Sunday 22 April 2007

This Happy Breed (1944) David Lean

Based not just on a Noel Coward play but also on Noel Coward himself and his early life, between the wars, he handed it over to David Lean with whom he had made In Which We Serve. It's in wonderfully faded technicolor, which seems a little strange for a British film from 1944 and it rattles on at a rate of knots to get its story told in less than two hours. There's an introductory section in 1919 and then it's on to 1924, 1925 and onward like lightning, giving us markers in time but without dwelling on them, from the general strike to Broadway Melody to Hitler's face on the front page, from election results to the king's funeral to Chamberlain holding in his hand a piece of paper. It concentrates instead on a family and how the changing times affect them and how they each change in their own ways. It's told as much in the dialogue that runs between them as in the events that they experience.

The family are the Gibbons: Frank and Ethel, played by heavyweight actors Robert Newton and Celia Johnson, both appearing very different from last time I saw them: Newton in Oliver Twist and Johnson in Brief Encounter, both also David Lean films. Kay Walsh who plays Queenie, one of their three kids, would reunite with Newton in Oliver Twist four years later and have some very different arguments, as Bill Sikes and Nancy. They all grow up together with the Mitchells next door, especially Bob and his son Billy. Bob Mitchell is Stanley Holloway and Billy is no less a name than John Mills, playing a sailor again just as he had for Coward and Lean two years earlier in In Which We Serve.

Having grown up in the southeast of England I remember a lot of this, even though I came along a generation later than the kids in this one. There are memories from the house that I grew up in and the house my mother grew up in, the little things mostly, like the hatch between the kitchen and the dining room, the cherry tree in the back garden and using tea chests to move house. Much of the talk is about class, from the nascent communism that some of the kids get caught up in for a while, trying to make everyone the same, to the airs and graces of one of the others, always trying to improve herself. I suppose class was always present around me when I was young, though I didn't know it was there at the time.

This Happy Breed is a major success. It works on the level of entertainment, consistently keeping us interested in what would happen next. Technically it's excellent, not flash in the slightest but subtly clever in the way it's constructed and shot. The acting is universally spot on and everyone ages exactly as they should, not just in makeup but in size, shape and attitude. There are messages and lessons but most of all it's history, not of great events but of ordinary people. It would be interesting to watch it immediately before something like Hope and Glory.

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