This Happy Breed Review
Released just as the tide of World War II was turning – five days before the Normandy Landings on D-Day - This Happy Breed is Noel Coward's look back at one family between the two World Wars. It begins in 1919, as one war ended and soldiers like Frank Gibbons (Robert Newton) came back home, and it ends in 1939 as another war begins. As the saying goes, an Englishman's home is his castle, and structurally This Happy Breed is the story of a house. The film starts with Frank and his wife Ethel (Celia Johnson) move in, and much of the film's action takes place indoors. It ends with the now twenty-years-older couple moving out.
Adapted from Noel Coward's stage play by Anthony Havelock-Allan, David Lean and Ronald Neame, this is really Frank's story and Frank's house. Every major character is seen in relation to him, and even Ethel is compared at one point to the house. (“You're not an old house – you're just a little bungalow.”) You could imagine an alternative version of this film, from Ethel's viewpoint, say, or from one of the children's – good-time-girl Queenie (Kay Walsh), sensible Vi (Eileen Erskine) or would-be radical Reg (John Blythe) – and you'd end up with something very different perhaps. But that's not the story Coward is telling. Frank clearly has personal resonance to him: Coward came from a similar background, and had played the role on stage. He had also wanted to play Frank on screen, and was distressed when Robert Newton was given the part: the two men disliked each other.
A year later, Coward would write and David Lean would direct the last of their four collaborations, Brief Encounter, and in so doing would give Celia Johnson the role of her life. You could discuss endlessly whether her sacrifice – giving up her desires for the sake of her husband and family and duty – is reactionary or (given the knowledge of Coward's homosexuality) subversive, an ambiguity that is one reason why that film is so rich. This Happy Breed is less so: it's purely celebratory, at a time when Coward wanted to give the country something to celebrate, and its pleasures – which are considerable – are those of a delight in craftsmanship. Politically it's careful to tread a middle ground: Frank is polite to Reg when he espouses socialism though he clearly does not share his views, but at the same time, Oswald Mosley and his fascists are given just as much short shrift.
Robert Newton is often dismissed as a ham actor, with Long John Silver his defining role. He's quite restrained here, and all the better for it: his interaction with army buddy and coincidental neighbour Stanley Holloway is a delight. Celia Johnson has less to do, mainly because her part is underwritten. The remaining roles are smaller, but well filled. Given the realistic subject matter, making the film in Technicolor would seem an odd choice, as the process at the time was generally associated with the eye-popping colours of musicals and epics. Ronald Neame's camerawork is more naturalistic than 40s Technicolor was often allowed to be, and in a sense it's fitting. The film is intended as a celebration of the British working classes and their spirit, and making it in colour rather than black and white makes this a kind of intimate epic, as if to say that such ordinary people are worthy of such special cinematic treatment.
This was the second Coward/Lean collaboration, following In Which We Serve and preceding Blithe Spirit and Brief Encounter. The first film was codirected by both men, with Lean solo directing the next three. If I've emphasised Coward over Lean, it's because it strikes me as more his film than his partner's: it's Coward's name and not Lean's on the title card. It's of a piece with his earlier British epic, Cavalcade, itself filmed in 1933. This is not to disparage Lean's contribution, and the craftsmanship he brought to the project, but of the four films the two men made together, this one seems more a writer's film than a director's one – even though Coward didn't write the screenplay and is credited only as producer, that is still the case. It's minor Lean, but a well-crafted and enjoyable film nonetheless.
Network's DVD is released on two discs, though only the first was sent for review. The first disc at least is encoded for Regions 2 and 4.
This DVD transfer is derived from a digital restoration done (as with all of Lean's British films) to mark the director's centenary last year. Many of the films had brief cinema runs. I didn't see This Happy Breed there, but I have to say I found the DVD transfer disappointing. It looks fine on a CRT set, but less forgiving equipment shows up its shortcomings. It appears to be an interlaced transfer and there's ghosting on much movement. The colours look fine to me: I have only seen this film on television, and (needless to say) wasn't around on its original release, but they seem in keeping with other 40s Technicolor films I have seen, even though (as I say above) it's clearly meant to be more naturalistic than most. The transfer of this Academy Ratio film is 4:3 as you would expect.
The soundtrack is the original mono, nicely cleaned up and well balanced. However, there are no subtitles for the hard-of-hearing, which strikes me as particularly regrettable given that this is a film particularly likely to attract an older audience. Also, at least on the checkdisc I received, it's noticeably out of synch in much of the second half. Some of this may be in the original film, as there are scenes which mix Newton in synch with Johnson out of it – but others seem to be a problem with the DVD.
Disc One has three brief extras: the original trailer (2:27) a “re-presented at your request” reissue trailer (2:12), and a restoration demonstration (7:00) which puts the original on the left of the screen and reveals the restored version by means of a wipe.
Disc Two was not supplied for review, but it contains a South Bank Show on Lean, a stills gallery, and the press kit and publicity materials as a PDF. There is also a booklet by David Robinson which was also not available for review.
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