The new English master Richard Tassell (John Bentley) arrives at Nutbourne Station and happens to meet the maths master Arnold Billings (Richard Wattis), who has been at this private school out in the country for some years. However, dampening Tassell's enthusiasm somewhat he has not one good word to say about the place, and once they reach the establishment the rest of the tutors are similarly unenthused in the face of yet another school year. The headmaster is Wetherby Pond (Alastair Sim), who is a shade more sanguine than his staff, mainly because he could be leaving for a more prestigious position soon, all going well...
Naturally after a set-up like that, nothing goes well for Mr Pond in The Happiest Days of Your Life, a hit comedy which was adapted from John Dighton's successful play of the era. That was set exclusively in the staff room on the stage production, but the team of Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, just on the verge of striking it truly lucky with their St. Trinian's series, made sure to open it out, keeping the wit of the dialogue but adding dose of visual humour to complement it. In some ways you could view this as a dry run for the later "girls' school from Hell" antics on the horizon (for a start, Ronald Searle designed the opening credits), but if anything this was a little better.
That was down to the central double act at the heart of the story, pairing Sim with an actress who, in a funny kind of way (ha ha and peculiar), was his stage and screen equivalent. They didn't look like each other, but each conveyed a love of the language they were offered to deliver with a very individual, some would say inimitable, style, not to mention they appealed to the same audiences and were hugely popular in their day, maintaining that adulation long after their demises. Margaret Rutherford was that star, a character actress who seemed like an obvious choice to act with Sim, though for whatever reason it didn't happen very often. Watch them together here and you can see that was our loss.
Rutherford enters into the plot when Nutbourne receives an unwelcome visitor or two - or over a hundred. Pond is expecting a meeting with the governors of the posh, upmarket school he wishes to be headmaster of, but what he gets is Rutherford's Muriel Whitchurch, her own staff in tow, who in a disastrous development of British bureaucracy have been assigned the building to place their legions of girls in. Once he gets wind of this, Pond is horrified (watch how Sim literally backs into a corner of his office when he realises the implications), but since they cannot get the Ministry on the phone until the following day, they will have to work out some temporary solution. Witnessing these two great stars interact with some pricelessly ornate dialogue is one of the true pleasures of the film, and the fact that seasoned comedienne Joyce Grenfell joined them as Whitchurch's second-in-command was a real bonus.
Indeed, it's one of the pleasures of their careers, and it only grows more entertaining as a fresh crisis erupts. There is a sense of the battle of the sexes going on here, not in a romantic manner (though there is a little of that for selected supporting cast members) but in a way suggesting that when they required to mix and get on with a particular dilemma, they're more likely to get in each other's way even if their ultimate goal is shared. Thus when Pond has to show the governors around Nutbourne it has, by amusing contrivances, to be at the same time Whitchurch is escorting a group of influential parents around the premises as well, leading to steadily escalating ridiculousness as the pupils are ordered around to make it seem as if it's an exclusively one gender school, marshalled into various classes and trying not to give the game away. That The Happiest Days of Your Life ended with complete chaos was the perfect point of hilarity, but for such a wonderful last line of resignation - all right, life, you beat me - was the icing on the cake. Music by Mischa Spoliansky.
[Studio Canal's Blu-ray and DVD as part of its Vintage Classics Collection have interviews with three experts as extras, and boasts a restored print.]