British Cinema

Vague Visages Is FilmStruck: Jeremy Carr on David Lean’s ‘This Happy Breed’

The resolve that defines David Lean’s 1944 film This Happy Breed is in many ways prompted by the image that rests under its opening credits. As well-known names from the English stage and screen appear and recede, a pleasant picture remains, a picture of blue skies behind a smattering of billowy clouds. There will be sunshine and persistent buoyancy in Lean’s film, his first as a solo director, but there will also be widespread sadness, moments of obscuring shade that briefly blot out the brightness. As in the real world, and as is seen throughout this episodic, delicately perceptive slice of London life, joys and sorrows are mere minutes — seconds even — from dramatically transforming those affected, permanently and unforgivingly, or temporarily and soon forgotten. Set between the years 1919 and 1939 — a pre and post-war period beset by rampant social and political fluctuation — the film’s whirlwind canvas is certainly a tumultuous one, with births, deaths and weddings (and most every other facet of day-to-day existence) all condensed in a 20-year survey and a nearly two-hour film. Yet with a discerning script, Lean’s discreet direction and a roundly impressive cast, The Happy Breed feels neither rushed, congested, nor sentimentally overblown. Rather, its vignettes are concise, powerful and unaffected. It is, quite simply, one of the most engaging and most charming movies ever made.

Beginning shortly after the First World War, This Happy Breed takes the spectator down to earth — literally and figuratively — as the camera descends upon a row of picturesque houses, honing in on one in particular. According to the narrator (the legendary Laurence Olivier), the region is in a state of evolving renewal, where men are returning from war, families are reunited and houses are becoming homes. And one of those homes will soon act as the domestic setting for the Gibbons family. Newly arrived in Clapham, South London, their household consists of mother and father Ethel and Frank (Celia Johnson and Robert Newton), their three children — Queenie (Kay Walsh), Vi (Eileen Erskine), and Reg (John Blythe) — as well as Frank’s widowed sister, Sylvia (Alison Leggatt), and Ethel’s mother (Amy Veness). Joining them in the immediate area is new neighbor Bob Mitchell (Stanley Holloway), who happens to be one of Frank’s old army buddies, his son, Billy (John Mills), who takes an initially unrequited fancy to Queenie and later joins the Royal Navy, and Sam Leadbitter (Guy Verney), a garrulous, budding socialist who eventually becomes more committed to a familial cause when he marries Vi. Together, they form a delightfully middling middle-class unit, the quintessence of Western Civilization’s Everyman and Everywoman. But they also make up a beaten community. The war took its toll on these people, and many, like Ethel, live with the fear of another conflict (as long as there are men so eager to fight them, she shrewdly notes). In the wake of severe catastrophe and requisite cultural adjustment, England has become a new country, and the citizenry have likewise followed suit. This Happy Breed is about those changes, and it’s also about the facets of life that remain vital and enduring.

That grand national backdrop is not necessarily what most concerned Lean, nor his primary collaborator, Noël Coward. Based on the latter’s 1939 play of the same name, the title This Happy Breed was lifted from a monologue taken from William Shakespeare’s “Richard II”:

This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,—
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.

By his early 20s, Coward had established himself as a renowned actor and playwright, and he soon grew privy to film adaptations of his work. This included Alfred Hitchcock’s 1928 silent Easy Virtue, and the Oscar-winning 1933 feature Cavalcade, directed by Frank Lloyd. Like The Happy Breed, and like the impression cast by the Shakespeare citation, Cavalcade is a massive portrayal of routine English life (only it covers three decades and utilizes hundreds of supporting players). While that story proudly depicts a dignified populace during periods of historical upheaval, it was Coward’s screenplay for In Which We Serve (1942) that was more partisan in a conventionally militaristic sense (Coward also co-directed the film, starred in it and composed the score). Utilizing a flashback structure, this account chronicled the British destroyer HMS Torrin, the men aboard the vessel and those, mostly the women, left on the home front. Together, Cavalcade and In Which We Serve act as dual primers for This Happy Breed. Battle scenes are obviously absent, but there is still the same social consideration, humor and everyday nationalism.

A multifaceted portrait develops from those who inhabit This Happy Breed, one enlivened by recognizable types and customary dilemmas. There is the constant discord between sensitive Sylvia, with her anxieties and “spells,” and the surly mother-in-law, with her self-pitying preoccupation with death. There is the overzealous Sam, a bit too pushy with his fiery Red rhetoric, and the hot-to-trot Queenie, who looks down on anything common and conformist and claims that Sam’s marriage to Vi sapped the life out of the would-be rabble–rouser. While that youthful revelry often leads to inevitable generational bickering, and the family members surely have their differences, it’s nothing they can’t overcome. Caught up in Sam’s dogmatic espousing, Reg may argue with his father, who sees the idealism through an aged and wisely skeptical lens, but Frank remains calm, attentive and thoughtful. He offers the boy a cigarette (this was back when that meant something far more positive than it would now) and they talk it out. Such bonds are stronger than passing quarrels; families unite in the ways that matter most. Though they are put to the test, there is an underlying decency that saturates This Happy Breed and its genial cast of characters.

Within this one homey snapshot, there are times for celebration and times for mourning. There are dinner parties and endless cups of tea. There is gossip and reconciliation. People move in, people move out. On the periphery, there is an onslaught of external incidents, some of which prove to have dire consequences: The General Strike of 1926, the death of King George V, the election victory of Adolf Hitler, talking pictures, jazz and Neville Chamberlain promising “peace in our time.” Frank and Bob hoist a cheer to happy days, days in the past and days to come. But the two men, a little tipsy after a regimental dinner, also lament the years gone by and reflect on the “strange world” that steadily encroaches upon them; their worries can be craggy and pedestrian (children these days!), and their sanguinity can also be naive (“Who worries about Japan?” reasons Bob near the end of the 1930s). Among its many judicious qualities, This Happy Breed is an insightful appraisal of how intimate dramas and isolated individuals are situated within a larger communal context, how average people respond and react (if they do at all) to concurrent national or international occurrences. In the end, as Frank contends, it is up to “ordinary” people to keep English life moving in the right direction.

Whatever happens in the film, wherever and whoever is directly involved, everything comes back to Ethel and Frank. Inundated by the stress and clamor of calamity, merriment, and squabbling kin, these two are always grounded, always the voice of reason and perspective. For those around them — and for the viewer of This Happy Breed — they are a wedded rock, providing stability amongst the uncertainty, embodying patience and endurance. Their flirtations are innocent and sweet: Frank compliments Ethel by saying hers is “not such a bad face, as faces go.” Maybe it’s not as young as it used to be, but he’ll take it. Their modest romance is the type one sees from couples who have been happily together for some time, where harmless teasing yields genuine affection, where they know each other so well they can easily anticipate the other’s reaction. They are pure and real. Robert Newton, who had been acting in films for about a decade prior to This Happy Breed, plays Frank as a beaming, jovial sort, quick to smile, slow to anger, optimistic and amusing man. Celia Johnson, on the other hand, in just her third feature film (she did have a flourishing theatrical career to this point), plays Ethel as a no-nonsense, worn and weary English wife. She is also an archetypal mother, constantly with something to do, to take care of, to look after. Though she received the most acclaim for her gentle, refined performance in Brief Encounter (1945), what Johnson does in This Happy Breed is just as laudable, if for no other reason than her ability to express that which is so familiar yet still so affecting. Her tired face, seemingly impassive, elicits deep sensitivity, and when tragedy truly strikes, she is a wondrous conduit for profound emotion. Ronald Neame, one of the writers of This Happy Breed, and its cinematographer, said Johnson could “read the telephone directory and make you cry.”

With Coward and Lean, Neame was one of the other central figures in the production company known as Cineguild, the group behind This Happy Breed, its adjacent films In Which We Serve and Brief Encounter, and, later, Blithe Spirit (1945). Another key collaborator was Anthony Havelock-Allan, who wrote the last three titles of this quartet and adapted Lean’s 1946 version of Great Expectations. Neame was a multitalented writer and cinematographer. He had worked with Alfred Hitchcock as assistant cameraman on Blackmail (1929), England’s first talkie, he received a special effects Oscar nomination for his work on One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942), a film by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and with Lean and Havelock-Allan, he shared Oscar nominations the Brief Encounter and Great Expectations screenplays. After he and Lean parted ways and Cineguild dissolved in 1947, Neame turned to directing, most famously The Poseidon Adventure in 1972.

Neames’ Technicolor photography on This Happy Breed accentuates the mild hues of the picture, but does so only to the extent that the color reflects an authentic, docile reality. So much of the film’s form has this tinge of subdued visual grace. Perhaps the most poignant example is when one of the children dies. The camera holds back, indoors, while Ethel and Frank are told the news outside, off-screen. As upbeat jazz continues to play on the radio, the camera tracks across the living room, picking up on the parents as they stagger into frame. There are no words spoken, just slight touches and a faraway gaze. They sit, the camera withdraws. Fade to black. Credit on such a scene also goes to editor Jack Harris, whose prior work also included wartime efforts with Powell and Pressburger. He and Lean (an accomplished editor in his own right) reveal the passage of time through dated inserts like calendars, flyers, newspaper headlines, etc., while their transitions are tactful, understated and wholly effective, like everything else about the film. More daringly, they apply narrative ellipses to progress the plot in curious ways, as when Ethel’s mother passes away and her death is only acknowledged in casual conversation sometime after the fact, or when Sam spots an advertisement for engagement rings and with the next cut, he and Vi are married.

It’s remarkable that so many prominent artists could create a film so aesthetically, tonally and thematically seamless, one so universal in its faithful execution, so devoted to it subject. Yet this is what they achieved with This Happy Breed. However, if there is a single name frequently, and rightfully, associated with this masterful drama, it is David Lean, one of the greatest and most popular filmmakers in history. Following classics like Great Expectations and Oliver Twist (1948), his 1955 film Summertime, starring Katharine Hepburn, pointed the way toward an expanding, global vision. The back-to-back successes of The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962), both of which earned Lean Oscars for directing, set him down an epic, large-scale path he would navigate for the rest of his career. In light of those later features, something like This Happy Breed is positively quaint. But as Lean regularly demonstrated, varied storylines, aspect ratios, runtimes and technical capabilities cannot amend the resolution of an extraordinary talent.

Jeremy Carr (@jeremyrcarr) teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Vague Visages, Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI’s Notebook, Cinema Retro, Movie Mezzanine, Cut Print Film and Fandor’s Keyframe.

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