[Contains nonsensical engine parts and SPOILERS!!!]
Skimming the TV guide yesterday morning, I decided to record Laughter in Paradise (1951) on a whim, little realising how much fun it was going to be. This classic British comedy stars Alastair Sim, Fay Compton, George Cole and Guy Middleton as four disparate, distant relatives called together to hear the reading of a will, written by a wealthy prankster who has left them each a substantial amount of money, with a considerable condition attached. To inherit the money they must each act completely out of character, and confront their most negative/limiting character trait in the most humbling way possible… for example, Sim plays a respectable, well-spoken toff who writes lurid pulp fiction under various pseudonyms to pay the bills, and he’s set the task of committing an actual crime which will land him in jail for no less than 28 days! Unfortunately, this results in him driving away his long-term fiancée, played by the wonderful Joyce Grenfell… but he also discovers how much his doting secretary (Eleanor Summerfield) admires him and adores his work, which in turn leads him to reappraise his writing as more than just an embarrassing source of easy cash. Of course, in the end it turns out there wasn’t really any inheritance at all… at least, not in the monetary sense… but all the characters feel much richer for the experience, in a karmic, quality-of-life sense, so it still has a happy ending, despite the (somewhat inevitable) twist.
Perhaps the biggest “winner” is Compton’s character, ‘Agnes Russell’, who begins the story as a snobbish spinster, treating her maid (Charlotte Mitchell) like dirt… so naturally the will dictates that she work as a domestic servant herself, to see how the other half lives. Besides learning an important lesson about social equality, she also becomes involved in the fate of the family she serves, which includes a cranky hypochondriac (John Laurie), and his long-suffering, guilt-shackled daughter, ‘Joan’ (Veronica Hurst), who reminds Agnes of herself at that age, frittering her youth caring for an ungrateful old man, when she should be out making hay. This leads Agnes to selflessly offer her services as a full-time live-in-carer, for as long as it takes to secure Joan’s freedom… though thankfully the girl’s elopement (with a private detective the father hired to check up on Agnes, ironically) eventually shakes the old man out of his own self-defeating patterns, inspiring him to get dressed and tentatively ask Agnes to dinner. Bless. Not a dry eye in the house!
Meanwhile, the biggest “loser” is probably Middleton’s character, ‘Simon’, a caddish gold-digger tasked with marrying the first woman he speaks to after leaving the reading, regardless of her financial status. There’s a scene where he starts chatting with a super-cute cigarette girl in a club, before remembering the terms of the will and brushing her off, and I was sat there thinking “Hey, she kinda looks like Audrey Hepburn!” Well, it turns out there’s a very good reason for that… namely, that she was Audrey Hepburn, in one of her earliest film appearances! She returned in a later scene at the same club, but didn’t have more than a handful of lines… which is why it’s a little annoying that her fleeting cameo has come to dominate the legacy of this film, to the extent that if you type the title into Google Image search (as I did), almost all of the pictures that come up are of her, rather than the main cast! Now, I enjoy gazing at photos of A-Hep as much as anyone, but it seems a little disrespectful to Compton and the other actresses who were doing all the heavy lifting… though it’s amusing in retrospect to think that Simon could have ended up married to one of the most beautiful and adorable women in cinema history, if he’d only abided by the rules of the game and not tried to cheat! (No offence intended to Beatrice Campbell, who plays the comely con-woman he actually ends up with, of course!)