THIS HAPPY BREED (director/writer: David Lean; screenwriters: David Lean, Anthony Havelock-Allan/Ronald Neame/based on the play by Noel Coward; cinematographer: Ronald Neame; editor: Jack Harris; music: Noel Coward/Muir Mathieson; 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); Runtime: 115; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Noel Coward/Anthony Havelock-Allan; MGM; 1944-UK)
“If it doesn’t bore you to death with its contrived melodramatics then maybe its decorative historical background might catch your interest.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
David Lean (“Ryan’s Daughter”/”Doctor Zhivago”/”The Bridge on the River Kwai”) is cowriter and director of this engaging but meandering episodic family drama set in London’s suburbs from 1919 to 1939, between wars. This Happy Breed was the most successful British picture of 1944. It’s based on the play by Noel Coward, and it seems like a sequel to Coward’s play Cavalcade.
This slice of life comedy/drama tells of an ordinary suburban family, that if it doesn’t bore you to death with its contrived melodramatics then maybe its decorative historical background might catch your interest. The history circles the wagons around 1920s jazz clubs, the General Strike, Wembley festivals, the Depression and WWII. The acting chops of the talented ensemble cast might make it seem more arty than it really is, and though somewhat pleasant it never is fully pleasant.
The middle-class Gibbons family, with its steady as a rock patriarch Frank (Robert Newton) and caring matriarch Ethel (Celia Johnson), are nevertheless still a bickering and feuding family of just plain folks. The strong-willed mum being the glue that holds the family together, while pop is a calming and intelligent influence to all the dramatics. Just after WWI, Frank has returned from army duty and they move into a comfortable middle-class house at Number Seventeen Sycamore Road, Clapham Common, with Frank’s sourpuss mother-in-law Mrs. Flint (Amy Veness) and wife’s sister Sylvia (Alison Leggatt) and hardworking housekeeper Edie (Merle Tottenham). In that house, we watch their three children Queenie (Kay Walsh), Vi (Eileen Erskine) and Reg (John Blythe) grow into adults. With Queenie being the most troublesome, as the flighty daughter wants a different life than her folks. John Mills plays the loyal sailor in love with the errant Queenie, but she breaks his heart by preferring a married man.
The pro-British film’s title is lifted from a monologue of John of Gaunt’s in Shakespeare’s Richard II, act II, scene i. It reads, in part, ‘This happy breed of men, this little world, / This precious stone set in the silver sea, / Which serves it in the office of a wall, / Or as a moat defensive to a house, / Against the envy of less happier lands, / This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.’
REVIEWED ON 3/29/2009 GRADE: B-
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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