awarded his diploma from the College.  Delauney follows Potter to the station, hears him asking for a ticket to Yeovil, and the penny finally drops as to the stranger’s identity and explains the sudden transformation in Henry.
Meanwhile Henry has enticed Henry back to his flat and promptly utilises a ploy whereby the drink she is offered slips from her grasp, soaks her dress and gives him the opportunity to offer his dressing gown whilst it dries in front of the electric fire.  This is a classic ploy from the advanced Woomanship class.  He tries out several of the other tactics taught at Yeovil until he has April in his bedroom, in his arms, and is about to kiss her when – lo and behold! – his conscience intervenes and he is unable to go through with the deception.  As he tells her to get dressed and that he will take her home, Delauney arrives at the flat in a rage having realised he has been outmanoeuvred, with Potter in tow.  He spills the beans to April that Henry has been using his newly-acquired techniques to woo her and prepares to whisk her off.  April, however, has realised that Henry stopped for all the right reasons and this is quickly confirmed by his declaration of love.  Potter initially asserts that “we are witnessing the birth of a new ploy” but no, it is genuine, and the couple swiftly become locked in a passionate kiss as Potter bemoans the advent of sincerity.  Loud music swells in the background and Potter – or Sim – addresses the audience directly, breaking the fourth wall, and apologising for the course which events have taken, and becoming increasingly irate as he implores the “orchestra (to) cease that fearful din!”  The film ends as it has begun with a train arriving at Yeovil, although this time it is Delauney, rather than Henry, who has enrolled in the College of Lifemanship.
In the end Henry has won the girl through sincerity and by being himself, but would he have done so without his visit to Yeovil? It’s debatable.  The characters in the film are largely all caricatures: the wimpish Henry, the rakish Delauney, the sweet and innocent April, the calculating Potter.  Beneath the satire, nonetheless, lies a deeper sense of a world where wealth and privilege are still paramount and an upper class twit like Henry can still triumph – remember Carmichael went on to play Bertie Wooster opposite Dennis Price’s Jeeves later in the decade, with great success.  It is also a world where two men can fight and plot over who gets the girl, as if she did not exist, or at least have a mind of her own with which to make a decision.  In fact April does eventually tell Delauney what she thinks of him and he appears genuinely shocked, less by the fact that she possesses a mind of her own but that she has actually voiced her opinion and that it is unfavourable to him.  Indeed, this is a different world, but whilst the sixties went on to be swinging and sexual liberation came about and old morals and certainties crashed, this too was often almost exclusively in favour of males.  Very often, at least in cinematic portrayals, the girl was passive and grateful for whoever flung themselves her way.

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