The Revision: The Belles of St. Trinian’s

Ronald Searle’s St. Trinian’s cartoons ran off and on in various publications from about 1946 to 1952. The cartoons don’t really have a consistent plot or characters (some are given names but most are not) but give glimpses into a boarding school where the girls are nothing but trouble. St. Trinian’s students are often seen torturing each other, worshipping the devil, drinking, smoking, and all other kinds of mischief. It can often be pretty bleak and dark, but it’s hilarious. Searle’s loose, exaggerated lines only add to the chaotic scenes. St. Trinian’s is fun.

The cover of St. Trinian's The Entire Appalling Business

Sadly, for all the literary goth girls in your life, the books are all out of print. The most recent one, St. Trinian’s: The Entire Appalling Business, came out in 2007 and was quickly (surprisingly?) remaindered and the copies aren’t cheap. I still keep waiting for a resurgence of St. Trinian’s but I feel like I’m going to keep waiting (I do think it would make a delightful animated series, especially if they kept Searle’s style). I just know how much I would’ve adored this in my younger years and I still adore it now.

St. Trinian’s has been adapted to film seven times — four movies from 1954 to 1966; one movie in 1980 and two in 2007 and 2009.

The Belles of St. Trinian’s (1954, directed by Frank Launder) kicked off the series, and unlike the cartoons, it focuses mostly on the adults, with the girls lurking in the background, causing trouble. The plot mostly revolves around horse racing and the attempt to save the school from going bankrupt (as well as from inspectors who want to shut the school down).

Alastair Sim plays headmistress Millicent Fritton in drag, which is questionable to modern eyes since I feel like we’re beyond the point a man in a dress is funny. To Sim’s credit, though, he never plays Millicent as a joke. Yes, there’s humor to his performance, but it never comes across as cruel or mocking. So as much as it’s not a great choice, he at least made good ones with it. Sim is really the only performance of note in this movie, especially since most of the action does revolve around Millicent.

The movie does a fairly good job of capturing the chaos of St. Trinian’s — the students have all kinds of hustles that involve manufacturing bathtub gin for sale and gambling. They’re also feared by nearby residents (a fairly funny sequence shows the town boarding up its windows as the St. Trinian’s bus rolls through). An undercover police officer, Ruby Gates (Joyce Grenfell) sent to investigate the school, is horrified by the permissive attitudes of both the instructional staff and the students.

The staff does get a bit more attention than the students, but they’re all just broad personalities rather than actual characters. A few of the students are named — including ringleader Arabella (Vivienne Martin) — but they too are mostly just sketches.

It all mostly works, though. I didn’t feel like I needed to form an emotional connection with anyone to enjoy this, which I did overall. Millicent doesn’t quite have a character arc (really, no one learns anything here) but her desire to hang onto her school at all costs is admirable enough.

I would’ve liked more focus on the students, though. I can understand why that wasn’t the case — given it was the ’50s, showing these girls doing some of the things they do in the cartoon probably wouldn’t have gone over very well. There is a little bit of violence, but most of it is off-screen (the field hockey sequence is pretty funny on that account).

While this adaptation is not quite like Searle’s cartoons, it still manages to mostly capture the spirit of them. St. Trinian’s, for all of its darker elements, still remains fun, and The Belles of St. Trinian’s understands that.

I will be reviewing The Wildcats of St. Trinian’s (1980) and St. Trinian’s (2007) on my Patreon later this week.