Coward and Lean? It may not sound as natural as Launder and Gilliat or Powell and Pressburger, perhaps because we don’t instinctively think of Noël Coward as a filmmaker or of David Lean as part of a team. But they were the key creative figures in an unusual filmmaking enterprise during World War II, moving from the self-conscious propaganda needed in 1942 to an intimacy, and even a whimsicality, that illuminated their British characters for international audiences. In just four years, Lean and Coward created a quartet of stirring films exploring different facets of traditional English reticence and understatement and, in the process, pushed each other out of their respective comfort zones, with Coward discovering how cinema differed from the stagecraft he knew so well and Lean gaining the confidence he’d previously lacked to become a director of authority.
In their later years, Lean and Coward, both knighted and internationally famous, must have seemed to many the epitome of English upper-class assurance. Yet both came from modest families in London’s sprawling suburbs that had no previous show business connections. Quite the opposite in Lean’s case, since his parents were strict Quakers, although this didn’t stop his father from later abandoning the family for another woman and moving to Brighton. However, it meant that cinema-going was forbidden for the young David as he grew up in the complacent South London suburb of Croydon. It was not until the age of thirteen, in 1921, that he sneaked with a friend into a local cinema, where they saw Maurice Elvey’s popular version of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, starring Eille Norwood.
It was love at first sight, and from that moment the movies became Lean’s regular escape from an otherwise dismal youth, overshadowed by his academically talented older brother. His mother knew his secret and initially kept it from his father, but even after the breakup of their marriage, neither parent approved of their son’s passion for such cheap entertainment. Cinema was equally despised by the young Noël Coward, growing up ten years earlier than Lean in the London suburb of Twickenham. Stage performance was his passion from childhood—quite unlike the inhibited Lean—and he soon became a seasoned amateur singer and dancer. Coward’s ambition was encouraged by his mother, disappointed in her marriage to an unsuccessful piano salesman, and after minimal schooling, he began to appear on the London stage in juvenile roles, from the age of twelve.
By the age of twenty-one, the precocious Coward had acted in his own first play in the West End, setting a pattern as an author-performer and “personality” that would continue for the rest of his life. He was helped in this by the tradition of English upper-class interest in the theater, and he soon found himself part of a highly privileged network of the rich and influential, which would bring him into contact with the royal family. But movies—“the flicks,” as they were often called in Britain—had no such status. Even when Coward’s plays began to be bought for the screen—Alfred Hitchcock adapted his Easy Virtue as a silent in 1928—he remained aloof from this upstart business. Similarly, when Lean managed to escape a miserable apprenticeship in accountancy to try his luck in the film studios in 1927, his parents feared the worst.
Lean started his new career at a fortunate moment in the history of Britain’s ramshackle film industry. After years of minimal investment and low ambition had brought it close to collapse, the government reluctantly intervened in 1927 by passing the Cinematograph Films Act, which would force British exhibitors and distributors to provide a steadily increasing proportion of domestically made films. Producers quickly responded to this new incentive, with a host of small-scale companies turning out what soon became known as “quota quickies,” while the Hollywood majors took steps to protect their interests by ensuring that they, too, had a stake in the resurgent British film industry.
But the climax of this resurgence still lay a decade ahead, and a snapshot of where the future collaborators were in their careers in 1933 would not suggest that their paths might ever cross. Coward had written and starred in two highly successful plays in 1930 and 1933 (in London and New York), Private Lives and Design for Living, both risqué comedies of modern manners; and between these he wrote and produced a vast pageant of everyday English life, Cavalcade, tracing a family’s experience across the first three decades of the century, with a supporting cast of four hundred. During these years, he also wrote and recorded some of the cabaret songs that would become his most enduring legacy, including “Mad Dogs and Englishmen.” Lean, by contrast, was the “backroom boy” par excellence—a much sought-after film editor and, secretly, a “film doctor,” employed to rescue botched productions. His main job was editing newsreels, which required speed and ingenuity to make the most of whatever footage was available. But alongside this formidable training in the fundamentals of film, Lean also seized every opportunity that came his way to work on features, whether these were quota quickies or the more ambitious productions that began to be made in Britain when such figures as Alexander Korda and Paul Czinner arrived from the Continent.
By the late 1930s, Lean had a reputation as one of the best editors in Britain, having cut three of Czinner’s films starring his wife, Elisabeth Bergner. The actress Kay Walsh, who would become the second of Lean’s six wives, told biographer Kevin Brownlow about a rare foreign trip the pair made in 1937, which began with David’s looking for a cup of tea in Paris—“A bit of Croydon creeping through!”—and continued in Capri, where the frugal British couple overheard “chatter from Noël Coward and Somerset Maugham” at a nearby table but had no way of entering that charmed circle. However, they dined in style with Czinner and Bergner in the fashionable resort town of Cortina d’Ampezzo, in the Dolomites, then “came back to London and had to take beer bottles to the pub so we could put a shilling in the gas meter.” Coward, indeed, lived in a different world: wealthy, feted on both sides of the Atlantic, with one of the four Hollywood films made from his plays, Cavalcade (directed by Frank Lloyd, for Fox), having won the 1933 best picture Academy Award. And despite such success on-screen, and a leading part in the Ben Hecht–Charles MacArthur supernatural melodrama The Scoundrel in 1935, he remained a man of the theater.
It was, inevitably, the Second World War that brought the two together. Coward moved in powerful circles and immediately offered his services in 1939. Encouraged to help boost morale by touring as an entertainer, he wanted to play a more serious role and began to develop an original screenplay based on the naval exploits of his aristocratic friend Captain Lord Louis Mountbatten. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger had already formed their partnership early in the war, and in 1941 Lean edited their 49th Parallel—an ambitious thriller about German sailors at large in Canada that was intended to raise U.S. awareness of the Nazi threat—bringing his skills to bear on the hard-won footage that Powell had managed to shoot on location (with Bergner setting him a special continuity problem after she absconded from the film in search of safety in the United States and had to be replaced by a stand-in). It was while Lean was editing Powell and Pressburger’s next morale-boosting film, One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942), about British airmen escaping from occupied Holland, that Coward started to visit the studios in preparation for his directorial debut, and so met Lean.
Two other figures were crucial to this wartime collaboration, Anthony Havelock-Allan and Ronald Neame, and they would continue as Lean’s partners in the production company Cineguild. Like Lean, both were seasoned professionals who had benefited from the revival of British filmmaking in the 1930s, Havelock-Allan starting in casting and Neame, the son of the famous photographer and pioneer filmmaker Elwin Neame and the silent-film star Ivy Close, as a cameraman, who’d worked on One of Our Aircraft Is Missing. Havelock-Allan had joined forces with an Italian immigrant, Filippo Del Giudice, to form Two Cities Films, and Del, as he was generally known, announced that they must find a “great writer,” in the way that another producer of the period, Gabriel Pascal, had done with George Bernard Shaw. Del Giudice chose Coward and, with Havelock-Allan, worked with him to develop further his project, soon to be known as In Which We Serve, with Neame as cinematographer. Although he had already directed portions of Pascal’s Major Barbara (1941), Lean had long resisted suggestions that he should branch out into solo directing. But now he was being asked to assist one of the most celebrated figures in British theater.
In hindsight, it was the ideal solution for both of these complex men. Behind their public personas—Coward worldly, witty, and apparently undaunted by any project; Lean unsure of his intellectual abilities yet supremely confident of his filmmaking skills—both needed reassurance, and the skills of the other, to make a film that could speak to wartime Britain. Coward’s first draft of the screenplay would have run many hours as a film, and it fell to Lean to tell the Master this, before advising him to go and see Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane for an up-to-date lesson in the power of flashback dramaturgy. On set, Coward began to recognize Lean’s authority as codirector, and although the success of the film was almost entirely attributed to Coward, it laid the foundations for Cineguild, set up in 1944.
The next two films that the Cineguild team would make, with Coward and Lean now firmly established as writer and director, explored two axes of Coward’s imaginative world—the underlying continuity of English life in turbulent times and the relationships of “modern” sophisticates. Coward’s 1939 play This Happy Breed, a lower-middle-class equivalent to Cavalcade set in the South London suburbs, allowed Lean to draw on his own Croydon childhood for this first, superbly assured venture in solo direction, with Neame also making his Technicolor debut. This was followed by an adaptation of Coward’s playful supernatural comedy Blithe Spirit, which gently mocked the vogue for spiritualism that the war had encouraged as a deliberately lighthearted distraction from the tragedy, and made more conspicuously creative use of Technicolor. Shortly before Coward and Lean’s final collaboration, Brief Encounter, Cineguild formally joined J. Arthur Rank’s Independent Producers group—home already to Powell and Pressburger’s the Archers and then the creative hub of British cinema—and this expansion of a one-act play by Coward showed how far they had developed the fluent use of flashback and voice-over in just four years of intensive work together. Cineguild would go on to make some of the most prestigious postwar British films, including Lean’s two Dickens adaptations, Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948), while Coward retreated from his wartime involvement in production and became essentially a guest celebrity actor in films that ranged from Around the World in 80 Days (1956) to The Italian Job (1969). But between 1942 and 1945, the theater’s Master had helped launch a master filmmaker in the shape of David Lean, the shy editing maestro who would become an iconic auteur director.
Ian Christie is a film historian, curator, and broadcaster who has specialized in British and Russian cinema, especially the work of Powell and Pressburger and of Sergei Eisenstein. His most recent book, The Art of Film: John Box and Production Design, focuses in detail on David Lean’s later films.