I do enjoy British domestic dramas. While British post-war films have been duly celebrated, not enough is said about the films made in Britain in the 1930s and 40s, as though British cinema began with the decline and fall of the original studios. What makes This Happy Breed an interesting product is that it is a war movie without being a war movie.
Which might sound inexpressibly dull, so I’ll point out that this was written by Noel Coward and directed by David Lean (of Lawrence of Arabia, you’ll remember). I am not a huge Coward fan. His work typically prizes a spirit of conservatism, even mediocrity, and he’s the last writer in the world I’d expect to speak convincingly about the trials and tribulations of a lower middle class family. So I was surprised by how affecting This Happy Breed proved to be.
The plot is simple: it follows a working class (ish, they seem to have one servant and lots of leisure time) English family twenty years, from 1919-1939. The husband Frank (Robert Newton, proving just how good an actor he really was) has returned from the First World War and moves into a new home with his wife Ethel (Celia Johnson) and three children (Kay Walsh, Eileen Erskine and John Blythe). What follows are the difficulties of post-war life, the problems of raising children, the shifting politics and changing landscape of Britain, seen through the eyes of some very indomitable English people.
The script, originally a stage play, has been accused of being condescending … and to a certain extent, it is. The Gibbons are a conservative lot, preaching family values and unquestioning of the class system; very much an upper class attitude about the way the lower classes are supposed to behave. Some of the more difficult sequences involve the son Reg who gets involved in Socialist politics, much to the chagrin of his father. And the film fails, for the most part, to present the issues at stake with any sort of complexity. Reg is wrong and his father is right, but aside from a rather heavy-handed speech by Daddy, there’s not much convincing being done. More complicated is the ‘downfall’ of the daughter Queenie. She runs off with a married man, rejecting her family’s class status, moralism, and the life they have built, and condemning herself into the bargain. This is dealt with in much more detail and with more breadth of character, presenting the parents’ differing reactions. Sexual politics is a complicated issue and the film deals with it in a remarkably nuanced manner.
The film is helped along by the exceptional abilities of David Lean, in his first major assignment as director. His style is already much in evidence. For a director who would later be known for the dramatic scope of his productions (Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago and so forth), Lean does a lot in a very confined space. Most of the film takes place within the four walls and back garden of the Gibbons’ house. The camera moves effortlessly through the rooms, making them at once cramped and home-y. This is a family that lives on top of each other but manages to do so without claustrophobia. Nearing the end of the film, Ethel remarks that ‘this room looked much bigger with things in it’; and it does. Lean’s non-intrusive but powerful cinematography gives the viewer the sense of having actually lived with these people, rather than observing them on a stage. He makes what could have been a very stagey production come alive.
A lot of credit goes to the cast, which reads as a who’s who of British character actors: Robert Newton (yes, I do have a thing for him) and Celia Johnson are the parents, Kay Walsh the discontented daughter, John Mills the boy next door, and Stanley Holloway the war vet and neighbor. Newton and Johnson are the anchors here, playing Frank and Ethel Gibbons as a quiet, determined couple. They play off each other admirably; one has the sense that these are two people who have been together for a very long time. Newton’s Frank is a perfect patriarch, loving, understanding, but uncompromising in his views. He’s a sensitive figure, breaking into tears and laughter as the situation demands, but never losing his dignity. He loves his wife and children without being demonstrative. Few actors could deliver a speech about the nature of the British people (‘they called us a nation of gardeners … what works in other countries won’t work here’) and make it sound both honest and just a little pompous; Newton plays Frank with an edge of humor that takes the wind out of some of his more portentous pronouncements on the state of the nation. But when called upon to give his son advice, or to put his arm about his wife, Frank becomes one of the most human figures in the entire film. I never thought I’d get choked up at a man simply putting his arm around his wife’s shoulders, but I did.
Celia Johnson’s Ethel is the other side of the coin. She seems almost hardened by life, at times unforgiving to her children and a bit of taskmaster to her husband. But again, Johnson surprises. In one of the opening sequences, she protests loudly at Frank’s interruption of their house decorating to ‘take a good look at her face’. While he laughingly praises her (‘it’s not a bad face. Not as young as when I married you, but all things being equal, I wouldn’t change it.’), she wrestles with him, telling him that ‘this isn’t the time for fooling around’. But when he kisses her, she responds in a small movement: raising her hands and letting them rest on his side, before they’re interrupted by the arrival of their neighbor. The gesture is very slight, almost unnoticeable, but it is a good representation of Ethel’s character: hard, no-nonsense on the outside, but with an underlying human sensitivity that would almost go unnoticed.
Johnson has the most difficult role in the film. Ethel could come off as a hard woman; she’s largely unresponsive to her husband’s sensitivity, and her coldness when her daughter runs away feels unfair, particularly now. But beneath the hardness is a sensitive character forced by social and cultural circumstances to be tough. This is a woman who has raised three children while her husband was away at war; who has seen women around her lose their sons, their husbands and their fathers. Her anger with Queenie feels extreme, but justified. Queenie has basically rejected her family’s entire system of life and it is the mother, not the father, who recognizes and responds to it. Johnson’s greatest work is done with her eyes. Unable to show overt emotions, all of the character’s suffering, happiness and love comes through in her eyes. It’s a fantastic performance, one difficult to quantify. Johnson bursts into tears once, but it is a poignant moment, all the more so because she has been so strong and unforgiving .
This Happy Breed was released in 1944, at the height of the war. Newton, a sailor, had to have a special leave from the mine sweeper he served on in order to make the picture (Incidentally, the film probably saved his life. The sweeper was attacked during production and a number of the sailors killed). Allied success was far from assured. So while the film feels propagandist, it is an excellent piece of propaganda. The uncertainty of wartime comes through in every frame, but so does the hope. If Britain was going to win, it would be because of their spirit as much as their martial prowess. For all its problems, This Happy Breed reminds us of the dangers these people faced, of how brave you had to be in order to live normally. It’s a celebration of the people, not the government or the battles. It’s so damn powerful, because nothing was certain, except that you simply could not give in.