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This Happy Breed (1944)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment Ltd

Main image of This Happy Breed (1944)
Directed byDavid Lean
Production CompanyTwo Cities Films
Produced byNoël Coward
Adapted for the screen byDavid Lean
 Ronald Neame
 Anthony Havelock-Allan
From the play byNoël Coward
Photographed byRonald Neame

Robert Newton (Frank Gibbons); Celia Johnson (Ethel Gibbons); John Mills (Billy Mitchell); Kay Walsh (Queenie Gibbons); Stanley Holloway (Bob Mitchell)

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The lives of an ordinary lower middle-class London family between the two world wars.

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This Happy Breed was David Lean's first official credit as solo director, and the most successful film of 1944. It was adapted from Noël Coward's hit stage play (the title comes from Shakespeare's Richard II), which had opened at London's Haymarket Theatre in April 1943. Coward himself had played the role of Frank Gibbons on stage; the family's background was not unlike his own. Although he wanted to play the role on film, it was offered first to Robert Donat. By this time, Coward's adopted persona of upper-class theatrical sophistication had become far removed from his humble origins, and Lean felt he was totally wrong for the film.

The film celebrates the stoicism, humour and resilience of ordinary British people. Laurence Olivier spoke the narration, which is heard over the breathtaking opening sequence, a stunning aerial view of London, from the Thames and across the rooftops, down to the back door of one particular house and right through it to the front door.

Landmark events in the lives of the Gibbons family, such as the General Strike, are sketched in effectively but economically in the screenplay. Lean was already employing one of his trademark devices of 'leaking' one scene into another - a new scene begins before the previous one has quite faded away. He especially uses sound to anticipate the next scene, keeping the audience in a constant state of expectation.

One sequence in particular uses sound quite brilliantly. When Reg and his wife are killed in a car crash, Vi goes out into the garden to find Frank and Ethel and tell them the awful news. The camera stays in the living room while the radio plays a loud dance tune, and the happy sound of children playing outside is heard. Eventually Frank and Ethel come into the frame, from the garden, the soundtrack making a poignant counterpoint to their silent grief.

The film also gave Lean his first real experience of directing actors. In her second film role for him, Celia Johnson is unflatteringly made up, lit and photographed, and attempts an unconvincing south London accent, but she is very moving in all her scenes. The other performances are, on the whole, creditable. John Mills plays another sailor, again in love with Kay Walsh. Alison Leggatt and Amy Veness are both splendid as the older women in the family, and wear some astonishing hats.

Janet Moat

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Video Clips
1. A London family (1:53)
2. Miss 1928's debut (2:08)
3. Frank and Bob (2:35)
4. Ethel and Frank (3:22)
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Topical Budget 767-1: Britain's First 'General Strike' (1926)
Coward, Noël (1899-1973)
Harris, Jack (1905-1971)
Holloway, Stanley (1890-1982)
Johnson, Dame Celia (1908-1982)
Kalmus, Natalie (1887-1965)
Lean, David (1908-1991)
Mills, John (1908-2005)
Neame, Ronald (1911-2010)
Cineguild Productions
Two Cities Films