Obituary: Frank Launder

Monday 24 February 1997 01:02

Many of Britain's finest films, including The Lady Vanishes, Millions Like Us, The Happiest Days of Your Life and The Belles of St Trinians bear the name of Frank Launder as writer, producer or director.

For most of his career his name was teamed with that of Sidney Gilliat, both men producing and writing together, but usually directing alone. They had an acute affinity for portraying the British sensibility, and Launder had a special skill (acknowledged by Gilliat) for comedy characterisation and droll wit.

Born in Hitchin, Hertfordshire in 1907, he turned to acting after a brief spell as a clerk, joining a repertory company in Brighton. Before the age of 21 he had written two plays, one of which was seen in Brighton by a film executive, who offered Launder work at Elstree Studios as a title writer for silent films, starting with Cocktail (1928). His first talkie was an adaptation of Under the Greenwood Tree (1929), on which the literary advisor was Sidney Gilliat.

The two men became a team in 1933 when they co-scripted with Clifford Grey Facing the Music, a bright comedy with songs starring Jose Collins and Stanley Lupino. He and Gilliat decided to stay together as a team - the volatile Launder and practical Gilliat complemented each other well - and in 1936 had a success with a lively train thriller Seven Sinners, in which Edmund Lowe and Constance Cummings amusingly track down a gang who have staged a train wreck to disguise a murder.

Later the team scripted one of the best train films of all time, Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes (1938). Adapted from Ethel Lina White's novel, The Wheel Spins, this superb mixture of suspense, mystery and humour is an acknowledged classic for which the writing team came up with two original characters, Charters and Caldicott (played by Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne), upper- class Englishmen more interested in Test Match results than the spies and murderers surrounding them. So successful were the pair that the writers incorporated them into several later films, including another highly enjoyable train thriller, Carol Reed's Night Train to Munich (1940) and the first two that Launder and Gilliat co-directed, Partners in Crime (1942, a short) and their first feature, Millions Like Us (1943). Financed by the Ministry of Information as wartime propaganda, the latter became in Launder's hands a trenchant and moving study of factory life and the disparate classes that wartime work brings together.

Though continuing to write and produce as a team, the two men then decided to direct separately, Launder's first being 2,000 Women (1944), a melodramatic but entertaining story set in an internment camp for women in occupied France. In 1945 Launder and Gilliat set up their own production company, Individual Pictures, and the following year produced Gilliat's fine hospital thriller Green for Danger and Launder's I See A Dark Stranger (1946), a delightfully quirky comedy-thriller about an Irish girl (Deborah Kerr) who initially hates the British and thus is easily manipulated by German spies. Like most Launder-Gilliat films it made supreme use of Britain's gallery of fine character actors such as Raymond Huntley, whose Nazi here was a more sinister one than the secretly disdainful one he had memorably etched in the earlier Night Train to Munich.

Launder's Captain Boycott (1947) and The Blue Lagoon (1948) were only moderately successful, but in 1950 he directed a comic masterpiece, the hilarious The Happiest Days of Your Life. Launder had always displayed a particular flair for indigenous comedy - he wrote the original story for the Will Hay classic Oh Mr Porter (1937), screenplays for such comics as Max Miller and Monty Banks, and co-scripted two delightful "Inspector Hornleigh" films for Gordon Harker and Alastair Sim - and this adaptation of John Dighton's hit play about a ministerial error which results in a girl's school being billetted at an all-boys establishment, was skilfully opened out for the screen (it was filmed at Byculla School in Hampshire) and benefited from the inspired casting of Margaret Rutherford (who had created her role on stage) and Alastair Sim as the respective heads, and such stalwarts as Joyce Grenfell, Richard Wattis and Guy Middleton as teachers. Sim and Rutherford, both celebrated scene-stealers, were perfectly matched, critic Paul Holt commenting:

The result of this contest is happily a draw . . . The whole thing ends in a shamble of giggles with headmaster Sim wearing his exasperation as a halo and headmistress Rutherford loking like Queen Boadicea at a difficult dress fitting.

Launder now concentrated entirely on film comedy. Lady Godiva Rides Again (1952), a satire on the beauty-queen business, was enlivened by its grand team of cameo performers, including Sim, Kay Kendall, Dora Bryan, George Cole and Renee Houston, and Folly to be Wise (1952) starring Sim as the chairman of a "brains trust" also had its surprisingly uneven script (by Launder and Dighton from a play by James Bridie) bolstered by skilled performances.

Next came The Belles of St Trinians (1954), launching a series of films with which Launder will forever be associated (and all of which he directed). With Alistair Sim in the dual role of a shady bookie and a school headmistress, and George Cole, Joyce Grenfell, Beryl Reid, Irene Handl and Joan Sims among those in support, this outrageously farcical tale was enormously successful and led to four sequels, none equalling the inspired lunacy of the original - the best is The Great St Trinians Train Robbery (1956).

Like Sim, George Cole was a regular player in Launder and Gilliat productions, later commenting that their films always meant "good scripts but terrible money. If Alastair was in the film it was even worse because he got most of it. But they were wonderful people to work with."

Launder's later films also included two engaging comedies set partly in Scotland, Geordie (1955), starring Bill Travers as a hammer-thrower in the Olympics, and The Bridal Path (1959). After The Wildcats of St Trinians (1980), which was poorly received, Launder retired to France with his second wife, the actress Bernadette O'Farrell, though a few years later he reunited with Gilliat (who was to die in 1994) to present a season of their films on Channel 4.

Tom Vallance

Frank Launder, scriptwriter and film director: born Hitchin, Hertfordshire 1907; twice married (one son, three daughters); died Monte Carlo, Monaco 23 February 1997.

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