Title: This Happy Breed
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Director: David Lean
based on Noël Coward’s eponymous play
Cinematography: Ronald Neame
David Lean’s hallmark interwar drama, his sophomore feature movie is an adaptation of Noël Coward’s play. Shot with gorgeous Technicolor felicity, THIS HAPPY BREED is a compelling slice-of-life story chronicling the vicissitude of Gibbons family from 1919 to 1939, before WWII looming large ominously in the offing.
The Gibbons family settles into their new house in South London shortly after WWI, a household of seven, patriarch Frank (Newton), matriarch Ethel (Johnson), their three children: Reg (Blythe), Vi (Erskine) and Queenie (Walsh), as well as Ethel’s spinster sister Sylvia (Leggatt) and their mother Ms. Flint (Veness), whose barbs-throwing schticks can never run dry even if being tediously deployed here, and both actresses have poignant moments which vouch for their affecting versatility during the film’s most heartbreaking revelation. Lean hones the subsequent smarting long shot with a perversely impassive static shot, entirely banks on Newton and Johnson’s reactions, he is already a dab-hand in theatricality at such an early stage!
Coward’s story gives an easy pass on marital hitches (a recurring beef of Ethel is Frank’s drinking problem, but that is occasional and rather comically portrayed), instead, homes in on the generational gap between parents and their children, their disagreements in politics, world-views and lifestyles, a tussle between idealism (hot-blooded, revolutionary, and eager to success) and realism (the innate attributes of British’s revered monarchical roots), an exchange between sage epigrams learnt from the college named life and headstrong wishful thinking liberated through the airy-fairy unworldliness. And the POV never deflects from Frank and Ethel, because they are the emblem of mankind, benevolent, upstanding, perseverant and refuse to be squashed by adversity (this is high melodrama so to speak). Meantime, Lean nimbly slips in cardinal societal events to extract the ethos of its time, but refrains from becoming over-patriotic, because, in the end of the day, it is a tale apropos of commonality refracted through the microcosm of a family saga, and it is achieved with a remarkable equilibrium between enthusiasm and sobriety.
Impressive performances a gogo, Robert Newton and Celia Johnson are unexpectedly naturalistic when handling those stagy materials – they are simply the best parents one can ever imagine to have, and Johnson in particular, excels in the role which is much senior to her real age, what a range she exhibits! Although, in the earlier segments, it is quite a stretch to believe she could be the mother of 3, since she looks barely a tad older than the three actors who play her children. Kay Walsh, as the rebellious daughter Queenie, has her own moment of grandstanding and she actually pulls off the least likable character with rather unforeseen honesty and moxie, whereas a four-square John Mills, who plays Bill Mitchell, the neighbor’s son who carries a torch for her unyieldingly, is a warmth generator pops up intermittently during the family’s turbulence. Finally, Stanley Holloway, who plays Bill’s father Bob, Frank’s comrade-in-arms, chummy and sometimes well-oiled, whenever he appears with Frank, their scenes smack of nostalgia, not of war but heart-felt camaraderie.
Through and through, THIS HAPPY BREED is engaging, endearing and brilliantly touching, shorn of highfalutin artifice which might impinge on Lean-Coward’s following collaboration BLITHE SPIRIT (1945).