Grade: B/B-
Not rated (would be PG)

Alastair Sim (best known for his portrayal of Scrooge in the 1951 adaptation of A Christmas Carol) is the common denominator in this Blu-ray quartet of old black-and-white British comedies: The Belles of St. Trinian’s, School for Scoundrels, Laughter in Paradise, and Hue and Cry.

The most interesting of the four is Hue and Cry (1947),which gets its title from a 1285 British statute decreeing that any private citizen who witnesses a crime must make a “hue and cry” and doggedly pursue the criminal until the offender can be taken into custody. If you ever watched Gomer Pyle shout “Citizen’s arrest” on the old Andy Griffith Show, you get the idea. It’s a fun premise when the one doing the hueing and crying is a naïve bumpkin like Gomer or a teenager who recruits his “gang” to help catch the criminals.

The film was shot less than two years after WWII ended, and it’s fairly incredible for American teens and tweens to see what life was like in England immediately after the war. There are blocks and blocks of bombed-out buildings, some of which become haunts and clubhouses for young people, with heaps of rubble that spread like sand dunes to be climbed. It looks like a post-apocalyptic landscape, and yet here’s this “gang” of boys who are all wearing schoolboy shirts and ties and sportcoats and being just as proper as can be when they address adults.

Joe Kirby (Harry Fowler) reads from The Trump comics magazine (seriously—that’s the name of it) but discovers a page is missing. To find out how funny-page detective Selwyn Pike solves the crime he runs off to buy a copy. But while reading the newest installment he looks up and sees two men carrying a crate into a furrier’s shop and the men are using a truck with the exact same license plate as in the comic. Coincidence? Joe thinks not. He tries to investigate and gets caught, with Inspector Ford telling him essentially to go back to school and stop coming up with these wild ideas. It’s almost the reverse situation of the pickpocket gang in Dickens’ London, with these urchins of all ages joining forces to try to prove that there really is something going on, and it’s somehow connected to the author of the comics (Sim). In him they find a believer, but also someone who cautions that this gang might be too ruthless for them to tangle with. And so it goes, with a climax that looks as if director Charles Crichton asked every boy in London to be extras in a memorable battle royale. As I said, once you can get accustomed to the boys’ British slang and rapid speech it’s one of the strongest in this collection because it’s also a vivid glimpse of history that textbooks don’t show us. Like two other films in this collection it’s more clever than funny, but there’s something to be said for cleverness. B

Laughter in Paradise (1951) feels like a cozy mystery and plays out with even more cleverness than Hue and Cry. This one begins with a wealthy rich man dying and leaving 50,000 pounds to each of four relatives. But being a renowned practical joker—we see him in his dying moment setting fire to his nurse’s newspaper as she reads it next to his bedside—the rich man plays a bit of a joke on his would-be heirs. Each of them must do a crazy stunt—things that will play well with families that watch Impractical Jokers together. One of them (Sim) is a retired army officer who writes tawdry pulp fictions under various pseydonyms—something the deceased finds so “criminal” that for him to inherit his 50,000 he has get himself arrested within the week and sentenced to exactly 28 days of prison time. Meanwhile, a society matron (Fay Compton) who mistreats her own servants has to find a job as a servant in a middle-class home and also retain that position for the span of 28 days, a womanizing leech and confirmed bachelor (Guy Middleton) must marry the first single woman he speaks to, and a bank clerk too timid to ask for a raise (George Cole) must use a toy pistol to rob the bank manager and get the keys to the bank for at least two minutes. Clever, right? There are no big laughs here, but plenty of delightful moments. B+

School for Scoundrels (1960) sounds scandalous but it’s nearly as tame as Hue and Cry and Laughter in Paradise. Sim plays the headmaster (and only instructor) of a School of Lifemanship in Yeovil, which is as off the beaten track as it is offbeat. Here Dr. Potter tells his small class of all-male, all middle-aged students that there are two kinds of people: winners and losers. Those who are one-up on everyone else, and everyone else. What drove Mr. Palfrey (Ian Carmichael in a likeable performance) to seek help? Though he owns a business his employees walk all over him, and when he asks a woman (Janette Scott) he meets out on a date, a dashing man (Terry-Thomas) he only vaguely knows smarms his way into the woman’s heart and all but steals her away from Palfrey. There are other problems, too, but we watch Palfrey learn how to be a winner with the ever-lurking guidance and scheming of Mr. Potter. There’s drinking smoking in all of these old black-and-white films, but in this one there’s also a scene of attempted seduction—though it’s shockingly tame and all’s well that morally ends well, right? The plot isn’t nearly as complex as Laughter or even Hue, but there’s something satisfying about seeing a loser learn to become a winner. And maybe a lesson to be learned? B

The Belles of St. Trinian’s (1954) feels like the weakest entry because it just doesn’t hold up as well as the other comedies. I know, I know. It’s one of those beloved British comedies. But tonally, it feels like an extended Three Stooges short but with rabble-rousing girls at a school run by a headmistress who seems as oblivious to their criminal shenanigans as Morticia Adams is to her own family’s macabre activities. There’s also a Tyler Perry element here, because Sim agreed to play bookie Clarence Fritton, then took on the role of Clarence’s sister, headmistress Millicent Fritton, when Margaret Rutherford was unavailable. This is broad slapstick, with rapid-fire sight gags and plenty of deadpan, all set against a seemingly non-stop shrill shrieking and girls in constant commotion. It starts that way and pretty much maintains the same level of commotion throughout the film, with no discernible arc. Belles is also the least wholesome of the four films, with girls that smoke, dress like sexpots (some of them), steal things, blow things up, and make gin to sell to a black marketer right there in the classroom. We’re supposed to find all of that shocking enough to make it funny, but we’ve seen bad students in school or on athletic teams so much now that I wanted something more. The main plot involves a Middle Eastern girl who is sent to St. Trinian’s because it’s near where her Sheik father trains his horses. That’s convenient, because Clarence is a bookie and the girls are as into gambling as they are bootlegging. In other words, these are kids engaging in not just adult behavior but illicit activities as well. Is it funny? Parts of it are, certainly, but not as many as I would have hoped for or expected. I think you had to grow up with this one in order to really appreciate it. C+

Entire family: No (older children only)
Run time: 365 min., Black and White
Studio/Distributor: Studio Canal/Film Movement
Aspect ratio: 1.66:1 (School) and 1.37:1 (rest)
Featured audio: Dolby Digital Mono
Bonus features: C+ (just a 24-page booklet)
Includes: 4 movies on 4 discs
Amazon link
Not rated (would be PG for adult situations, drinking, and smoking)

Language: 3/10—smart talk and sassiness, mostly

Sex: 5/10—Nothing much in three of four films, but more sexpot stuff in Belles

Violence: 5/10—Nothing much in two of four films, but fisticuffs, brawling, and explosions in Hue and Belles

Adult situations: 5/10—Drinking and smoking in all of these entries, with some attempted seduction (Hue) and also implied seduction (Belles)

Takeaway: These Studio Canal film sets are a great way for film lovers to stretch their boundaries and see offerings they wouldn’t ordinarily watch; like the WWII set, this collection is pretty solid