This Happy Breed
Tuesday July, 7 2015 at 04:00 AM
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One can imagine a master director like David Lean having a full command of cinema from the very beginning of his career. But Lean, who handled the technical aspects of the job as brilliantly as any director who ever lived, was a little bit intimidated by the thought of directing actors while filming This Happy Breed (1944), one of his several memorable collaborations with playwright-songwriter-actor-raconteur, Noel Coward. Lean's first effort behind the camera, In Which We Serve (1942), was actually co-directed by Coward, who mainly put the performers through their paces while Lean took care of the camerawork and editing. Despite Lean's misgivings, however, This Happy Breed became the most successful British picture of 1944, and finally launched the director on a trajectory that would bring us a handful of the most exhilarating films ever made.
This Happy Breed opens shortly after World War I, when a middle-class family, led by the patriarch, Frank Gibbons (Robert Newton), moves into a nicer home in the suburbs. Coward follows various members of the Gibbons clan as they pass through a variety of highs and lows that make for an engrossing, if rather contrived War-time soap opera. Pregnancy, secret affairs, spiritualism, and auto accidents all come into play at one point or another, with the family stoically riding the rough seas of British life. It's no wonder that audiences at the time responded to it.
To a certain degree, Coward tried to have it both ways with This Happy Breed. By this point in his career, he had already cultivated the aura of high-breeding that informed most of his work. But he was raised in the same working-class environment that's covered in both his play and Lean's picture, and some of his collaborators noted a bit of a mean streak in his writing, even as he sought to celebrate the "common" Brit. "There is something condescending about the writing," Anthony Havelock-Allan, the film's co-producer and co-screenwriter noted. "The condescension is that he escaped from it and really, how awful they were, seen from his superior and, by adoption, upper-class attitude."
When he began working on This Happy Breed, Lean was also concerned about the difficulties of transforming a play into a workable film. "It's awful hard doing a stage play," he once said. "You've got to bring in so many ideas to make it a screenplay. A film demands an intimate look at a scene that one cannot do on stage." On the flip side, whenever Lean was asked to direct a play, he declined, noting that he had no idea how to bring an audience's attention to a certain part of the stage.
Motion pictures were Lean's calling. An avid tech-head before there was a word for it, he was fascinated by the possibilities of Technicolor, and insisted that he would use the process on This Happy Breed, even though Technicolor film was all but impossible to come by in England during the war. "When I first wanted to do the picture in color," Lean remembered, "everybody thought it was really disgraceful. I had all the highbrows at Denham saying, "Why on earth are you doing it in color?" I said, 'Why not? It's new, and it excites me.'"
It should be noted that This Happy Breed hardly came out looking like your standard Technicolor picture, and that was very much Lean's intention. His brilliant cinematographer, Ronald Neame, said that he and Lean went to great lengths to make This Happy Breed look more realistic, while taking advantage of the Technicolor process. "In order to make Technicolor look less glorious," he said, we had to exaggerate everything before it would show on the screen. The tide mark round the bath, for example, the stains on the wall and the paintwork- it all had to be too much to make it come out right." Havelock-Allan agreed with Neame. "It's very difficult to get filth to look anything in color," he said. "Rotting fish usually looks like Titania's coach." At the time, Technicolor insisted on having a representative of its company on every film set that utilized the process, to make sure that everything came out looking "correct."
"We were contractually supposed to take very strict notice of what they said," Lean remembered. "It was balls because they didn't really know." He was eventually driven to distraction by a consultant who would insist on altering the smallest detail, such as the amount of gray in a napkin. "It was like the old days in black and white films, when everyone had to wear a blue shirt because the cameraman said he couldn't cope with white shirts. Now everyone wears white shirts and the wisdom of the past is looked upon as a lot of nonsense."
Maybe that's what an artist of Lean's stature really does- he creates his own wisdom, then follows it religiously. This Happy Breed was only the beginning of what would become a legendary career.
Director: David Lean
Screenplay: David Lean, Anthony Havelock-Allan, Ronald Neame (based on the play by Noel Coward)
Producer: Noel Coward, Anthony Havelock-Allan
Cinematographer: Ronald Neame
Editing: Jack Harris
Music: Noel Coward, Muir Mathieson
Art Design: C.P. Norman
Principal Cast: Robert Newton (Frank Gibbons), Celia Johnson (Ethel Gibbons), John Mills (Billy Mitchell), Kay Walsh (Queenie Gibbons), Stanley Holloway (Bob Mitchell), Amy Veness (Mrs. Flint), Alison Leggatt (Aunt Sylvia), Eileen Erskine (Vi), John Blythe (Reg), Guy Verney (Sam Ledbetter), Merle Tottenham (Edie), Betty Fleetwood (Phyllis), Laurence Olivier (Narrator).
by Paul Tatara
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