Choose your fate: The terrible tykes of the fourth form, playing practical jokes that involve axes, or the...ummm...well-developed girls of the sixth form, who discovered some time ago cigarettes, gin, sex and how easily men can be led astray. The problem is that one set comes with the other. They are all there at St. Trinian's, that remarkably easy-going English school for girls led by headmistress Millicent Fritton (Alastair Sim). As Miss Fritton is fond of pointing out, "In other schools girls are sent out quite unprepared into a merciless world, but when our girls leave here, it is the merciless world which has to be prepared." Miss Fritton sounds something like a melding of Julia Child and Eleanor Roosevelt, and definitely has Sim's droll and deadpan comic genes.
In The Belles of St. Trinian's, a sly, chaotic comedy from the team of Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, St. Trinian's is, as usual, on the brink of financial disaster. Salvation may be at hand, however, when a rich sheik sends his daughter to join the fourth form and receive a proper English education. The sheik also is a horse owner and one of his prize racers, Arab Boy, is being trained near the school for a race. It's only a matter of time before the fourth-form girls form a racing pool and bet heavily on Arab Boy, with Miss Fritton adding to the pool what funds the school has left. (Much of the fourth-form girl's money comes from the gin they make in chemistry, then bottle and lower by rope to Flash Harry (George Cole), a Cockney fixer, for distribution. "It's got something...I don't know quite what," says Miss Fritton on sampling the stuff, "but send a few bottles up to my room.")
Miss Fritton, however, has a brother, Clarence Fritton (who, by some coincidence of casting, also is Alastair Sim), a bookmaker who not only has placed a bundle on another horse, but who also has a daughter. And he has placed the precocious Arabella in the sixth form to keep him informed. Soon the sixth form has kidnapped Arab Boy, the fourth form has taken the horse back, Flash Harry has joined forces with Miss Fritton, the sixth-form girls are determined that Arab Boy will not leave the second floor of St. Trinian's, Clarence and his Homburg-wearing gang have arrived, parents are driving up for Parent's Day and the Ministry of Education has arrived in the person of a very proper inspector. Total war breaks out at St. Trinian's. It's hard to say which is more dangerous, the African spears or the flour bombs.
Alastair Sim as Millicent Fritton turns in a tour de force performance. Miss Fritton is a tall woman with a stately bosom, fond of long gowns with embroidered lace and Edwardian hats with lots of feathers. She takes everything in stride, even a fourth-former pounding at something in chemistry class and, after hearing an explosion a few minutes later, the results. "Oh dear. I told Bessie to be careful with that nitro-glycerine!" She is firm in believing that St. Trinian's is "a gay arcadia of happy girls." Sim was one of Britain's great eccentric actors. Other than the sheer chaos of all the little (and not so little) girls doing terrible things, he delivers much of the film's pleasure.