David Lean's This Happy Breed (1944) is a little gem of a family saga, sublime and poignant; a beautifully crafted snapshot of a Britain already lulling into a state of social decline. Based on Noel Coward's 1939 play, the screenplay by Lean, Anthony Havelock-Allen and Ronald Neame manages to effortlessly span the years between 1919 and 1939 in just 111 minutes, yet without ever seeming rushed or out to prove a point. Then again, that was the genius of Noel Coward; unabashed sentimentality and comedic, while feathering the real joys and struggles of a typical English family into the play's subtext. Whereas Coward's earlier Cavalcade presented a reflection of an eternal England, the proud and unflinching empire, This Happy Breed takes a more subtle, and arguably, more honest view of this careworn kingdom as its globe-encompassing supremacy slowly fades into obscurity.
The Gibbons family represent this sad prolonged farewell to the Victorian age. Yet to Coward's credit he never once makes any of them maudlin or unappreciative of all that has gone before their time, even as they look toward a tumultuous future with grieved uncertainty. On stage, Coward had set the play's action all in one house and played the lead himself. On film, however, the part of patriarch Frank Gibbons went to Robert Newton instead, and it is saying a great deal of the actor that for once, his more gregarious mannerisms were brought to heel at the behest of the source material and director David Lean, who also felt that Coward's stage presence was a bit much to be believable on celluloid.
Our story begins shortly after WWI and on a very optimistic note. The entire country is returning to normalcy after those terrible years of conflict and looking forward to happier times. The Gibbons family, a hard working middle class brood move into their new - if slightly dingy - flat; No. 17 in Clapham, South London. Solid citizen Frank (Robert Newton) and his stoic drudge wife, Ethel (Celia Johnson) are a simple couple, contented with the projected hopes and future promises they have for their children, stubborn Reg (John Blythe), complacent Vi (Eileen Erskine) and headstrong Queenie (Kay Walsh). Frank discovers that his next door neighbor is none other than Bob Mitchell (Sterling Holloway), a good natured bloke with an invalided wife who served shoulder to shoulder with Frank in the army. Reg looks up to Vi's boyfriend, Sam Leadbitter (Guy Verney) a diehard socialist whose views seem at once controversial yet frightfully exciting. Meanwhile, Queenie is romantically pursued by Bob's son, Billy (John Mills).
We experience the Gibbons first years of life as usual during peacetime. Frank finds work at a travel agency, rekindling his friendship with Bob along the way. The two become favorite drinking buddies and frequently get tight with a fresh bottle under the stairs, much to Ethel's mildly cross objections. Frank's flighty spinster sister, Sylvia (Allison Leggett) and Ethel's mother, Mrs. Flint (Amy Vaness) also live with the Gibbons and their tempestuous sparing is frequently at the crux of some minor strife within the family unit. But nothing seems to unsettle 'this happy breed' for very long. The entire family attend the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley in 1924, and celebrate their Christmases together. Everything is perfect...well, sort of.
Billy proposes to Queenie. But she tells him that she cannot abide the family's complacency and downtrodden lifestyle. She wants out - badly - and cannot see her way clear to become her mother's daughter by marrying into a life she misperceives as common as dust. Bob, a sailor, goes away to serve his country in peacetime leaving Queenie to indulge in the high life as a notorious flapper. In the meantime, a general strike threatens to cripple the nation. Reg, who has followed Sam into a violent protest is injured in the brawl on Whitechapel Road and taken to hospital, leaving Vi - in a moment of frustration - to break off their romance. This detente does not last for very long however. Vi marries Sam and their union has an anesthetizing effect on Sam's socialist views. He falls into line, happily so, and thereafter becomes less of a role model for Reg.
In that same year, Reg decides it is about time he also married his sweetheart, Phyllis Blake (Betty Fleetwood). As Ethel and Frank delight in their children's marriages, the Gibbons' house becomes emptier and more isolating for Queenie. To escape, she enters and wins a Charleston competition in 1928 and thereafter becomes the champagne darling of the nightclubs - eventually taking up with a married man (whom we never meet in the film). Billy returns on leave to visit his father, who has become lonely since the death of his wife. But Billy has also decided to appeal once more to Queenie's heart. Regrettably, both his intensions and her affections are misplaced. She confides in him that she loves a married man and he, sympathetically suggests she is making the biggest mistake of her life. Unable to convince herself of as much, Queenie steals off into the night, leaving a letter for Frank and Ethel to find on their fireplace mantel. While Frank is heartbroken over the news, Ethel turns cold and aloof toward her daughter. She has brought shame upon the family.
This Happy Breed is a story about the moments in life that raise our spirits and those that break our hearts. In terms of its critique of the tight knit family unit, the film can justly be viewed as a sort of English version of Meet Me In St. Louis (released that same year by MGM in America). However, while Meet Me In St. Louis celebrated an America of a simpler vintage - and one that arguably never entirely was to begin with, This Happy Breed is a far more frank and honest critique of the Britain that probably is. And so, the last act of our story is an unsympathetic one, marred by intimate tragedies and the looming specter of another world war on the horizon. Mrs. Flint dies of old age, leaving Sylvia to mismanage her grief by becoming even more dotty as a spiritualist. As Frank and Ethel attempt to settle into their emeritus years, their hearts are shattered by the sudden loss of Reg and Phyllis, both killed in a freak automobile accident.
The screenplay cleverly parallels these private misfortunes with the grander catastrophes gripping the entire nation, including the rising anti-Semitic sentiment in London and the death of King George V. As Frank and Bob get paralytic drunk under the stairs, they affectionately muse about the way of life that has fallen by the waste side. Bob moves away to the country. Billy comes to No. 17 to reveal to Frank and Ethel that not only has he found Queenie living in France, but that they were married two weeks earlier in Plymouth. He has brought a more repentant daughter home to reconcile with her parents. As WWII approaches, Queenie gives birth, leaving her child in Frank and Ethel's care while she joins Billy in Singapore. As the house is now much too big for Ethel to manage alone, she and Frank decide to move into a smaller flat. The film ends as it has begun, with the abandoned house in Clapham, though never again to be quite so vacant of the memories of the Gibbons family.
This Happy Breed is an extraordinary film on many levels, chiefly in its ability to make us care about what happens to this outwardly average - though hardly dull - middle class family. The succinctness with which Lean flashes twenty years of life before our very eyes never seems hurried or out of place. In fact, we feel as though we have lived a very full and unusually satisfying history with these people. Celia Johnson and Robert Newton strike just the right chord and are profoundly moving as husband and wife, sharing in each other's joys and bucking one another through their mutual sorrows. Reportedly, Newton was a notorious drunkard on the set, holding up the last ten days of production with chronic stupors that resulted in a slight clash of wills between himself and David Lean.
Noel Coward, who was mildly disappointed at not playing the part of Frank Gibbons himself, was nevertheless wholly satisfied with the final film that marked David Lean's true solo debut as a director. And the film itself was a great success with audiences then, both in England and abroad. Viewed today, This Happy Breed remains a very affecting family portrait, exceptionally staged, and with finely wrought performances throughout. To experience the life of the Gibbons family once is to treasure them in our hearts forever.
We can also treasure this gorgeous 1080p transfer from Criterion. Owing to a 2008 restoration effort by the BFI, this newly minted Blu-ray delivers an exceptionally vibrant visual presentation, capturing all of the subtle nuances of cinematographer Ronald Neame's restrained use of 3 strip Technicolor. The image is crisp with only minor hints of edge enhancement here and there. Fine details are beautifully realized. Contrast levels are bang on. The image is bright and colorful. The audio is mono and well represented with minimal hiss and pop.
Extras include another very comprehensive interview with scholar Barry Day and an extensive interview with Ronald Neame from 2010 in which he basically talks about not only this film, but also the others in the David Lean Directs Noel Coward box set. We also get two trailers. Currently, This Happy Breed is only available as part of that collection, along with Blithe Spirit, In Which We Serve and Brief Encounter. Bottom line: Highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)