Alastair Sim was a memorable character player of faded Anglo-Scottish gentility, whimsically put-upon countenance, and sepulchral, sometimes minatory, laugh.
He was on stage first in 1930 (a bit part in Robeson's Othello), and in films from 1935. By the mid 1940s he was a (slightly decaying) national institution. The American sociologists Wolfenstein and Leites (circa 1950) noted the prominent place of father figures in British as opposed to American cinema. Sim proved their point.
A never-youthful character, he attained star status through portraying eccentric authority: doctors (Waterloo Road (d. Sidney Gilliat, 1944); The Doctor's Dilemma (d. Anthony Asquith, 1959)); schoolteachers (The Happiest Days of Your Life (d. Frank Launder, 1950); The Belles of St Trinian's (d. Launder, 1954), in drag); gentlemen of the cloth (Folly To Be Wise (d. Launder, 1952)); policemen (Green For Danger (d. Gilliat, 1946)); lairds and lords (Geordie (d. Launder, 1955); Left, Right and Centre (d. Gilliat, 1959)).
Where the sociologists went astray was in missing the ambivalence of which Sim was the paradigm - authority figure, yes, but often shadily duplicitous, often a manipulator of official rhetoric, his sexless bachelor persona containing strains of sexual ambiguity, his jolliness a latent vampirism.
In the first half of Cottage to Let (d. Anthony Asquith, 1941) he seemed, convincingly, to be a Nazi agent, and in The Green Man (d. Robert Day, 1956) he was a chortling assassin. And he was certainly unsettling as the spectral Poole in An Inspector Calls (d. Guy Hamilton, 1954).
Sim was above all associated with Launder and Gilliat for whom he made many films from 1939 to 1959, most unforgettably The Happiest Days of Your Life, as the Headmaster of Nutbourne pitted against Margaret Rutherford's obdurate Headmistress, a role that is a microcosm of his talents, of a mode of British comedy, and of the postwar decline of the upper-middle-class hegemony which he embodied so antically. He was awarded a CBE in 1953.
Biography: Dance and Skylark: Fifty Years with Alastair Sim by Naomi Sim (1987).
Bruce Babington, Encyclopedia of British Cinema