The Young Mr. Pitt (1942)

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Europe is not to be saved by any single man. England, 1783. King George III appoints 24 year old William Pitt (Robert Donat) as prime minister. When members of Parliament refuse to take Pitt seriously, he calls for a general election and wins. He sets to work on a programme of reform, focusing on rebuilding the navy while across the sea in France, Napoleon Bonaparte (Herbert Lom) begins his conquest of Europe. After rejecting an alliance with France, he puts his own mind at ease by selecting Admiral Horatio Nelson (Stephen Haggard) to lead the fleet… Does the Minister propose to defeat Bonaparte by earnest consideration? It’s not the most typical of Carol Reed’s films – you won’t see the visual flourishes for which he would become distinguished even if Freddie Young is responsible for some fine cinematography here. It’s a fairly conventional biography, adapted by Launder and Gilliat from the book by the Viscount Castlerosse, who also contributes to the dialogue (with the parliamentary exchanges based on real speeches in Westminster) and it’s pleasingly busy with sharp lines and buzzing with character, Donat’s face registering as is his wont every injury and sorrow. He ages convincingly, his personal worries – romantic, financial – mirroring Napoleon’s onward march:  Conquerors are invariably upstarts. It’s significant that this was made during World War 2, with a call to arms against such individuals resonant throughout the rise of this iteration of Hitler (rather unfair to Napoleon, I think). This is a lively piece of work, ripe with history, boasting a great ensemble including Robert Morley as Charles Fox, John Mills as William Wilberforce and Phyllis Calvert as Eleanor Eden, with an amusing Albert Lieven playing Talleyrand.  Do not seek fame through war

The Happiest Days of Your Life (1950)

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Tap it gently. We’re not here to announce a film. In September 1939, confusion reigns when St Swithin’s Girls’ School is relocated to the countryside and accidentally billeted at Nutbourne College, a long-established boarding school for boys. The two heads, Wetherby Pond (Alastair Sim) and Muriel Whitchurch (Margaret Rutherford), try to cope with the ensuing chaos, as the children and staff attempt to live in the newly cramped conditions (it being impossible to share dormitories or other facilities), and seek to prevent the children taking advantage of their new opportunities. But with the domestic staff up in arms and departing, St Swithins’ home economics students are not really cutting the mustard and their parents are visiting… My mind is made up on one thing Miss Whitchurch: if I sink, you sink with me!  With titles by Ronald Searle and a cast that includes Joyce Grenfell, Guy Middleton and Richard Wattis (and an uncredited George Cole) you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d wandered into a St Trinian’s film by mistake. In fact that series’ authors, Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, are responsible for this outing, which takes a superb cast and a tilt at bureaucracy, a dig at the post-war problems besetting 1950s Britain.  Some terrific setpieces include literally moving the goalposts when the parents’ tour coincides with the governors’ of the prestigious school where Pond is hoping to get his next appointment. We’re waiting for an explanation Mr Pond!/Can’t you see I’m trying to think of one? Adapted by John Dighton from his own play with Frank Launder. A lot of droll fun with Sim and Rutherford in their element. Call me Sausage!

Rome Express (1932)

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Discretion is the better part of wagons-lits.  As the express train is about to depart Paris for Rome, two men, Zurta (Conrad Veidt) and his colleague Tom (Gordon Harker), rush onto the platform and just manage to board. They have received information that someone they want to see is on the train. Another passenger, McBain (Cedric Hardwicke) a wealthy businessman travelling with his brow-beaten secretary/valet Mills (Eliot Makeham), learns that a valuable painting by Van Dyck, which he had previously tried to buy and had later been stolen from a Paris gallery has still not been recovered, and he says he would do anything to get hold of it. Also on the train are an adulterous couple (Harold Huth and Joan Barry, an annoyingly sociable Englishman, Tony (Hugh Williams), a French police officer M. Jolif (Frank Vosper), and an American film star Asta Marvelle (Esther Ralston) who is tiring of her fame, accompanied by her manager/publicist Sam (Finlay Currie). It transpires that the stolen painting is in the possession of a man, Poole (Donald Calthrop) who conspicuously keeps his briefcase close to him at all times. When he agrees to join a poker game on the train, he finds one of the other players is Zurta, and Poole’s reaction shows that they know each other. Poole is disconcerted and carelessly lays down his briefcase, which is later innocently taken away by Mills who has a similar briefcase. After the poker game ends, Zurta follows Poole to his compartment, forces his way in and confronts Poole, who offers to hand over the painting but finds he has the wrong briefcase. Zurta threatens to throw him from the train and they struggle and Poole is killed. Meanwhile, McBain discovers in Mills’ briefcase the stolen painting which he had wanted to buy. When Poole’s body is discovered by a train attendant, the police inspector begins an investigation and interviews all those who have been in contact with Poole. Zurta learns that the briefcases have been switched and tries to recover it from McBain’s compartment, but is apprehended by McBain and Mills as the police arrive… … The main interest here is the performance by Ralston, whose romance with Williams provides a nice subplot. She was a silent luminary after being a child vaudeville star (kinda Baby Jane-ish) but her career somewhat derailed in the Thirties despite a captivating presence.  This is based on a screenplay by Clifford Grey and Sidney Gilliat (with additional dialogue by Frank Vosper and Ralph Stock) and it’s rather creaky as train thrillers go. Gilliat would go on to perfect the form with The Lady Vanishes and Night Train to Munich. It was remade as Sleeping Car to Trieste. Directed by Walter Forde.

Blue Murder at St Trinians (1957)

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A very deftly plotted entry in the Launder and Gilliat series adapted from Ronald Searle’s riotous school stories, this sees Amelia Fritton (Alastair Sim) in prison and with the school under military and police control, the girls contrive to win a bus trip to Europe and the father (Lionel Jeffries) of one of them returns in Ms Fritton’s place when he needs to hide out following a heist at Hatton Garden. With Terry-Thomas romancing Joyce Grenfell, George Cole doing his inimitable best as ‘Flash’ Harry running a marriage agency to get the sixth formers hitched, it’s all systems go for the anarchic crew. Bedlam, in  other words. Great fun.

The Lady Vanishes (1938)

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I read about this long before I saw it. Francois Truffaut’s comments in the Observer magazine one Sunday tickled my kiddish fancy but even in the 1980s Hitchcock screenings were a hard find on TV particularly of this vintage. The fact that it’s Hitchcock is rather moot (or controversial!) from an authorship perspective: it wasn’t written with him in mind at all (it was intended for Roy William Neill) and yet the tropes became part of his evolving cinematic signature. It was adapted from Ethel Lina White’s novel The Wheel Spins by Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, a formidable pair who would become one of the more fascinating partnerships in British cinema. On the train trip back to England from her pre-marital ski holiday with her girl squad, socialite Iris (Margaret Lockwood) befriends an old lady governess Miss Froy (May Whitty) but when the woman disappears nobody believes her until she finds an ally in musicologist Gilbert (Michael Redgrave) whose kick-dancing kept her from going to sleep in the hotel. Every time Iris finds proof of the old lady’s existence it simply (and literally!) evaporates. Is she going mad? Everyone else seems to think so. The cast on the train are a rum sort:  Charters and Caldicott (Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne), the cricket-obsessed Brits (who would appear in a handful more movies as these characters!); the adulterous couple the Todhunters (Cecil Parker and Linden Travers); a weird baroness (Mary Clare); a doctor (Paul Lukas); and a nun (Catherine Lacey):  all of whom seem intent on keeping Iris quiet from her apparently paranoid observations for various reasons of their own. Some turn out to be more political than others … This eve of WW2 comedy thriller persuaded David O. Selznick to invite Hitchcock to try his hand in Hollywood:  after three relative box office failures, this was a surefire hit. The effects are good (miniatures), the suspense never lets up and there is a rare menacing tension which the political subtext amplifies as quickly as the train steams ahead to the various troubled border controls. Quick-witted, smart storytelling with a winning cast:  who could wish for anything more? What did Truffaut say about this? He said he saw it once a week at a cinema in Paris and every time he tried to figure out how it worked he forgot because he got so caught up with the story. Oh yes. That’s it!

Folly to be Wise (1952)

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Army chaplain Captain Paris (Alastair Sim) is tasked with providing entertainment for the troops but his musical acts aren’t talking to each other. He sets up a Brains Trust of local artists and do-gooders and merry hell ensues. Not the most impressive production for any responsible (Launder and Gilliat are in charge) but gentle hangover entertainment and Sim is always a joy. From James Bridie’s play.

The Green Man (1956)

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It’s pouring rain and freezing cold so it’s time for an afternoon of Olde Englishe films. What a joy it is to see the Launder and Gilliat logo at the top of a title sequence! And then the credits roll up and the names just delight: Alastair Sim, George Cole, Terry-Thomas. Terry-Thomas!!!! Bliss. This is the one where Sim winds up preferring his work as a hitman to the day job. When he gets the call to off a politician all manner of people get in his way. When L&G first wrote this as a play in 1937 the hitman was a minor character but in its various gestations it became the leading role and thank goodness Sim was around to play it. Directed by Robert Day – with uncredited assistance from Basil Dearden because of disagreements with Sim, who wanted to direct it himself.  This is a non-stop, droll, comic delight of pratfalls, missed opportunities and genteel Englishness. Like I said, bliss.

The Belles of St Trinians (1954)

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Thoroughly delightful adaptation of Ronald Searle’s anarchic schoolgirls by Launder and Gilliat with some help from Val Valentine. Glorious acting in drag by Alastair Sim as the headmistress  AND her gambler brother with a moneymaking scheme dreamed up by several parties upon the arrival of an Arab Princess whose Sultan father has a horse in the Gold Cup. Great fun, with an amazing cast amongst whom Joyce Grenfell and George Cole are standouts.