Following hot on the heels of StudioCanal’s Blu-ray release of The Green Man, Alastair Sim shines yet again in Laughter In Paradise, a sparkling, witty comedy featuring a who’s who of British comedy talent.
Written by Jack Davies and Michael Pertwee (brother of Jon Pertwee) it has a perfect comedy premise. The will of a notorious practical joker stipulates that each beneficiary will inherit £50,000 – provided they perform certain tasks. Upstanding Deniston (Alastair Sim) must spend 28 days in prison; Snobby Agnes (Fay Compton) must spend a month as a maid; timid Herbert (George Cole) has to hold up the bank where he works, and philandering wastrel Simon (Guy Middleton) needs to get married. Each one is tested, and emerges having learned something… well most of them. Unfortunately, cousin Henry has one final prank to play.
Best known for his definitive portrayal of Scrooge, Alastair Sim is one of Britain’s all-time great comic actors, and this is one of his most memorable and touching roles. Playing an ex-military man who secretly writes pulp fiction under numerous pseudonyms, the film mines his characteristically hangdog, melancholy expressions to great effect, as well as showcasing his spot-on comic timing and knack for physical comedy. The sequence where he tries to get arrested for smashing a window is rightly celebrated, but just as funny is his attempt to rob a jewellers, only to be thwarted at every turn – his run through the shop holding a stolen umbrella aloft is just brilliant.
Sim’s real-life protege George Cole is also great as the mild-mannered bank clerk, giving a performance that feels contemporary and really well observed, finding humour in the the most minor moments. Cole had a lot of range as a comic actor (watch the St Trinians films for a contrast) and he’s wonderfully gormless in this.
Fay Compton‘s segment might have been the dullest in the film, but the character’s background, when revealed, is really poignant. Compton plays her role completely straight, and she finds the pathos and dignity in her character without ever overdoing it. More well known as a stage actress than for her work in film, Compton nonetheless makes a vivid impression, and her arc is the strongest and most moving in the film.
Guy Middleton is the only slightly weak link – he’s not bad, but his role feels tailor made for Terry-Thomas and I can’t help but imagine him in the role. He’s the only one of the four protagonists who doesn’t have a conscience and while this makes him funny enough, it does make his scenes a little one note, and it’s difficult to sympathise too much with him.
The film features some of Britain’s best character actors in supporting roles. Ernest Thesiger, best known as the sinister Dr Pretorius from Bride Of Frankenstein is excellent as the doddering lawyer, John Laurie (Dad’s Army’s Private Fraser) as Compton’s miserly employer, and an impossibly young Audrey Hepburn in her film debut as a cigarette girl. Joyce Grenfell is also incredible as ever as Sim’s plummy military fiancee. It’s not her most memorable role, but she and Sim spark off each other brilliantly and it’s wonderful to watch two all-time greats of British comedy together onscreen.
Laughter in Paradise is a delight from start to finish. The ending is a little predictable and the whole thing isn’t as witty or acerbic as the films Ealing were making at the same time. However it hasn’t dated at all, and the unique premise is executed perfectly by a cast at the top of their game.
Stephen Fry‘s appreciation of the film is a joy to watch. His love for the film, and especially Sim, is contagious and is the ideal introduction to the film. The Blu-ray also features a short film for the ministry of information starring Sim and George Cole; Sim’s address to Edinburgh University and film stills.