Contact me at because I'm always up for a natter about anything. Well, mostly.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Classic Film Review: This Happy Breed (1944)

Written by Noel Coward and directed by David Lean, This Happy Breed is essentially the story of a working-class family between the two wars. Just after WWI the Gibbons family move into a suburban house: Frank (Robert Newton), Ethel (Celia Johnson) and their three children along with Frank's sister Sylvia (Alison Leggatt). Their next door neighbour happens to be a man Frank met during the war, Bob Mitchell (Stanley Holloway), and he has a sailor son, Billy (John Mills). The film follows the fates of these characters until the outbreak of WWII.

Because of the scope, the film can feel a little fragmented at the beginning, particularly in regards to the three children: Vi (Eileen Erskine), Queenie (Kay Walsh) and Reg (John Blythe). Once these are firmly established, though, it becomes intricate and interesting. We see the major events of the period - the General Strike, the abdication etc - through the eyes of this typical family. In addition, of course, they live their lives with the children getting older, getting into trouble and getting married.

This turns out to be a compelling narrative primarily because of the talents of the cast. Newton and Holloway make a great double-act as friends going through middle-age (and often getting drunk along with it) while Johnson's performance as Ethel is both repressive on the outside and emotional underneath, as befitting the era. There are plenty of on-going strands such as the rivalry between Sylvia and her brother's mother-in-law and Billy's love for Queenie. There are a couple of shocks along the way but these are tempered by as happy an ending as you can get when your audience knows WWII is about to start. We live with the Gibbons family for two decades and it feels very strange to say goodbye to them after that journey.

There was, for me, one stand-out moment of the film. When Vi is delivering some terrible news to her family, the radio is on in the background. She tells her aunt and her grandmother then goes out to the garden to tell her parents. The room is empty but the radio keeps on playing jazzy upbeat music until her parents reappear alone, completely shell-shocked. It's just a beautiful moment of film.

There isn't a bad performance in this one and the writing is excellent. If you're looking for a portrait of an 'ordinary' family between the wars (with a few dramatic elements thrown in along the way) then this is well worth a watch.

No comments: