"School for Scoundrels" (1960)— How to Win
+Guest Posts: Movie Wisdom By Guest Writer Terry Freedman—Issue #13
Image by L.E. Wilson from RedBubble
School for Scoundrels (1960) is a comedy directed by Robert Hamer, based on the novel by Stephen Potter, about Henry Palfrey (Ian Carmichael), a man who learns from Mr. S. Potter (Alastair Sim) the skills of “Lifemanship,” which are based on seeing the world as divided into winners and losers, or the one-up and the one-down, and finding ways to be “one up” on all opponents at all times by making them feel inferior: less desirable, less worthy, less blessed.
Life Lesson: Love beats cynicism.
I first came across Stephen Potter’s books when I was 14 years old, and have read and re-read them over the years for their humour. However, I find myself more and more discovering that a number of aspects of modern life may be found in these books, despite the elapsing of half a century, a fact which I believe puts them on a par with other classics such as Parkinson's Law and The Peter Principle.
Writing predominantly in the 1940s and 50s, Potter codified the art and science of "one-upmanship." In so doing, he not only inspired a generation of undergraduates to put his theories to the test and invent new "ploys" and "gambits," but inspired the making of the 1960 film School for Scoundrels and, perhaps more importantly, was taken seriously enough for the term "one-upmanship" to be cited in academic books.
Potter was an academic — he taught English at the University of Oxford — and this is reflected in the books in the form of the academic-sounding names given to various aspects of one-upmanship. For example, there is woomanship (which plays a prominent role in the film), well-readship, doctorship and others.
To summarise, the four main books he wrote on the subject were, in chronological order:
Gamesmanship, or the art of winning games without actually cheating
Lifemanship, which was concerned with the application of the principles of gamesmanship to everyday life
One-upmanship, which was a further extension of Lifemanship, and
Supermanship, or the art of staying on top without falling apart.
The film, indeed, opens with Henry Palfrey (Ian Carmichael), a decent enough fellow who is, frankly, rather hapless, arriving by train at Yeovil, where the Lifemanship Correspondence College (LCC) is located. And here we have the very first bit of one-upmanship, made even more clever by the fact that it isn’t even featured in the books.
When Palfrey alights from the train he is led by a series of signs over all kinds of unfriendly and unpromising terrain, lugging a heavy suitcase. Thus the very first act of one-upmanship is perpetrated by the LCC on its customers! The reason this is clever is that it accurately reflects the tricks that Potter plays on the reader.
For example, one part of the book describes how he first had the idea for a particular gambit when he was, if my memory serves me well, sitting on top of a cliff looking out to sea. This sentence carries a footnote: See our booklet “Places where it’s OK for things to first come to you at.” In other words, you were probably prepared to take Potter at his word when he informed you that he’d been sitting on top of a cliff when he had the idea, but the footnote makes it clear that he’s compiled a list of the kind of places that would impress people, and has simply chosen one — possibly at random. You’ve been had!
In Potter's world, the practitioner of one-upmanship, or Lifeman as he or she is known, having completed the Lifemanship Correspondence course, has one overarching thought: that if you are not one up then you are, by definition, one down.
Looked at in the cold light of day it sounds ridiculous, I know. But Potter very accurately described people and practices that you and I see almost every day of our lives.
One of our weaknesses as people is that we naturally, almost by default, judge the world in relative terms. In other words, we compare ourselves to others, and we feel unhappy if someone else appears to be even slightly better off, or luckier, or more loved. We can easily verify this for ourselves whenever we feel a pang of jealousy and then try to verbalize what we’re jealous about. It mostly comes down to a perception that the other person is “winning,” which we therefore translate to us “losing,” even if by objective and subjective measures we have great, blessed, beautiful lives. At that moment when we compare ourselves to others, we forget that we have wonderful lives. We forget to be grateful for what we have. In fact, we just can’t see all the good things we have. It’s as if everything disappears but that sense of loss.
This strange phenomenon is explored to a level of hilarious absurdity in the British comedy School for Scoundrels (1960), but it isn’t a manual on how to make other people feel bad so you can feel good, although it does show many examples of that. Instead, the movie really demonstrates what is at stake when you view others as your competitors and all interactions as ways to manipulate them so you can come out on top. As you might expect, this robs you of one of the most significant and rewarding pleasures of life, which is loving and caring for someone else. In order to connect with another person so that their joys, their triumphs become your joys and your triumphs, as opposed to more reasons for resentment and jealousy, you need sincerity. You need to be able to honestly express how you feel and reveal who you truly are.
For it is not possible to connect with someone if you are spending all your energy trying to create a phony facade, as Henry Palfrey (Ian Carmichael), the main character in the movie, does. You’ll know in your heart, as he eventually does, that it’s fake, which will make you unhappy, and it’s a trap that keeps you from loving and being loved. But once you see others not as competitors, but as guides who can show you other ways of being successful, then you can relish their accomplishments and treasure them as individuals, which will bring you more joy. Being able to share in the happiness of another is really what loving someone is all about. Being able to care about someone is how love starts. And you can only learn to care about others if you are honest with yourself.
What a deep and remarkable life lesson from a movie called School for Scoundrels about a man who learns multiple ways to “one up” others by making them feel inferior, but figures out that there is more fulfillment in expressing love that is sincere.
This movie is worth your time!
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