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This Happy Breed
Director: David Lean
Screenplay: David Lean, Ronald Neame, & Anthony Havelock-Allan (based on the play by Noel Coward)
Stars: Robert Newton (Frank Gibbons), Celia Johnson (Ethel Gibbons), Amy Veness (Mrs. Flint), Alison Leggatt (Aunt Sylvia), Stanley Holloway (Bob Mitchell), John Mills (Billy Mitchell), Kay Walsh (Queenie Gibbons), Eileen Erskine (Vi), John Blythe (Reg Gibbons), Guy Verney (Sam Leadbitter), Betty Fleetwood (Phyllis Blake), Merle Tottenham (Edie)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1944
Country: U.K.
This Happy Breed Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
This Happy Breed In Which We Serve (1942), the first of four major World War II-era collaborations between famed playwright Noel Coward and editor-turned-director David Lean, famously began with a voice-over narration proclaiming, “This is the story of a ship.” This Happy Breed, their second collaboration and Lean’s first solo directorial effort, could have begun with a similar proclamation, “This is the story of a house,” as the majority of the film’s events, all of which revolve around the working-class Gibbons family, transpire at 17 Sycamore Road in the commuter suburb of Clapham in South London. The film begins with a complex series of crane and tracking shots that take us from a God’s eye view of London, down to Clapham, and then through the window of the house and down the stairs to meet patriarch Frank Gibbons (Robert Newton) as he opens the door on the day of his family’s move-in. The film ends 20 years later in exactly the opposite manner, with the camera watching Frank close the door after the family has moved out and then retracing its motion back up the stairs, out the window, and ending on a wide shot of the city.

The events in the story take place between 1919 and 1939—the end of the First World War and the beginning of the Second. When Robert and his steadfast wife Ethel (Celia Johnson) move into the well-worn row house with its shabby, faded wallpaper and creaky stairs, he has just returned from four years of service with the British military, and he discovers that Bob Mitchell (Stanley Holloway), one of his army buddies, lives next door. Robert and Ethel have three nearly grown children, all of whom are distinctly different: oldest daughter Vi (Eileen Erskine) is rather plain-looking and practical, while middle daughter Queenie (Kay Walsh) is striking and headstrong, determined to forge a more exciting life and escape from her family’s lower working-class existence. The youngest is a son, Reg (John Blythe), who is sincere and trusting, which is why he is so easily swayed by the socialist rhetoric of his rabble-rousing friend, Sam Leadbitter (Guy Verney).

Adapted from Coward’s 1939 stageplay by Lean, cinematographer Ronald Neame, and producer Anthony Havelock-Allan, the story moves forward in an unfussy, strictly chronological manner (quite distinct from the complex flashback structure Coward used in In Which We Serve), which suits the plain-spoken earnestness of the material. The passage of time is cleverly evoked by elements within the mise-en-scène, whether it be a newspaper declaring the General Strike of 1926 or a 1936 calendar featuring King Edward, who abdicated the throne that year. There is plenty of potential for melodrama, especially in the subplots involving Queenie’s desire to live a grandiose life outside of her family’s limited economics and her concomitant rejection of Bob’s son, a good-hearted sailor named Billy (John Mills), but Lean maintains a fastidious control over the material, asserting the resilient, lived-in nature of its unadorned characters who, in the wartime context, played a crucial role in reminding the British people of their hardy, proud nature, even in the most trying of times (the title comes from a line in Shakespeare’s Richard II in which John of Gaunt refers to the British people as “this happy breed”).

Part of the film’s charm comes from Lean and Neame’s manipulation of three-strip Technicolor, which in the mid-1940s was typically reserved for fantasies, musicals, or massive historical epics. Neame tamps down the inherently gaudy nature of the dye transfer’s hues, instead emphasizing faded colors and earthen hues. Despite this being his first solo directing effort, Lean’s command of camerawork is already impressive, and he opens up the story’s stagebound origins primarily via movement within the frame, which sometimes draws us into the action and at other times curiously keeps us at a remove, such as the scene in which Vi gives Frank and Ethel tragic news outside in the garden, and the camera remains inside, denying us the specifics of the conversation.

The performances are impressive all around, particularly Robert Newton (playing the role that Coward himself had originated on-stage) and Celia Johnson, who had only recently moved from stage to screen and had previously played a small, but crucial role in In Which We Serve. They bring a sense of authenticity to their roles, and not just in their lack of make-up; like the Technicolor, Newton had to tamp down the larger-than-life performance style he was known for to disappear into Frank’s meager, but honest existence. He and Johnson carry the film’s years in their faces, in both the good times and the bad. Coward’s story, like any familial drama, features both comedy and tragedy, the former embodied primarily in the amusing bickering between Mrs. Flint (Amy Veness), Ethel’s mother, and Aunt Sylvia (Alison Leggatt), Frank’s widowed sister. They quarrel and prattle as people often do, and with only a small amount of screen time manage to forge the kind of lasting impression that makes you feel their absence when they’re gone. This Happy Breed is not a particularly deep film, but it gets the details of human interaction and growth just right, providing a moving portrait of one family’s durability in the midst of massive historical upheaval, which is exactly what the British people craved in the darkest hours of the war.

This Happy Breed Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
David Lean Directs Noel CowardThis Happy Breed is available exclusively as part of the four-disc “David Lean Directs Noel Coward” box set (SRP $79.95), which also includes In Which We Serve (1942), Blithe Spirit (1945), and Brief Encounter (1945). The box set is also available on DVD.
Aspect Ratio1.37:1
Audio
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 monaural
  • Subtitles English
    Supplements In Which We Serve
  • Video interview with Noel Coward scholar Barry Day
  • Short documentary from 2000 on the making of the film
  • Audio recording of a 1969 conversation between Richard Attenborough and Coward at London’s National Film Theatre
  • Original theatrical trailer

    This Happy Breed

  • Video interview with Noel Coward scholar Barry Day
  • Interview with cinematographer-screenwriter-producer Ronald Neame from 2010
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • Re-release trailer

    Blithe Spirit

  • Video interview with Noel Coward scholar Barry Day
  • Episode of the British television series The Southbank Show from 1992 on the life and career of Coward
  • Original theatrical trailer

    Brief Encounter

  • Audio commentary by film historian Bruce Eder
  • Video interview with Noel Coward scholar Barry Day
  • Short documentary from 2000 on the making of the film
  • David Lean: A Self Portrait 1971 television documentary
  • Original theatrical trailer

  • Insert booklet featuring essays by Ian Christie, Terrence Rafferty, Farran Smith Nehme, Geoffrey O’Brien, and Kevin Brownlow
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    SRP$79.95 (box set)
    Release DateMarch 27, 2012

    VIDEO & AUDIO
    The transfers for all four films in The Criterion Collection’s “David Lean Directs Noel Coward” boxset were made from elements obtained from the major restoration of Lean’s first 10 films, which was carried out between 2006 and 2008 by the BFI National Archive, Granada International, and the David Lean Foundation under the direction of the BFI’s senior curator Nigel Algar. The restoration work involved both traditional photochemical and digital processes. The 4K transfer of In Which We Serve was made from the original nitrate negative and parts of the nitrate fine-grain master, while the soundtrack was restored from a sound print made from the original negative. The high-definitional scan of both This Happy Breed and Blithe Spirit were made from the restoration internegatives, which were produced from the original YCM negatives, while the soundtracks were transferred from sound prints. Brief Encounter’s 4K transfer was made from a duplicate safety negative, while the soundtrack was transferred from a sound print made from the original nitrate track negative. Simply put, the restoration work has resulted in a four stunning presentations, bringing these films as close to their original theatrical presentations as they are likely to look (Lean, ever the perfectionist craftsman, would be pleased). The black-and-white imagery in In Which We Serve and Brief Encounter is sharp and beautifully delineated, with a fine presence of grain and excellent contrast. The transfers of This Happy Breed and Blithe Spirit boast first-rate representations of three-strip Technicolor, although they make for a fascinating contrast, with the purposely tamped down palette of the former looking quite different from the more traditionally saturated look of the latter. Digital restoration has removed virtually all signs of wear and tear on the films (including the removal of a great deal of mold on This Happy Breed) without overly scrubbing them and losing their filmlike appearance, and the soundtracks are all acceptably clean, with a minimum of ambient hiss and little in the way of aural pops and clicks.
    SUPPLEMENTS
    The supplements are spread fairly evenly across all four discs in the box. Each disc features a new video interview with scholar Barry Day, author and editor of numerous books on Noel Coward, including Coward on Film: The Cinema of Noel Coward (2004) and The Noel Coward Reader (2011). In each of these interviews, which tend to run around 15 minutes in length, Day discusses the specifics of the particular film with a particular focus on Coward’s role in it. On the discs for In Which We Serve and Brief Encounter there are also short retrospective documentaries about the film’s production made for British television in 2000. In Which We Serve includes a lengthy audio recording of a conversation between Richard Attenborough and Coward at London’s National Film Theatre in 1969 and the original theatrical trailer. The disc for This Happy Breed includes both the original and a later re-release trailer for the film along with a 45-minute video interview with cinematographer-screenwriter-producer Ronald Neame, which was recorded in 2010 when he was 99 years old. The Blithe Spirit disc includes the film’s trailer and an episode of the British television series The Southbank Show from 1992 on the life and career of Coward, while the Brief Encounter disc includes David Lean: A Self Portrait, a 1971 television documentary. Brief Encounter also includes a well-written and informative audio commentary by film historian Bruce Eder, which appeared on the previous Criterion DVD and was originally recorded in 1995 for the Criterion laser disc. Eder offers a large amount of detail about every aspect of the film, from Lean’s use of sound, to comparisons of the film with Noel Coward’s original play, to discussions of the historical contexts in which the film has been received.

    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick

    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection


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