This Happy Breed

1944, Movie, NR, 110 mins

Review

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Based on Noel Coward's hit play (in which he also starred), this cavalcade of British life between wars was one of the top moneymakers in the UK in 1944, but it took three more years to reach US screens. Laurence Olivier narrates the episodic story of a family that lives in a small row house, totally indistinguishable from all the other houses surrounding it. This average working-class family includes father Newton, mother Johnson, and their two children, Walsh (who just happened to be married to director Lean at the time) and Blythe. WWI is ending and Newton, who has served four years in the army, is coming home to take Johnson and the children away from the home they've occupied with Johnson's mother, Veness, and her sister, Leggart. The whole group moves into a larger residence in Clapham and looks forward to a happy life. But life isn't always pleasant for Leggart and Veness, who battle constantly. To get out of the house and away from Veness' sharp tongue, Leggart, a spinster, volunteers for just about every committee and charity group around. Meanwhile, the children continue to grow and become increasingly independent, watched over by Newton (in an understated performance that is a departure from his usual scene-stealing tactics). When a general strike occurs, Blythe is right in the middle of it, coming home one evening with bruises and cuts sustained in a riot. Hoping to better her lot, Walsh takes a job in a fashionable beauty salon in London's posh West End. She's been dating Mills, the sailor son of Holloway, who lives next door, and it is just assumed that they will eventually wed. At the same time, Blythe is engaged to Betty Fleetwood. The applecart is overturned when Walsh runs off with a married man, and the family is crushed. Blythe and Fleetwood are married, but tragedy strikes when both are killed in an auto crash and the news is given to the family in one of the most memorable scenes in British cinema.

Coward and Lean codirected IN WHICH WE SERVE, and the great actor-playwright was impressed enough by Lean's work to hand the director the film rights for this film as well as for "Brief Encounter" and "Blithe Spirit." Here Lean is partnered with cinematographer Neame (who later became a producer and director) and writer Havelock-Allan. In 1944, there were almost no color cameras in England, but somehow they managed to find one of them for this film, although the color is muted and not nearly as stark as the process used in the US at the time. Still, this is an immensely charming movie, with many tears and many moments of warmth. Newton is excellent, and Johnson, who could look glamorous when the part called for it, is deliberately dressed dowdily and de-glamorized for her role here, she which performs with great aplomb. leave a comment

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David Lean's This Happy Breed ~ by Noel Coward and Ronald Neame [Import, All-regions] (1944)
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