Wednesday, 7 April 2010

This Happy Breed

8. This Happy Breed (1944)
Dir: David Lean

British director David Lean is best known for the vast, impressive epics he made in the latter half of his career. These include 'The Bridge on the River Kwai' (1957), 'Lawrence of Arabia' (1962), 'Doctor Zhivago' (1965) and 'A Passage to India' (1984). Impressive films all (those listed above racked up 21 Oscar wins between them alone), yet certain film fans, myself among them, have an even greater appreciation for the early work of David Lean. Smaller scale but no less visually striking or beautifully directed, Lean's first 10 British-made films from the period between 1942 and 1954 are arguably far more narratively engaging than sprawling, three hour-plus efforts like 'Lawrence of Arabia'.

Although he had a hand on writing the screenplays for most of his first ten films, Lean had superior source material to thank for the brilliance of most of the stories. This material included Harold Brighouse's play 'Hobson's Choice' (Lean's film of which features one of the great screen performances by the wonderful Charles Laughton), H.G. Welles' 'The Passionate Friends' and two Dickens adaptations which, to my mind, have never been topped ('Great Expectations' (1946) and 'Oliver Twist' (1948)). But is was the work of Noel Coward which is most associated with Lean's early work. Lean began as Coward's protege, co-directing his first film, "In Which We Serve' (1942), with Coward himself. Coward was so impressed by the young Lean's handling of his work that he handed him complete directorial control over 3 more of his plays. These three plays became Lean's next three films: 'This Happy Breed' (1944), 'Blithe Spirit' (1945) and, most famously, 'Brief Encounter' (1945).

Of these four Coward adaptations, 'This Happy Breed' was the only one not to receive any Oscar nominations whatsoever (even the light-hearted romp 'Blithe Spirit' was recognised for its ghostly special effects). Worse still, 'This Happy Breed' has rather fallen out of critical favour over the years. Its examination of a British working class family's life between the end of World War One and the outbreak of World War Two is largely regarded as outdated propaganda, deeply unfashionable flag-waving with nothing to offer modern audiences. Given the time period in which the original source material was written, a little rousing national pride is to be expected but Lean's adaptation of Coward's play tones down the propagandist slant considerably, serving as more of a depiction of the era's attitudes than gratuitous preaching. Notably, for instance, a long monologue about what it means to be British that ended Coward's play has been completely cut from Lean's screenplay.

Though it is often hinted that Lean was restricted by Coward's influence during his adaptations, there is significant evidence to the contrary, not least Lean's refusal to yield to Coward's desire to play the lead role, patriarch Frank Gibbons, which Coward had played on stage. Instead, Lean cast Robert Newton and it's hard to imagine anyone having done a better job of playing the role. Newton is instantly lovable, laid-back and kind but strong-willed and firm. This is a bold but subtle performance, as Newton offers small glimpses of the profound effect living through a war (as well as subsequent family tragedies) has had on Frank. Newton is narrowly beaten to top acting honours, however, by the wonderful Celia Johnson as his wife Ethel. Johnson creates a thick-skinned but sensitive woman whose superficially hard exterior cannot hide her deep love for her family.

Newton and Johnson are the heart of 'This Happy Breed' and Lean would use both of them again to devastating effect; Newton as the definitive Bill Sykes (about as different a role from Frank Gibbons as you could imagine) in 'Oliver Twist' and Johnson in one of the greatest performances British cinema has ever seen, her hauntingly sad-eyed turn in 'Brief Encounter'. 'This Happy Breed' is also filled with fine supporting performances by a cast of actors who Lean would also use in later films, among them Stanley Holloway, who would turn up in 'Brief Encounter', Kay Walsh who later became Nancy in 'Oliver Twist' and the legendary John Mills who was Pip in 'Great Expectations' and Will Mossop in 'Hobson's Choice'.

Although it uses British historical events of the era as its backdrop, 'This Happy Breed' favours a more intimate examination of the dynamic between the Gibbons family and it is in this more personal capacity that it is at its most compelling. Lean makes us feel like voyeurs by having his camera shoot through windows and doorways as we watch the Gibbons family argue, laugh, chatter, drink, perform menial tasks, celebrate Christmases and weddings and commiserate over personal tragedies. The latter gives Lean the opportunity to stage one of the most indelibly powerful scenes in cinema history. As voyeurs inside the Gibbons family home we are prithee to news of a terrible tragedy before it is passed on to Frank and Ethel, who are in the garden at the time. As daughter Vi goes outside to tell her parents the news, we are left alone in the house for what seems like an age. Lean's camera pans across the room as incongruously upbeat jazz music blares from the wireless. It's as if the camera is trying to peek round the open doorway into the garden to let us intrude on this crucial moment. Slowly, a devastated Frank and Ethel emerge into the frame, unable to quite process the news. Frank attempts to offer futile comfort by gently laying his hands on his wife but Ethel is completely zombified, staring in horror into the middle distance. The joyous music plays on all the while.

From this masterful display of direction and acting, we jump ahead in time to a moment where Frank and Ethel have again learned to function normally, at least on the exterior. This is one of the great elements that makes 'This Happy Breed' so watchable; it is perfectly paced. We zip through twenty years of British life in just under two hours, only stopping off for the events which are most important to the Gibbons family. The mundanity of the days we are not allowed to witness is implicit in the everyday goings on that frame the major events of each scene. The bickering of hypochondriac Aunt Sylvia and Mrs. Flint, the obligatory old battleaxe, the nostalgic banter of Frank and his "best pal" Bob Mitchell, the militant sloganeering of frequent houseguest and eventual son-in-law Sam Leadbitter. Lean beautifully evokes all the trivialities of life that invariably surround the seminal moments of existence.

Not nearly as pompous as its title would suggest, 'This Happy Breed' is a thoroughly engaging look at the years between the two World Wars as seen through the eyes of one family. Alternating between moods but constantly bolstered by a stream of witty dialogue that permeates even the most tragic scenes, 'This Happy Breed' is a phenomenal achievement for a first-time solo director and illustrates how shrewd Coward was to entrust so much of his material to Lean. It may not be Lean's greatest film or even his greatest Coward adaptation but it is undoubtedly a thing of greatness, the thrilling moment when a new director shows their true potential, potential that Lean would go on to fulfill time and time again.

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