|It helps if your comedy has a great premise, and for Laughter in Paradise, the 1951 film with an impeccable ensemble cast, it was so good it's surprising it had not been dreamt up before, or used again more often (though there was a 1970 remake, Some Will, Some Won't, that was not quite as satisfying). We are introduced to Hugh Griffith as Britain's most famous practical joker as he is passing away, allowing himself one last prank when he sets his nurse's newspaper on fire before expiring in mirth, so we can well understand this was a man with mischief in his soul. But what if he were rich as well?
He has left a lot of money in his will and has obviously been keeping tabs on his heirs for he knows all their weaknesses, including what they would least like to be doing. And if they want those thousands of pounds worth of inheritance, then what they would least like to do is what they are landed with, kind of blackmail though they have the option of turning down the orders he gives them, it's just that they won't receive a penny if they do. As I say, a killer premise, since the writers, in this instance Michael Pertwee and Jack Davies, can offer themselves carte blanche to be as creative as they like.
Those four heirs were played by a quartet of accomplished thespians, three of them very adept at humour, most prominently Alastair Sim who played a writer of Mickey Spillane-style pulp fiction. The very idea of Sim penning these tawdry entertainments is inspired in itself, and there was a lovely introduction where he is dictating his latest to his secretly adoring secretary (Eleanor Summerfield) who may like her boss's output, yet it is clear he feels he is debasing himself by lowering his own preferred literary standards. From whence the comedy arises, especially when the will decrees he debase himself further.
Another heir was played by George Cole, who would of course go on to be just as celebrated as his mentor Sim, though largely on television with his role as Arfur Daley in the long-running television crime dramedy Minder. Here he exhibited his range, essaying the slow-talking, much put-upon bank clerk who lacks the confidence to be happy in himself, therefore Griffith has instructed him to take a toy pistol and a mask and hold up said bank. This was similar to Sim's orders, where he must spend twenty-eight days in prison for committing a crime, and once emerged, will receive his just reward from his deceased relative.
Also put through the mill is vinegary Fay Compton, who we are introduced to being positively beastly to her longsuffering maid (Charlotte Mitchell, who would voice female characters on radio's The Goon Show as required). Compton has the tables turned when for a month she has to take a job as a maid herself, and has a taste of her own medicine when she is in the employ of the tyrannical and unreasonable John Laurie, who seems to be bedridden purely so he can have people at his beck and call. Compton may not be much remembered now, but she was latterly known for playing battleaxes, making her reform welcome here.
Last in the foursome was Guy Middleton, again, not so well recalled but for a while the man casting directors went to for cads and bounders when Terry-Thomas was not available (a role he reputedly relished in real life as well). He played a gambling, womanising charmer who gets by on his wits and lack of morals, so naturally he must marry the first single woman he speaks to and finally settle down. Each of these tales, essentially constituting four stories in one and therefore getting the most value out of its ensemble, had their own twists and satisfying wrap-ups as director Mario Zampi put them through their paces with some flair.
Zampi and Pertwee would reunite for an even better regarded comedy in the same kind of multiple stories in one comedy, The Naked Truth in 1957, but there was much to appreciate in this earlier effort. Studiocanal have released Laughter in Paradise on Blu-ray with a number of extras, chief among them Stephen Fry singing the praises of Sim in a featurette, and offering a general overview of other performers like Joyce Grenfell who also appears (as Sim's perfectly proper fiancée): his enthusiasm for this and other British comedies is infectious. Also on the disc is a curious public information film about saving fuel during the war, with Sim and Cole as a statue of Emperor Nero and a schoolboy respectively; barely over a minute, it is nice to see. Then there is the audio recording of Sim's acceptance speech for his Rector position of Edinburgh University in front of a rowdy crowd of students. Lastly, an image gallery rounds off the set, a must for Sim fans (oh, there's an easy to find Easter egg too).