Fanning the Fun

SFPSTR

It would take a person of much stronger moral character than mine to resist viewing a movie titled Fun at St. Fanny’s.  Such a paragon, I’m sure, would have not the slightest interest watching something which, based on that title alone, sounds like a perfectly idiotic piece of cinematic fare.

I, however, am not one of those paragons.  Dangle a flick in front of me called Fun at St. Fanny’s, and my reaction is—the more perfectly idiotic, the better.

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Released around 1956, Fun at St. Fanny’s is an obscure British production set in one of those comical British public schools that, like St. Trinian’s, exists for the sake of bad jokes.  Sample fare:  The St. Fanny’s headmaster regales his pupils with a history of William the Conqueror, who, he says, loved England so much that he left his initials everywhere…”mostly on doors.”

Yeah, jokes like that…

If you think that one’s a bit beyond the pale, well, St. Fanny’s is just getting started.  Further jokes have the headmaster keeping a telephone on his lectern so he can take calls from his bookie during class; and keeping a fake trompe l’oeil bookcase in his study, behind which, with the press of a button, a fully stocked bar is revealed.  There’s also the elderly Scotsman who, on opening his wallet, releases a moth—stereotypes abound here—and a school inspector—name of Horsetrough—inquiring of the headmaster, “I trust you do not chastise the boys.”  “Only in self-defense,” is the dignified reply.  And there’s the ancient school porter, name of Fudge—as in “Oh, Fudge!”—who’s old enough to remember when John Milton was a St. Fanny’s pupil.  Smashing song young Milton once wrote, recalls Fudge nostalgically.  Called Stranger in Paradise Lost.

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Well, I liked it…

That, basically, is the film—staggering from joke to joke, like a couple of tipsy sailors on shore leave, many of which you can see coming, as if sighted by periscope and signaled by semaphore.  The actors (most of whom look way too old to play schoolboys) will pause, roll their eyes, emphasize the punch line, to make sure you get that, yes, this IS a joke, don’t let any doubts trouble you.  And the jokes are visual as well as verbal.  When several roulette-playing students ask for more chips, the dealer spoons out a helping of French fries…Well, I laughed.  Or the bit when one character, examining a mess of beakers and wires on a laboratory floor, inquires as to what it is.  “Professor Daniels’ last experiment,” she’s told.  And that, she asks, her eyes drifting up towards a human silhouette on the ceiling.  “Professor Daniels,” is the answer.

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Admittedly, that last one did everything but wrestle the laugh track to the floor…

St. Fanny’s does have a sort-of plot, lingering round its edges as if too abashed to make itself known.  Seems the school’s (very) oldest student, a gormless stripling of mature years known as Cardew the Cad, is kept behind year after year (making him a literal old boy) so the headmaster can ‘borrow’ from Cardew’s inheritance, until a detective comes snooping.  Or something.  The story has the singular virtue of being as inert as Professor Daniels’ last experiment, leaving you free to dodge gags that, like Professor Daniels, pop up unexpectedly.  Such as the name of the school’s founder, one Dr. Whackem—you weren’t expecting subtlety, were you?—or a reminder scrawled on a blackboard that acid is not to be dropped on a student, not until games period anyway.  There’s also a museum guard’s overheard remark when the St. Fanny’s lot arrives on a field trip:  They was in the British Museum this mornin’, the guard warns, playin’ with the Elgin Marbles…

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Now, look, that one really is funny…

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Per an extremely informative article on the BFI Online Web site, St. Fanny’s was the creation of one Douglas Robinson, who originated ‘Cardew the Cad’ in WW2 radio and variety theater skits.  These were later expanded into a feature-length film, which adds such extraneous sequences as a musical concert and a pointless romance, probably to fill up its hour-and-20-minute running time.  The result’s a mulligan stew of clashing elements that’s too long for what, at its essence, is a one-track gag—what a perceptive writer described as “the British school joke stretched almost to infinity.”  The film’s at its best in such offbeat scenes as the headmaster sauntering about in drag or offering Matron her “usual” shot of straight gin.  Or when a picture of bosomy Jane Russell from The Outlaw appears, sans comment, on a classroom wall (how many viewers picked up on that?).  At such moments I sensed something weirdly subversive here, a humor that, as with Duck Soup, eschews sentiment and won’t pretend to an innocence it doesn’t have or aspire to.  Or need.

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STFDRG

Just as funny as the movie (or even funnier) were the pursed-lip reviews that, per BFI, greeted it:  “Farce of the crudest order,” grumbled one critic; “Some of the rottenest chestnuts I have had thrown at me in twenty years of film going,” fumed another.  There’s also the judgment rendered by one cast member, Ronnie Corbett (later of The Two Ronnies fame), of St. Fanny’s being “one of the most bizarre films…ever made.”  What more recommendation do you need?  I, for one, have never minded a few chestnuts, rotten or otherwise, heaved my way.  Only someone of far stodgier character than mine would not laugh at this film.  Up with St. Fanny’s, I say!

STFend


Bonus Clip:  Comic Fred Emney as the Headmaster demonstrates his pianistic talents in Fun at St. Fanny’s:


Depending on your limits of moral rectitude, you can watch Fun at St. Fanny’s on YouTube (buy or rent) or for free on Tubi.tv (with ads and a log-in).  View with or without pursed lips.

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