Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Happy Family (1939)


Main image of Happy Family (1939)
35mm, 9 min, black & white
DirectorWalter Forde
Production CompanyEaling Studios
SponsorMinistry of Labour
ProducerMichael Balcon

Cast: Edmund Gwenn (Dad); John Mills (Fred); Frank Lawton (Joe); Eva Moore (Gran); Joyce Barbour (Mum); Diana Beaumont (Elsie)

Show full cast and credits

As they sit down to their dinner, a suburban family discuss the apparently unlikely prospect of war. But the world outside is about to give them an alarming warning.

Show full synopsis

By the summer of 1939, despite the "peace for our time" proclamation of prime minister Neville Chamberlain on his return from Munich the previous September, it was clear to many that war with Germany was all but inevitable. What was less certain was how prepared were the British people for such an outcome, and the Ministry of Labour resolved to commission a film to wake the population from its slumber and to encourage volunteering.

One of the first British propaganda films of the Second World War was thus commissioned and released some three months before war was even declared. The commission for the film went not to the documentarists of the GPO Film Unit, but to Ealing Studios, known for its popular entertainment films. Ealing production head Michael Balcon assigned the project to experienced director Walter Forde, whose signature lightness of touch, Balcon hoped, would ensure the film engaged with the widest possible audience.

The short production schedule and low budget are readily apparent, with the action limited to a single set - a suburban living room - supplemented with a short montage of the main characters 'doing their bit', blended in with presumably 'found' documentary footage. The film is interesting in retrospect not just for the presence of a youthful John Mills (co-stars Edmund Gwenn and Frank Lawton were more famous at the time) but also for the way it introduces the kind of 'ordinary', lower-middle-class family that would be a staple of so many Ealing films (and perhaps a portrait of the studio's imagined audience), though without the documentary-influenced realism that Ealing would later add to the mix.

Happy Family's effectiveness as propaganda is open to question - the film was not reviewed, though it would certainly have been widely seen in cinemas during June of 1939. Today at least, the scenario feels unconvincing, and the finger-wagging call to arms at the end - delivered directly to camera by Eva Moore's Gran - seems absurdly patronising. But it clearly did enough to convince the Ministry of Information, which took control of propaganda with the advent of war, that a fictional approach was worth pursuing, since Ealing won several more official commissions in the early part of the war.

Mark Duguid

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
Complete film (8:34)
Lawton, Frank (1904-1969)
Ealing Studios (1938-59)
Ealing Propaganda Shorts