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Noël Coward and David Lean created a patriotic diptych with their first two films: In Which We Serve, from 1942, about the bravery and sacrifice of British sailors and those who love them, and the 1944 This Happy Breed, on the indomitable spirit of British civilians, as exemplified by one London family. This Happy Breed may attract some viewers mainly because it’s the first color outing for the director of Lawrence of Arabia (1962). If so, they will be prepared for the film’s grace and beauty. But they will also find that it is more clear-eyed, and indeed far more moving, than its home-front-boosting origin suggests.
After the great success of In Which We Serve, Coward was eager to have his “little darlings” take on another of his projects. This Happy Breed, based on Coward’s 1939 play, followed shortly. The movie reunited the earlier film’s entire team, now known as Cineguild, this time with screenplay by Lean, Ronald Neame, and Anthony Havelock-Allan; cinematography by Neame, who would go on to direct himself; and direction by Lean.
The plot shifts the conceit of Coward’s earlier family-saga play Cavalcade forward a generation and down a rung on the social ladder. Frank and Ethel Gibbons (Robert Newton and Celia Johnson) move their family to 17 Sycamore Road in the London suburb of Clapham. Their lives are chronicled over the years 1919 to 1939, from the end of one war to the start of another. Son Reg (John Blythe), quietly favored by his mother, gets drawn into the general strike of 1926 but eventually settles into marriage. The middle child, Vi (Eileen Erskine), marries and domesticates Reg’s firebrand socialist friend. Queenie (Kay Walsh), the youngest, is loved by Billy Mitchell (John Mills), the sailor next door, but she has other plans. Also part of the household, and lending a constant background noise of bickering, are Ethel’s mother, Mrs. Flint (Amy Veness), and Frank’s sister Sylvia (Alison Leggatt).
As told in Kevin Brownlow’s definitive biography of Lean, the director and Neame thought the simple story would gain impact if they filmed it in color, which at that time was generally saved for larger-scale productions. The proprietor of Technicolor, Herbert Kalmus, demanded that films shot using the process hire a “consultant,” usually his wife, Natalie, whose enthusiastic meddling and consistent lack of taste earned her the nickname the Nuisance from directors like Michael Powell. Luckily for Lean and Neame, while Natalie Kalmus got her standard screen credit, their actual consultant was one Joan Bridge. She also offered bad advice, but on the evidence of the finished film, she was easier to get around.
Thus the Cineguild team gave This Happy Breed an almost washed-out look that emphasizes the decor and environment of No. 17—the hideous wallpaper, the grime on the windows and mirrors, the dark ring inside the bathtub, and the worn, unpolished molding. To achieve this, the filmmakers had to exaggerate every scuff and bit of dirt—Technicolor is so dazzling, Havelock-Allan told Brownlow, that “rotting fish usually looks like Titania’s coach”—and they blended down the makeup until the actors looked like the sort of English people who see the sun only on festive occasions. Johnson, in particular, was dismayed by her pallid, careworn appearance: “I felt it needed only a touch of phosphorescence and I could haunt with any old ghoul,” she wrote to her husband. But when brilliant color does appear—flags at a victory parade, the flowers on the women’s alarming hats, Christmas decorations, the dresses at a Charleston dance—it comes as a blaze of pleasure. The look is not truly realistic; Technicolor is always lovelier than life. But gradually, almost subconsciously, the palette reveals a world where beauty must be clutched like the rare gift that it is.
At first, Lean was apprehensive about filming a stage play. There’s the question of expanding the action, of course, but the camera also picks up details that aren’t visible from the back of a theater—which became an advantage. Sometimes the details are in the sets, like the pictures of Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks in the adult Reg’s room. More frequently, they come from the actors, like when Johnson arrives at the house carrying a cat under one arm with exactly the same care she’s showing the grocer’s package she has stashed under the other.
And the question of staginess simply doesn’t exist. The film opens with the camera gliding across a panoramic view of London, followed by a dissolve to a street of houses. Then we pan again and descend toward the houses’ gardens, continue moving to an open second-story window, and finally dissolve inside to the bathroom. The camera moves past that filthy bathtub, down stairs so ramshackle you feel you can already hear them creak, and finally arrives at the front door just as Frank Gibbons does. This beginning, moving from the epic to the personal with exquisite precision, sets the film’s entire vocabulary. A large-scale interlude establishes the time period—whether it’s the strike or Neville Chamberlain’s return from Munich—then there’s a dissolve back to the Gibbonses, and as the family’s scene closes, Lean’s camera pulls away.
Two sequences late in the movie show this technique at its apex. After Reg’s wedding, Lean cuts to a moment of blackness that lasts longer than any other in the film, signaling a darker turn. The next shot shows rain on a sidewalk, then dissolves from sidewalk to door; the camera moves up from door to window, and then, as in the opening, there is a dissolve from window to interior, this time to the staircase, as Queenie appears and steals down it. Immediately after, Frank returns, drunk, from a regimental dinner with his next-door neighbor Bob (Stanley Holloway), and when Ethel comes down to rebuke them—their simultaneous salute for Ethel in her robe is the funniest moment in the film—she and Frank discover Queenie’s note on the mantel. Their daughter has run away with a married man. The camera witnesses a painful argument, lingers a moment on Frank’s back as he hunches over sobbing, and then pulls away through the window, back out into the rain, like a guest taking his leave when household events become too intimate to share.
Even more famous is the next scene, when Frank and Ethel learn of a terrible accident. The sequence begins with another descent into the garden, where Frank is working. Ethel is in the dining room with their gift from Reg, a new radio, which she’s tuned to music coming from a dance hall. She joins Frank in the garden, and then daughter Vi arrives to tell them the news. But we don’t follow Vi outside. Instead, we stay in the empty dining room, listening to the radio blaring and the faint sounds of neighborhood children at play, as the camera slides across the open door with incredible delicacy, until at last Ethel and Frank stagger in, too shattered to speak.
Newton, playing the role Coward originated onstage, has all the most difficult speeches—about Life, and the Common British People, and Life as It Is Lived by the Common British People. He rescues these monologues by delivering them with a touch of the lovable gasbag—chin down or head cocked, eyes bright under his brows as he offers a sage thought such as “What works in other countries won’t work in this one.” But it is Johnson who holds the cast together, even as her character anchors the family.
Dame Celia Johnson achieved her most lasting fame after This Happy Breed, with Brief Encounter (1945), the Coward-Lean tragedy of romance denied. Later, she won stellar reviews as the embittered Scottish headmistress in the 1969 film The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and for her work in the television drama Staying On (1980). But before the war, she was known primarily for her theater work. She knew Coward and got her breakout film role, as a wife in In Which We Serve, by approaching him at a cocktail party and arranging for a screen test. Her few indelible scenes in that movie earned her both Coward’s and Lean’s devotion.
Between takes, Johnson was the most drily commonsensical of actresses, cleanly breaking character and tossing completed pages of script on the floor, sharply reminding her director that her train was leaving soon and she had a family waiting for her, as Lean and Neame recalled. Throughout her career, she never hesitated to put her acting on hold when she felt the demands of her husband (the explorer and writer Peter Fleming, brother of Ian) and three children required it. She was not lower-middle-class, she was not scantly educated, and some observers, including Lean and Johnson herself, thought she was a bit miscast as a cockney housewife. That may be true in terms of such small matters as accent, but Johnson’s get-on-with-it personality, as well as her fierce dedication to her own home, seems to bleed into Ethel. Her brisk, unshowy performance is the most emotionally convincing in the film.
In the scene where Queenie’s note is discovered, for example, Frank reacts with shock and grief, but Ethel’s is the face Lean lingers over. As she angrily says she never wants to hear Queenie’s name again, Johnson’s huge eyes seem to recede into her head while her gaze stays miles away, fixed on a future without her youngest child. She sees, as Frank does not, that Queenie hasn’t simply broken sexual conventions. Their daughter has expressed contempt for their entire life, told them that their existence is so mingy and drab that she will grasp at even the most sordid form of escape. When Frank accuses Ethel of not loving Queenie as she did Vi and Reg, Johnson shifts her eyes guiltily in mid-denial, anger at war with self-reproach.
The things Johnson could do with that thin-boned face. With just her eyes and a small change in the set of her mouth, she shows that Ethel yearns for news of Queenie even as she says she doesn’t. When Queenie walks back into the living room later in the film and Ethel puts her arms around her daughter with every bit of the love she’s been suppressing for years—well, Ethel at that point is trying to suppress her sobs, but the audience has probably abandoned the effort.
As wildly successful as This Happy Breed was upon release, some critics felt it looked down a bit on the common people it professed to admire. Perhaps that is so, if you focus on Newton’s speeches and the Reader’s Digest condensation of British history. But condescension really comes from snobbery toward your characters, and the filmmakers treat the Gibbons family with respect. Coward took his title from John of Gaunt’s speech in Shakespeare’s Richard II: “This happy breed of men, this little world, / This precious stone set in the silver sea . . .” This Happy Breed offers its characters the tribute of taking them seriously, thereby declaring that the small joys and large griefs of this family are as worthy of drama as the state of kings.
Farran Smith Nehme writes about classic film at her blog, Self-Styled Siren. Her work has appeared in Cineaste, Moving Image, and Nomad Wide Screen. She is the cofounder of an annual blogathon called For the Love of Film that raises money for film preservation.