School for Scoundrels Review
As Stephen Potter (Alistair Sim) informs us in School For Scoundrels, there are two kinds of people in the world. Not, as you might think, men and women. The differences between the sexes are, contrary to popular opinion, only superficial. No, the two kinds of people in this world are winners and losers and the aim of Potter's School Of Lifemanship, which offers its students the mantra How To Win Without Actually Cheating, is to transform one into the other. Guided by classes in wooing and sportsmanship, or the lack of it, Potter takes his group of losers and teaches them the art of oneupmanship, ensuring that for each step they climb up the ladder of success, they displace another and send them tumbling down to where the losers lie in shame.
Into Potter's school comes Henry Palfrey (Ian Carmichael), a decent man but one who's utterly hopeless at affirming his place in the world and who is walked over by almost everyone he knows. Whether it's those that work for him in his firm, his friends in the tennis club or arch-cad Raymond Delauney (Terry-Thomas), who steals the beautiful April Smith (Janette Scott) away from him. The final straw would appear to be his being conned by the Winsome Welshmen Dunstan and Dudley Dorchester (Dennis Price and Peter Jones), who convince him to buy a truly rotten car, which now has April both laughing at and pitying him. Seeing no other way, Palfrey enrolls at Potter's school and soon begins to turn his life around, transforming himself from loser to winner. But are the lessons he'll take at the School For Scoundrels really the way to win April's heart?
School For Scoundrels is clearly not an Ealing film. In place of social commentary, we have mild satire. Rather than a tale of the little man taking on government, big business, the upper classes or sinister criminal gangs, we simply have an extraordinarily little man attempting to better himself. But more than anything else, the slightly nasty feeling that permeates Ealing comedies is entirely absent here. Raymond Delauney might make Henry Palfrey feel uncomfortable but it doesn't feel personal in the same manner as was Kind Hearts And Coronets and whilst Alistair Sim brings his signature touch of dry comedy and unpleasantness to the film, he does so without much intent, offering less of Alistair Sim than did Alec Guinness in The Ladykillers.
But though School For Scoundrels has a heart, there are still many moments of spitefulness throughout. In particular, there's much to enjoy watching Ian Carmichael as Henry Palfrey trip over his own hopeless ambition as he attempts to keep pace with Raymond Delauney. Delauney, as it happens, doesn't happen to do a great deal other than shout, "Hard cheese!" at Palfrey during a tennis match and drive a car that wolf-whistles as he arrives and departs in it but it's Palfrey's efforts to win April's heart in spite of stiff competition from Delauney that drives the early part of the film. His buying of a motor car, one that bubbles and spits like a cauldron, is a hilarious moment of misplaced pride. Similarly, there's a superb run of disappointments in his life, from his being refused a table at an upmarket restaurant, to his being booked in under the name Henry Poultry and on to his being thrashed in tennis and in life from Delauney's effortless playing.
That said, the best moments come with Palfrey's graduating from the school, whereupon he's required to prove his lifemanship against those who had previously crossed him. His selling his car back to the Winsome Welshmen with profit is a wonderful moment of justice being served whilst, talking of serving, his rematch against Delauney is a glorious game, set and match of mind games, obfuscation and what this film calls lifemanship. The utter unraveling of Delauney's life cool is truly a thing of beauty. How this culminates with Palfrey's graduation with a nod and a wink from Potter on the croquet lawn is a well-timed end to a remarkable sequence of oneupmanship. Every gag is perfectly weighted, every twist in the plot welcome and paced so expertly that though the laughs may gently fade, one's smile never does. But for all of that, it's clearly not a film produced by Ealing for though there are notes of revenge in its telling, there is never the black heart of a Kind Hearts And Coronets or The Ladykillers. Palfrey might be found out but he still wins April's heart in the end and if Delauney ends up the loser, his catching the train to Potter's school suggests that he has the capability to bounce back. That rather sweet ending is at odds with the films of Ealing but it feels very right here, leaving this a film that works not only as a comedy but also as a charming romance. It is quite rightly considered a classic and no matter how familiar it all is, its appearance on DVD is very much appreciated.
Like so many of Optimum's archive release, this doesn't look bad and is reasonably sharp but there are still many instances of damage to the print that was used for the transfer and a slight softness used to compensate for the least of them. However, contrast is good, there's a general absence of noise but with the film bearing a certain shot-on-the-run look, there are also failings in the original production that the DVD can do very little with. Again, given this is an Optimum release, there are no subtitles but School For Scoundrels is presented in its original mono, included as a Dolby Digital 2.0 track, and sounds perfectly acceptable. However, some of the dialogue does sound a little lost in the soundtrack, notably those scenes shot around Dudley and Dunstan's garage, but that shot in the studio sounds good and, on average, it's not a bad-sounding presentation. But the absence of subtitles does rankle.
There are no extras on this DVD release of School For Scoundrels.
Like a good many films from the black-and-white era of the British film industry, School For Scoundrels is a staple of afternoon television but this shouldn't imply that there's any lack of quality in it. Instead, this is a glorious British comedy that features Terry-Thomas and Alistair Sim at the very top of their acting with Ian Carmichael more than matching them in a part that's quite charmless at times. No matter how many times I have seen this, it's still a wonderful film, still funny and still containing notes of disappointment, of revenge and of romance. It could be better but it's hard to see how.