School For Scoundrels (1960 UK)

Before satire was written by Oxbridge public school boys for Oxbridge public school boys, British comedy writers believed their audience intelligent enough to appreciate gentle irony without stamping on their heads. The English humourist Stephen Potter enjoyed great success in the 1950s with his books “Gamesmanship”, which ironically advised sportsmen on “how to win without actually cheating”, chiefly by using psychological ploys to unsettle their opponents, and “Lifemanship” and “One-upmanship” which advocated a similar attitude to life in general. The central idea is that Potter, not content with merely writing books, has actually opened a College of Lifemanship in Somerset in order to teach his philosophy.

The central character of the film is Henry Palfrey, a young man who enrols at the College (a sort of boarding school for adults). Henry is, like many characters played by Ian Carmichael, upper-middle-class and likable but not too bright. (Carmichael was later to become a famous Bertie Wooster on British television). He is ostensibly managing director of his family company, but in reality his job is a mere sinecure, and the firm is actually run by the office manager Gloatbridge, who treats him with patronizing condescension. Henry is also patronized by his urbane but caddish acquaintance Raymond Delauney, who thrashes him at tennis and threatens to win over the affections of his pretty girlfriend April. When Henry tries to buy a car to impress April (Delauney drives an expensive Italian sports car), he is cheated by a rascally pair of used-car salesmen who sell him a broken-down wreck.

Henry therefore enrols in Potter’s school where he learns the philosophy and all the tricks of “Lifemanship”. The secret, according to Potter, is to be “one-up” on everyone else at all times. (“Just remember, if you’re not one-up on the other fellow, then he’s one up-on you”.) Having completed the course, Henry emerges as brash and self-confident, putting Gloatbridge in his place, persuading the car dealers to buy back the car for more than he originally paid, and avenging himself on Delauney, not only by beating him at tennis but also by making him look a complete idiot in the process. The only questions left to be determined are “Can Henry win the lovely April?” and, more importantly, Can he do so without becoming as awful and insincere as his rival Delauney? (I have to admit to liking the Delauney character, and the way Terry-Thomas exclaims “hard cheese!” is one of the highlights of the whole thing).

This story is told in a very loose, episodic manner as a series of jokes and comedy sketches. (The Pythons were later to use a similar technique in some of their films such as “Life of Brian”). Carmichael receives excellent support from a number of other famous British comedy stars, some of them such as John Le Mesurier or Hattie Jacques only playing minor roles. The best supporting performances come from Peter Jones and Dennis Price as the car dealers, Alastair Sim as Potter and Terry-Thomas as Delauney. Like Carmichael, Terry-Thomas tended to specialize in one sort of part, in his case the smooth but lecherous cad.ย  Although “School for Scoundrels” was released in the first year of the new decade, it has the feel of a fifties comedy rather than a sixties one, looking back to the age of Ealing rather than forward to the era of the “Carry Ons”- it is, for example, shot in black-and-white, and the humour lacks the bawdiness which characterises many British comedies from the sixties.

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Comments

  1. Timeless. โค
    Have a great weekend, wishing you the best of all summers now that we have celebrated summer solstice in Norway,
    Dina & co x

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for the lovely sentiment, Dina. ๐Ÿ™‚ Best wishes to you as well.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Excellent review, I have always loved this film. And couldn’t agree more on Terry-Thomas, he will always be the highlight for me – you’ve got to love that cheeky grin! ๐Ÿ˜›

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Absolutely ha ha. Like the whole film he is very sweet. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Like

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