Skip to main content

They went out of business, because they were too good.

School for Scoundrels
(1960)

(SPOILERS) Possibly the pinnacle of Terry-Thomas’ bounder persona, and certainly the one where it’s put to best caddish use, as he gives eternally feckless mug Ian Carmichael a thorough lesson in one-upmanship, only for the latter to turn the tables when he finds himself a tutor. School for Scoundrels is beautifully written (by an uncredited Peter Ustinov and Frank Tarloff), filled with clever set pieces, a fine supporting cast and a really very pretty object of the competing chaps’ affection (Janette Scott), but it’s Terry-Thomas who is the glue that binds this together. And, while I couldn’t say for sure, this might have the highest “Hard cheese” count of any of his films.


Based on Stephen Potter’s 1947’s humorous self-help bestseller (and subsequent series of -manship books) The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship (or The Art of Winning Games without Actually Cheating), which suggested ungentlemanly methods for besting an opponent in any given field, game or sport through gaining the psychological advantage – tactics such as breaking one’s opponent’s flow, causing them to overthink or making intentional mistakes that would throw them off – School for Scoundrels became a decent-sized hit (the 12th most popular picture of 1960 at the UK box office), even though it was very much at the tail-end of the era of classic British comedy films (a later BBC One-Upmanship series starring Richard Briers was also made).


Carmichael’s patented upper-class twit had met with great success over the previous five years, most notably as Stanley Windrush in the Boultings’ Private’s Progress and its union satire sequel I’m Alright Jack, both also featuring Terry-Thomas (the former giving the world his simply marvellous insult “You’re an absolute shower!”). He’d also appeared with Thomas in the Boultings Brothers in Law, Happy is the Bride and played Kingsley Amis’ titular Lucky Jim. It’s fair to say the public knew the type of character he was essaying by this point, as did they Thomas, ditto Alastair Sim (both actors had worked with Sim on one or more occasions), so a role where Carmichael was the posh, but unremarkable Henry Palfrey seemed par for the course, and one where T-T, being a rotter, got one over on him, even more so.


Peter Bradshaw, in a documentary on the Blu-ray release, has suggested School for Scoundrels is all about class, and middleclass Palfrey’s attempts to rise in status, but I’m not sure this isn’t a partial misreading. Certainly, Potter (fictionally portrayed here by Sim as dean of the School of Lifemanship) as an Oxford graduate and a member of the Savile Club, was familiar with rank and privilege, with those in the position to get ahead merely through being born ahead, but we aren’t really witnessing Palfrey’s struggle for status here. He already has that. He’s already the member of a club. He already has his own business, bequeathed by his uncle, in which he does very little. So much so that his daily grind amounts to attempting the Times Crossword and signing letters (he’s not quite in a position where he doesn’t have to work, like Bertie Wooster, but close enough) and is ordered about by his chief clerk, the wonderfully named Gloatbridge (Mr Grimsdale himself, Edward Chapman).


Palfrey’s problem is a more universal one; he’s already mingling with the better-thans, just not getting any respect from them. Potter informs his class, of Adam biting into the apple in the Garden of Eden, “at which moment, the first loser was born” and is at pains to point out this isn’t a gender thing; male and female distinctions are superficial, as the world is simply divided into winners and losers. One might, applying the same criteria, also say it isn’t a class thing, although it will definitely give you a head start. “He who is not one up, is one down.” As Palfrey admits “Well, frankly, Mr Potter, I’m a failure”. He has no backbone, and he is manipulated accordingly by all and sundry (John Le Mesurier’s head waiter, his junior office staff, the used car salesmen), indicative of how his lot is all about his personality.


As such, the struggle depicted here is of the beta against the alpha male, and the evergreen fantasy that one can somehow be taught to become an alpha male. Carmichael made a career out of playing the slightly wet, manipulated beta male, whereas Terry-Thomas, although always destined to ultimate failure, made a career out of the dominating alpha. While there’s far too much here relating to such roles to fall back simply on a class reading, it’s notable that Thomas, characterised in ostensibly the upper bracket, is the middle-class actor who learnt to perform privilege (even to the extent of mentoring Carmichael in matters of culture and presentation), whereas Carmichael was forever destined to inhabit the posh persona par excellence (hence his taking lead TV roles as both Bertie Wooster and Lord Peter Wimsey when his big screen career tapered off).


School for Scoundrels’ little man’s fantasy can be seen in a range of different comic features, from The Secret Life of Walter Mitty to The Nutty Professor (I’m thinking the original in both cases, although I’ll give you the Eddie Murphy remake of the latter, and Ben Stiller is generally prone to playing the beta guy). Palfrey is too well-meaning, too decent, and his encounter with the utterly reprehensible Raymond Delauney (the kind of name you suspect he made up for himself) leads him to toughen up. The notion that he could learn to be other than physically, socially and romantically inept is the cathartic one of the worm turning, with the caveat that he only turns so far, failing at the last hurdle of casting off his essential decency in the area of woomanship (while Scott’s April Smith finds Palfrey’s genuineness appealing, she doesn’t want someone who’s spineless).


Carmichael’s characters are never quite as mawkishly indulgent as Norman Wisdom’s but they’re cut from the same naïve underdog cloth, only on a different side of the class divide. His pictures require a presence as unrepentantly unsentimental as Thomas to redress the balance, and as much as Palfrey’s succession of losses are excruciating, the pleasure of the (first half of the) picture is as much about Delauney getting away with being a blighter and stinker and loving every minute of it. The structure is a clever one, a flashback for the first forty minutes as Palfrey recounts his succession of shames to Potter, only for him get payback for – almost – each snub subsequently.


Delauney: What a romantic name. “Oh, to be in England now that April’s here.”

Delauney first appears when Palfrey takes April to a restaurant and they’re unable to get in until T-T vouches for them. The latter instantly hogs April for himself, showering her with compliments (“Where did you find this lovely creature?”: “The Earth shook tonight”), impressive-sounding nonsense (“I always feel that food should be chosen to suit the wine, rather than the other way”) and showing off a flash car (his “Bellini” is a disguised Aston Martin) with a very T-T vulgar wolf-whistle horn. The subsequent tennis match is a succession of “hard cheeses” and maligning of Palfrey’s just-purchased, clapped-out 1924 4-litre “Swiftmobile” (a disguised Bentley), such that an embarrassed Palfrey pretends it isn’t his (Delauney’s “What on Earth’s that? Looks like a Polish stomach pump” is hilarious, but most wounding to Palfrey is April’s fair call of “What idiot would buy a car like that?”).


Palfrey’s subsequent besting of Delauney, off-balancing and ruffling that smooth self-confidence and entirely disrupting his flow during their return tennis match is a tour de force of Terry-Thomas enragement (“Do you think I ought to tell her it was my fault we are late?” asks Palfrey, having purposefully made them late for the club; “No!” screams Delauney. “Oh nuts!” explodes Delauney, as the game becomes a debacle. “And we don’t tolerate filthy language in this club, sir!” warns a club member) I’m not entirely convinced of Delauney’s credits-roll need to enrol at Potter’s school, however, since he knows this stuff himself instinctively; presumably, he just wants to be unstoppable.


Admittedly, there isn’t much of a role for the love interest in all this, with the men simply duking it out over April’s affections. Scott’s adorable, particularly in Palfrey’s dressing gown, but the shorthand of her not being at very least annoyed with Henry’s manipulative behaviour because he didn’t go through with his flawlessly planned seduction technique serves to emphasise how reactive and functional she is (the preceding scene, as Palfrey engineers spilling wine on April’s dress as a prelude to having his way with her is the picture at its most ruthless; this is earlier played for laughs, with Hatti Jacques on hand for sofa technique at the school – there’s even an assisting reclining chair: “It smacks a little of impatience, yes” agrees Potter).


You might charitably argue that April has intuitive insight into the truth of the matter, but this doesn’t really allay the sense that she’s no more than a prize to be earned; broad stereotyping such as Palfrey’s holey socks instantly bringing out her maternal instincts needed to be balanced by the kind of memorable characterisation almost everyone else in the cast is given. Indeed, the one-sidedness is additionally underlined when you realise that Carmichael, although generally playing someone a good 10 years younger than himself, wasn’t far off twice Scott’s age. Hence, “Then you can tell your Uncle Henry all about it”, at the height of Palfrey’s attempt to compromise her, being a little too close for comfort.


Palfrey’s other reciprocations are entirely differentiated however; he’s giving as good as he got, from shrewdly putting Gloatbridge in his place with some interpolated accounting, suggesting the 32 years he’s been with the firm is “Perhaps almost…” – he doesn’t need to actually say “too long” – and entrapping him into smoking his first cigarette in 10½ years.


Dudley Dorchester: They went out of business, because they were too good.

Most satisfying, though, is his rematch with The Winsome Welshmen, played by Dennis Price (Dunstan Dorchester) and Peter Jones (the voice of the book in The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, amongst many achievements, as Dudley Dorchester); their characters were very similar to those played by Ustinov and Jones in ‘50s radio show In All Directions, and Ustinov was set to reprise his role here, but for shooting on Spartacus. Their business patter is entirely designed for here-coming-another-sucker (“With this sort of car, age is really of no cost”) and a desire for easily clearable cash in event of dissatisfied customers (“Cheque to bearer, if you don’t mind. And please don’t cross it, sir”), so Palfrey manoeuvring them into paying him 100 guineas for the car and a swap with new sports car, amid knowledgeable gibberish about the changing the Swiftmobile’s multi-hydronuts and feeding it a mixture to get the best out of it (“One of petrol, two of meths”), and having a racing driver interested, is most amusing.


Price had, of course, previously appeared in director Robert Hamer’s peerless classic Kind Hearts and Coronets, and School for Scoundrels sadly represented the final curtain for the director, who had descended from a functioning alcoholic to a non-functioning one. He was fired and Cyril Frankel (who went on to direct many ITC series) completed the picture. You wouldn’t know there were any such ructions, so easily confident is the finished film and so smoothly does its effective repertory company fit in.


Potter: I do apologise, ladies and gentlemen – Stop that music! Orchestra, orchestra. Stop that infernal din!

Potter’s reaction to Palfrey turning away from his teachings is understandable horror, undermining the very essence of his unethical business, so much so that he breaks the fourth wall. That’s probably the picture’s sole nod to the more irreverent techniques that would increasingly become the norm in the decade to come (the Boultings were working regularly with Peter Sellers, of course, and The Goons had been practicing that sort of thing on the radio, but it would still take a while for that kind of anarchy to seep into the actor’s big screen work).


As the decade found its footing, the gentler type of picture School for Scoundrels represents quickly became obsolete. Terry-Thomas took a crack at the US while Ian Carmichael found a more receptive home on TV. Which doesn’t make it quite a changing of the guard, but School for Scoundrels nevertheless represents one of the last of its kind, as well as a very funny, wholly-satisfying satire of social mores. Also of note, the late, great, sadly cut off in its prime Neon magazine published a seminal list of 100 Films You Must See Before You Die back in 1997. School for Scoundrels was featured at 48: “a remarkably nasty little film”. Which you might argue, but no more than Kind Hearts and Coronets or The Naked Truth are. If Palfrey hadn’t made the thoroughly decent choice at the end, Neon’s verdict might have held more water. As Potter notes, despairingly, “Once sincerity rears its ugly head, lifemanship is powerless”.




Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

So you want me to be half-monk, half-hitman.

Casino Royale (2006)
(SPOILERS) Despite the doubts and trepidation from devotees (too blonde, uncouth etc.) that greeted Daniel Craig’s casting as Bond, and the highly cynical and low-inspiration route taken by Eon in looking to Jason Bourne's example to reboot a series that had reached a nadir with Die Another Day, Casino Royale ends up getting an enormous amount right. If anything, its failure is that it doesn’t push far enough, so successful is it in disarming itself of the overblown set pieces and perfunctory plotting that characterise the series (even at its best), elements that would resurge with unabated gusto in subsequent Craig excursions.

For the majority of its first two hours, Casino Royale is top-flight entertainment, with returning director Martin Campbell managing to exceed his excellent work reformatting Bond for the ‘90s. That the weakest sequence (still good, mind) prior to the finale is a traditional “big” (but not too big) action set piece involving an attempt to…

Welcome to the future. Life is good. But it can be better.

20 to See in 2020
Not all of these movies may find a release date in 2020, given Hollywood’s propensity for shunting around in the schedules along with the vagaries of post-production. Of my 21 to See in 2019, there’s still Fonzo, Benedetta, You Should Have Left, Boss Level and the scared-from-its-alloted-date The Hunt yet to see the light of day. I’ve re-included The French Dispatch here, however. I've yet to see Serenity and The Dead Don’t Die. Of the rest, none were wholly rewarding. Netflix gave us some disappointments, both low profile (Velvet Buzzsaw, In the Shadow of the Moon) and high (The Irishman), and a number of blockbusters underwhelmed to a greater or lesser extent (Captain Marvel, Spider-Man: Far From Home, Terminator: Dark Fate, Gemini Man, Star Wars: The Rise of the Skywalker). Others (Knives Out, Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood, John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum) were interesting but flawed. Even the more potentially out there (Joker, Us, Glass, Rocketman) couldn…

It’s like an angry white man’s basement in here.

Bad Boys for Life (2020)
(SPOILERS) The reviews for Bad Boys for Life have, perhaps surprisingly, skewed positive, given that it seemed exactly the kind of beleaguered sequel to get slaughtered by critics. Particularly so since, while it’s a pleasure to see Will Smith and Martin Lawrence back together as Mike and Marcus, the attempts to validate this third outing as a more mature, reflective take on their buddy cops is somewhat overstated. Indeed, those moments of reflection or taking stock arguably tend to make the movie as a whole that much glibber, swiftly succeeded as they are by lashings of gleeful ultra-violence or humorous shtick. Under Michael Bay, who didn’t know the definition of a lull, these pictures scorned any opportunity to pause long enough to assess the damage, and were healthier, so to speak, for that. Without him, Bad Boys for Life’s beats often skew closer to standard 90s action fare.

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

To defeat the darkness out there, you must defeat the darkness inside yourself.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010)
Easily the best of the Narnia films, which is maybe damning it with faint praise. 

Michael Apted does a competent job directing (certainly compared to his Bond film - maybe he talked to his second unit this time), Dante Spinotti's cinematography is stunning and the CGI mostly well-integrated with the action. 

Performance-wise, Will Poulter is a stand-out as a tremendously obnoxious little toff, so charismatic you're almost rooting for him. Simon Pegg replaces Eddie Izzard as the voice of Reepicheep and delivers a touching performance.
***

How many galoshes died to make that little number?

Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003)
(SPOILERS) Looney Tunes: Back in Action proved a far from joyful experience for director Joe Dante, who referred to the production as the longest year-and-a-half of his life. He had to deal with a studio that – insanely – didn’t know their most beloved characters and didn’t know what they wanted, except that they didn’t like what they saw. Nevertheless, despite Dante’s personal dissatisfaction with the finished picture, there’s much to enjoy in his “anti-Space Jam”. Undoubtedly, at times his criticism that it’s “the kind of movie that I don’t like” is valid, moving as it does so hyperactively that its already gone on to the next thing by the time you’ve realised you don’t like what you’re seeing at any given moment. But the flipside of this downside is, there’s more than enough of the movie Dante was trying to make, where you do like what you’re seeing.

Dante commented of Larry Doyle’s screenplay (as interviewed in Joe Dante, edited by Nil Baskar and G…

Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others. Past and present. And by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.

I think World War II was my favourite war.

Small Soldiers (1998)
An off-peak Joe Dante movie is still one chock-a-block full of satirical nuggets and comic inspiration, far beyond the facility of most filmmakers. Small Soldiers finds him back after a six-year big screen absence, taking delirious swipes at the veneration of the military, war movies, the toy industry, conglomerates and privatised defence forces. Dante’s take is so gleefully skewed, he even has big business win! The only problem with the picture (aside from an indistinct lead, surprising from a director with a strong track record for casting juveniles) is that this is all very familiar.

Dante acknowledged Small Soldiers was basically a riff on Gremlins, and it is. Something innocuous and playful turns mad, bad and dangerous. On one level it has something in common with Gremlins 2: The New Batch, in that the asides carry the picture. But Gremlins 2 was all about the asides, happy to wander off in any direction that suited it oblivious to whether the audience was on …