Classic Film Review: Sim shines and Hepburn makes her debut in “Laughter in Paradise”

“Laughter in Paradise” is a British version of that “to inherit my money, here are the wacky conditions you must meet” story, the one born in the play “Seven Chances,” which Buster Keaton turned into one of the great silent film comedies, but recycled scores of times over the decades, most famously with the various versions of “Brewster’s Millions.”

Four relatives of “the greatest practical joker of his day” (Hugh Griffith) are told, at the reading of his will, that they stand to inherit his fortune. Each has one month to live out some appalling version of her or his life to qualify.

Fay Compton (of the first sound version of “Nicholas Nickleby,” and Orson Welles’ “Othello) is Agnes Russell, a cruel spinster who takes out her bitterness on every servant within reach. Upon learning of her uncle’s death, she hisses “You can take a fortnight’s notice!” to the latest maid she’s about to fire.

Meek Herbert Russell (George Cole of “The Belles of St. Trinian’s”), pushed around at the bank where he works, never destined to “get the girl,” is charged with going to a toy store, buying a toy pistol and robbing his bullying boss with it.

Simon Russell (Guy Middleton, of course) is the cad of the lot, a gambler who has “gone through life at the expense of other’s hearts and pockets.” He gets the news of his relative’s passing with a “When’s the celebration…sorry, FUNERAL?”

He has to court and marry someone he has yet to meet within a month.f

Then there’s the cream of the crop, Captain Deniston Russell (Alastair Sim, of “St. Trinian’s” and “A Christmas Carol” immortality). We meet him as he dictates, under one of his many noms de plume, a “penny dreadful,” a sordid crime tale, to his adoring secretary (Eleanor Summerfield).

“All rather disgusting,” he sighs with that Alastair Sim sigh after a particularly lurid passage. “But they seem to like ‘The American Touch.'”

He’s engaged to be married “in a fortnight” (classic British comedies are filled with fortnights) to the judge’s daughter and uniformed officer Elizabeth (Joyce Grenfell, also in “Belles of St. Trinian’s”).

But he needs to get himself arrested and jailed for a month “for a genuine crime.”

As they all have to take a “solemn oath” not to say what they’re up to, this could get awfully dicey.

Sim pretty much steals the picture as a writer of crime fiction who literally cannot get himself arrested. He starts by doing “research,” popping by his local precinct, telling the desk sergeant (after many insults from the lower ranks) “I’m most ANXIOUS to go to prison, and I was wondering if you had anything in mind?”

You know, to put him there? Pickpocket and shoplifter, car thief and smash and grab are pitched, especially after the sergeant realizes who he is.

Sim wrings every laugh out of silent pantomiming tossing a brick through a jeweler’s window, pocketing goods at a department store and acquiring “burglar’s tools” which will help him break into this house or that car.

Cole finds some funny moments in making his meek bank clerk follow through on his “prank.”

Compton’s laughs come from the petty humiliations of a life “in service” to a cranky old man (John Laurie).

Middleton’s best running gag is his ogling women, and utterly ignoring the eye-popping cigarette girl at his favorite nightclub, a winsome young slip of a woman who seems interested. Ladies and gentlemen, “Introducing Audrey Hepburn.”

It isn’t the most briskly-directed affair, but it has laughs and those showcase Sim moments going for it.

Eagle-eyed and eared viewers of a certain age will recognize character actor Sebastian Cabot at a poker game. He is most famous for American TV’s “Family Affair.”

“Laughter” (1951) is freshly back in Bluray circulation as part of a Film Movement boxed set of the Best of Alastair Sim (“School of Laughter”), a quartet of films that includes the classics “Belles of St. Trinian’s,”“School for Scoundrels”and “Hue and Cry.”“Laughter in Paradise” may be the weakest sister of the four, but it’s funny, and Sims is at his very best in it.

The set is a real treasure trove of British film comedy history.

And that cigarette gamine? She’d take over the movies within a couple of years.

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MPAA Rating: Approved

Cast: Alastair Sim, Fay Compton, Guy Middleton, Beatrice Campbell, Joyce Grenfell, George Cole, Hugh Griffith, John Laurie and Audrey Hepburn

Credits: Directed by Mario Zampi, script by Michael Pertwee and Jack Davies.   A Film Movement release.

Running time: 1:37

 

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