The notorious practical joker Henry Augustus Russell (Hugh Griffith) has expired after one last prank on his nurse, but he just might have another trick up his sleeve to play on his surviving relatives. There are four of them, the spinster Agnes (Fay Compton) who is something of an old battleaxe, the pulp paperbacks writer Captain James (Alastair Sim) who is engaged to be married but concealing his profession from his hoity-toity betrothed (Joyce Grenfell), the meek bank clerk Herbert (George Cole) and the rakish gambler Simon (Guy Middleton). They each receive a telegram informing them of their relative's demise, and also that there is a sum of money to be gained from the inheritance - but there's a catch.
Laughter in Paradise was one of Italian director Mario Zampi's productions for the British cinema; a comedy specialist, his most enduring work was likely either this or The Naked Truth, which was probably his funniest effort, though there were moments here which prompted goodnatured chuckles. Looking backward to the likes of Brewster's Millions and forward to the cultier The Magic Christian, the premise was high concept in that to win the inheritance the family had to perform various tasks to ensure their share of the cash - fifty thousand pounds each, a lot of money in those days and a lot of money these days, come to think of it - which would see them acting utterly out of character.
Therefore the Captain has to commit a crime that sees him put in prison for exactly twenty-eight days, Agnes must become a maid for a month, Herbert has to rob the bank he works for and Simon is instructed to marry the first woman he talks to. Simon believes he has the best deal out of the lot, and makes certain to choose carefully who he speaks to, including turning down Audrey Hepburn, well, Audrey Hepburn in a bit role of a cigarette girl at the club he visits. Eventually, on a country road on the way to his boat, he stops at the side to help out a damsel in distress whose car has broken down, though there's something he doesn't know about his choice, which frankly probably made his deal not too arduous. But then, perhaps that was the point.
With essentially four leads to contend with, there was far too much to cram into ninety minutes, and though they managed to wrap things up in a satisfying fashion what had gone before was needlessly complicated in the search for giving them all something to do. Compton got to thaw her frosty exterior as the maid to John Laurie's cantankerous and demanding old codger, all very well but not exactly hilarious when the chance for comedy was replaced with overbearing sentiment, and Cole's clerk was too much of a doormat even after he was "the worm who changed his spots" as he puts it, though his plotline leads up to a neat twist where he gets to play the hero instead of the villain. This left the heavy lifting of the actual laughter generation to a past master at the art.
Alastair Sim had been a favourite of British audiences for his drollery for a decade or two by this point, and he was able to make movie magic out of some rather basic narrative, though here it appeared the writers upped their game somewhat to offer him better material than his co-stars. He is introduced dictating one of his lurid novels to his secretly adoring secretary ([Eleanor Summerfield), which offers him a Hue and Cry-style chance to read out ludicrous lines in his lugubrious Scottish brogue, always a winner. In the rest of his scenes we got to see him try to commit the crime which will put him behind bars for a short spell, though asking the police for advice doesn't endear him to the local plod, and he has to pretend to be researching one of his books. The scene where he shoplifts was another highlight, but also an example of the Captain's hard luck existence, another example being his fiancée is an overbearing Grenfell he has been engaged to for ten years (!). Everyone learns an improving lesson by the end, which was nice enough, but missed a few opportunities. Music by Stanley Black.