The Inessentials: This Happy Breed

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.

The Inessentials: Jamaica Inn

I watch way too much TCM.  Being without a regular 9-5 job, I have that luxury.  And I’m grateful to TCM, I really am.  They’ve kept me interested in classical films.  But I’m a tad bothered by the nightly show they call The Essentials.  Because watching it the other night, I was struck by the fact that they were showing Some Like it Hot for the umpteenth time.  Not that I don’t love Some Like It Hot — I do, it’s hilarious and thoughtful and one of the first films to make it acceptable for a man to marry another man — but rather that there are other films I would consider ‘Essential’.  How about some love for those movies that, for whatever reason, don’t get a lot of play? The movies that TCM shows at 2:00 a.m. and only the truly die-hard would, say, actively set their VCRs for when they were fifteen years old and madly in love with Basil Rathbone?

So here we go.  I’m going to start posting about films that, for whatever reason, don’t get a lot of love.  Yes, I’m into classical cinema, but I’m not ruling out contemporary films that I feel have been passed over.

Let’s start with one of my favorites.  Alfred Hitchcock’s criminally (probably a strong word) underrated Jamaica Inn.  

First, a little history.  Jamaica Inn is based (very loosely) on the Daphne du Maurier novel of the same name, and is the first du Maurier adaptation Hitchcock attempted (the other two being Rebecca, and The Birds).  It was also Hitch’s last British film before he departed for America and what many consider to be his glory days of Notorious, Rear Window, and Vertigo.  I may be among the few that am more interested in Hitchcock’s British period than his American one.  While many of the films do not stack up against the sheer brilliance of Psycho or Notorious, they are largely a charming, fascinating set of pictures.  They exhibit Hitchcock’s intimate understanding of Britain and British life.  His secondary characters are better painted and there is a sense of affection and critique that runs through films like The Thirty Nine Steps, Sabotage, and The Lady Vanishes.  But back to Jamaica Inn. 

The movie stars Maureen O’Hara (in her first major role), Charles Laughton, Leslie Banks and Robert Newton.  The plot is fairly basic: O’Hara is Mary, going to Jamaica Inn on the Cornish coast to live with her aunt Patience after the death of her parents.  Little does she know that Jamaica Inn is a den of smugglers and wreckers (men who drive ships onto the rocks and then plunder them), run by her uncle Joss (Banks).  In the process, Mary meets the Squire Pengallen (Laughton), who is just all kinds of charming creepiness, and saves the life of Jem Trehearne (Newton, swoon-worthy), one of the smugglers.  All hell breaks loose as Mary attempts to escape the wreckers and help her aunt.

Charles Laughton's eyebrows, with Charles Laughton.

The plot deviates entirely from that of the novel, so we’ll leave the differences aside.  Laughton is the big name here, so he’s the one that takes center stage.  Pengallen, we very quickly learn (so this is not spoiling a damned thing), is the true leader of the wreckers, living off of them to keep himself in the pink as befits landed gentry.  Laughton plays him as a grotesque; a massive, trundling gentleman in overdone 18th century garb, with the most magnificent set of eyebrows ever committed to celluloid.  He’s frightening, fascinating, and just this side of hammy.  His weird obsession with Mary rapidly becomes disturbing, particularly when we reach the denouement.  He’s a grand Hitchcockian villain, equal parts fascinating and repugnant.  What I like most about Laughton’s performance (which some feel is way too over the top to be believable) is how humorous he is, right up to becoming sinister.  It’s easy to laugh at this overweight peacock, with his leering gaze and posh accent, until his more violent, cruel nature comes out.  He’s threatening but, like Mary, we never quite know it until it’s too late.

Maureen O’Hara wins the award for being one of the toughest Hitchcock heroines, and a perfect argument against those who believe that Hitchcock only let women be victims.  She’s one of two women in the entire film.  When she arrives at Jamaica Inn, alone and in the middle of a storm, she is immediately set upon by her uncle Joss.  But Mary, far from being threatened, responds in kind.  She refuses to be cowed, not by Joss, not by Pengallen, nor the nasty smugglers, nor even the charming rogue who ultimately turns out to be not so roguish.  She’s quick spoken and pro-active, and although her and Newton don’t get nearly the amount of charming banter that, say, Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave have in The Lady Vanishes, she holds her own against Laughton quite nicely.

Robert Newton takes unfair advantage of being passed out.

Which brings me to Robert Newton, whom I personally find incredibly appealing as Jem Trehearne.  He’s a hero that only makes an appearance nearly half an hour into the film, and then in not the most flattering of lights: he’s a member of the gang, appears to be stealing from them and nearly gets himself hung as a result.  Only through Mary’s timely intervention is he saved.  Newton has a swash-buckling air that would serve him well in his elder years when he played Long John Silver; but the difference between the handsome young man here and the swaggering old pirate in Treasure Island is night and day.  He acquits himself well in the developing relationship with Mary, and seems to be positively giddy when he’s in the same room with Laughton (they were friends in real life and it shows).

The secondary characters exhibit Hitchcock’s usual flair for the grotesque.  The wreckers are a band of nasty, amusing cutthroats, all played by excellent British character actors.  Emlyn Williams (there’s no reason you should know him unless you like old British films, but he’s a dandy) is Harry, one of the more charming, swaggering and dangerous of the band.

The problem with Jamaica Inn is mostly due to Charles Laughton, who struts in and takes over just about every scene he appears in.  Jamaica Inn is, at base, a melodrama and Laughton at times seems to be making it into a farce.  It has been argued that much of the tension of the film vanishes when we realize that Pengallen is the head of the wreckers.  However, in its defense, I would argue that Hitchcock deals with this aspect quite well.  By revealing Pengallen as a nasty piece of work almost from the beginning, the viewer is placed in a position of knowing more than the characters, a favorite device of Hitch’s.  This allows the viewer to focus on the development of the adventure, the relationship between Jem and Mary, and the danger they are placed in by not possessing this piece of vital information.   Far from disabling the film, this knowledge expands the tension as we watch the machinations of Pengallen to conceal his identity, as well as his gradual descent into madness.

I would never argue for the inclusion of Jamaica Inn in a best-of Hitchcock list, and it is certainly not his best British feature, or even close to it.  It has great difficulties as a film; some of the scenes feel weirdly short, and the characters at times seem to be talking past each other.  But it is entertaining for what it is, an interesting development of the thematics of Hitchcock’s British work (the wrong man motif, the powerful woman, questioning of authority, etc.), and some excellent performances.  For my money, it’s a better way to spend your afternoon than trying to sit through Under Capricorn, which has received more critical attention and is duller than a dust mop.

*The entirety of Jamaica Inn can be watched here.  Watch out for any DVD versions besides the Kino edition.  The Laserlight one cuts out about 8 minutes of pretty essential exposition.