How do you capture the essence of a family in one film? This is one problem faced by propagandists in wartime and it was faced by David Lean and Noel Coward in 1944's This Happy Breed. Filmed in crisp Technicolor, its nature as a document of its time is often more interesting than its plot but performances by Robert Newton and Celia Johnson are full of effective emotion.
The film begins with a marvellous crane shot, diving into the terraced house gardens of post World War I London to find its place in one home where the Gibbons family are just moving in.
We follow the family over the course of twenty years, the years between the two wars. The film is based on a play by Noel Coward who endeavours to paint a unified portrait of England by having the son, Reg (John Blythe), be a belligerent Communist and the daughter, Queenie (Kay Walsh), a girl who dreams of wealth and privilege. The family patriarch, Frank (Newton), calmly presides over all, sometimes agreeing with one side, sometimes another, and frequently soliloquising sagely about "good old England". Newton, who was six years from his best known role as the definitive Long John Silver, was rough enough around the edges to drain some potential smarminess from the character.
Even so, Celia Johnson is far more interesting, her talent for conveying vulnerability as Ethel, the matriarch, adding tremendous impact to the feud between her and Queenie.
As far as World War II British propaganda films go, This Happy Breed is more in line with what the government wanted than the Archers' Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. The film Winston Churchill famously wanted banned made the mistake of appealing to the audience intellectually as well as emotionally. This Happy Breed, being far less complex and with more direct messaging, suits the purpose of crystalising the world into moral extremes.
This Happy Breed is available on The Criterion Channel.
Twitter Sonnet #1426
A shifting star reports an empty sun.
The bowling pins were loudly struck apart.
Across the yellow pages fingers run.
Beneath the scalp and brain we kept a heart.
The oldest dragon's new in certain plots.
Another garden's set for happy scones.
A cup of milk reminds the tea of pots.
The turning gear reminds the flesh of bones.
Reminders flew on leather wings to Mars.
We never hid the keys to make a house.
The baby rams were building empty cars.
A hundred hands would push the broken mouse.
The working light creates a colour page.
The sweatless tree belies its hoary age.