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Housemaster (1938)

 |  Comedy  |  9 April 1939 (USA)
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Three girls arrive at a stuffy English public school and cause all sorts of problems with both the staff and pupils.



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Complete credited cast:
Diana Churchill ...
Phillips Holmes ...
Joyce Barbour ...
René Ray ...
Kynaston Reeves ...
Walter Hudd ...
John Wood ...
Cecil Parker ...
Henry Hepworth ...
Rosamund Barnes ...
Laurence Kitchin ...
Jimmy Hanley ...


Three girls arrive at a stuffy English public school and cause all sorts of problems with both the staff and pupils.

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Release Date:

9 April 1939 (USA)  »

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Aspect Ratio:

1.37 : 1
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Did You Know?


Phillips Holmes's last movie. See more »


Version of Housemaster (1949) See more »


Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes
Music by R. Melish
Lyrics by Ben Jonson
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User Reviews

Funny peculiar, or funny ha ha - very funny, actually.
28 November 2006 | by (United Kingdom) – See all my reviews

It's School days again, and the setting is a senior boys' public school, Marbledown, during the late 1930s, a glimpse of a traditional scholastic way of life that had remained largely unchanged for a century or more. Along comes a reforming headmaster, Rev Edmund Ovington, played with distant icy coldness by the superb Kynaston Reeves, who, to the chagrin of the long serving senior masters, undertakes several unpopular reforms, culminating in a 'mutiny' when he bans the school from attending the town regatta, a popular annual rowing extravaganza, reminiscent of Henley.

The changing way of life can now be viewed in the context of the coming of the Second World War, for, not long after this film was completed, British PM Neville Chamberlain had returned from Munich and was to be seen waving an historic piece of paper, referring to it as 'peace in our time', the appeasement with Hitler, from the upstairs window of number 10, Downing Street, to the rapturous cheers from a huge crowd, in those innocent prewar days long before the installation of iron security gates to keep out the intruder from within.

The film is all about changing times and the threat to traditional, established values. Otto Kruger, the house master of the film's title, highly suspects the intrusion of red tape, in the form of interim reports, a comment very apposite to present day teaching. One can just imagine him as a present day teacher of the old school, bemoaning the imposition of learning outcomes, value added and attainment targets. Besides, headmaster Ovington even has a typewriter! Kruger, in his brief foray into British films before returning to Hollywood, plays house master Donkin with an affable authority, siding with his old friend, house master Hastings, when the latter describes Michael Shepley's junior master Beamish as an 'uncouth modern product'.

The blast of change is personified in the plot when four females dare to penetrate this male stronghold. Their relationship to Donkin is never fully explained, but it is inferred that the guardian of the three young ladies, Barbara Fane, is the sister of Donkin's one time fiancée, Angela, who had died some fourteen years earlier. The three 'children' are Rosemary, deliciously portrayed by Diana Churchill, who later forsook a highly promising film career to care for her ailing husband, the actor Barry K Barnes, Chris, a chirpy, bright Rene Ray, and Button, a teenage tomboy, beautifully played by Rosamund Barnes, who utters the immortal words, 'funny peculiar.. or funny ha ha'? to an enquiring Rosemary. To add to the violation of traditional mores, Button is the twin of Bimbo, a boy in Donkin's house, who, having been caught out in a minor misdemeanour, accepts with stoicism five strokes of the cane at the beginning of the film. And yet, throughout the film, Donkin retains the trust and affection of the boys in his care.

As the film's plot develops, there is a masterly synthesis which can be directly attributed to Ian Hay's remarkable and utterly believable denouement, and Dudley Leslie's fine screen adaptation: Rosemary falls for De Pourville, a timid musician who can't keep control of science lessons, and whom the girls run over when they first arrive at the school, eventually giving him the courage to stand up to the class and discipline the ringleader. Eventually, following Donkin's fatherly advice, Rosemary induces De Pourville to marry her. Phillips Holmes plays a warm, vulnerable suitor, and his performance is a fitting personal memorial, as he was killed in action, serving in the Canadian Air Force in 1942.

The end of the film arrives almost unexpectedly. Donkin has resigned, having been accused by the head of encouraging the boys to flout his latest edict, by attending the fair, a sin made even more grievous in the company of Rosemary, Chris and Button. Donkin's friend, Sir Berkeley, uses his influence to create a sinecure post of the 'Suffragan Bishop of Outer London', a semblance of promotion which the haughty, self righteous Ovington is only too glad to accept. Hastings will marry Barbara Fane, belatedly revealing to an incredulous Donkin that they have been secretly engaged for years, leaving Chris and Button to return to France, their father having married again. Donkin is the new headmaster, and all is now well with the world; equilibrium has been restored, and the old way of life is safe in his hands.

The old has been challenged by the new, and, by and large, the old triumphs. Even so, through an excellent script and expert interplay of characters, the audience is left with the realisation that 'the times they are a changing'. Perhaps, if only we admitted it, we are all much happier in the familiar scenes of yesteryear, taking a stroll down memory lane - surely much safer than the onset of stark reality.

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