Regarded as one of the finest British comedies of the twentieth century and starring the likes of Ian Carmichael, Terry-Thomas, Janette Scott and Alastair Sim, School For Scoundrels (Or How To Win Without Actually Cheating) is a witty romp, albeit one which is only quite good and there are a lot of better British comedy films from that same era, with it feeling like a pale imitation of the best Ealing comedies.
It begins with our hero Henry Palfrey (Ian Carmichael) joining the College of Lifeminster, the school for scoundrels of the title, which is run by Mr S. Potter (Alastair Sim) who we’re introduced to as he lectures his students. In this opening talk he explains that the moment the apple in the Garden of Eden was bitten in to “The first loser was born” before going on to explain that “The world was divided in to winners and losers” and that his school exists to teach “The science of being one up on your opponents at all times” so that “He’s become less than you. Less desirable, less worthy, less blessed”.
Henry identifies as a failure and it’s hard to argue with him as he is a rather limp, indecisive individual, and Potter guesses correctly that he’s in love, and thus we see Henry via flashback fall for April (Janette Scott), almost quite literally as he bumps in to her and knocks her over, but manages to win her over after her initial flash of anger. This flashback goes for far too long though, taking over the first half hour of the movie and seeing Henry being treated poorly by a number of people doesn’t generate much laughter, especially during the scenes involving Raymond Delauney (Terry-Thomas) who is something of a cad, and so Thomas isn’t exactly playing against type.
There is at least a vaguely amusing moment where Henry is ripped off by two car salesmen and ends up buying a car in such poor condition that it’s fairly amazing it doesn’t kill all who go near it, and April’s an appealing female lead even if she is easily romanced by both Henry and Raymond. But a tennis match between Henry and Raymond is actively annoying, and if I ever hear Thomas say the words “Hard Cheese” again I may end up putting my foot and many other body parts through my television screen.
Thankfully the film picks up enormously when we’re back at the school, though only about fifteen minutes of Henry learning various subjects including Partymanship, Gamesmanship and Woo-Manship are seen before Henry graduates from that aspect of the school. Fortunately this isn’t the last we see of Alistair Sim’s consistently entertaining Potter though, as he heads out in to the field to help Henry put his new found skills in to practice and enact revenge on those who previously took advantage of his good nature.
All of which is very entertaining, though there’s another tennis match against Henry and Delauney which goes on for way too long and feels like padding, and because this was made in the late fifties in a very moralistic Britain the ending isn’t quite what I was expecting. It is fairly sweet though, and contains one moment right at the end that came as a big surprise and left me grinning an enormous amount.
It’s a shame that the opening bit goes on for so long though, the film’s an enjoyable romp but it could definitely have benefitted from more time spent at the School For Scoundrels, largely as when Sim is on screen it’s consistently a delight. At least seeing those who took advantage of Henry getting their comeuppance is enjoyable and then some, but even then there’s too much filler, and if it had been a leaner, shorter and maybe slightly darker humoured creation it would have been much more fun.