Upon discovering that a David Lean movie spans twenty years, the word “epic” is apt to spring to mind. It’s only natural; after all, Lean was the director behind such grandiose films as Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965). However, in actuality, 1944’s This Happy Breed is something entirely different from those later, better known works. There are no battle scenes with seas of extras, no larger than life figures. Instead, the film — based on Noël Coward’s play of the same name — not only focuses on an ordinary middle-class English family but emphasizes its very ordinariness.
This Happy Breed opens in 1919, a time when many an Englishman was returning home from World War I. One such former soldier is Frank Gibbons (Robert Newton), and as the film begins, he and his family — his wife Ethel (Celia Johnson), their daughters Vi (Eileen Erskine) and Queenie (Kay Walsh, Lean’s then-wife), their son Reg (John Blythe), Frank’s sister Sylvia (Alison Leggatt) and Ethel’s mother (Amy Veness) — are moving into their new house in London. They’ll spend the next two decades within its walls, experiencing joys, sorrows and everything in between.
The house itself is nothing extraordinary; quite the contrary. On the outside, it’s indistinguishable from countless other brick row homes on its street and those around it, and inside it’s a somewhat drab prospect, even in Technicolor. Still, it’s comfortable enough. Frank works at a travel agency, and although the Gibbonses live modestly, they never seem to want for money — but their way of life displeases their children at times, for various reasons. Reg finds himself at odds with his father during the general strike of 1926, in which he sides with the workers and Frank with the government. Queenie, meanwhile, is fed up with being “common” and with her parents’ placid acceptance of that state. “Well, a few years ago we had Reg nagging at us because we were living on the fat of the land while the poor workers were starving. Now we have Queenie turning on us because we’re not grand enough for her,” Frank says. He warns his daughter, too, that “one of these days, when you know a bit more, you’ll find out that there are worse things than being just ordinary and respectable and living the way you’ve been brought up to live.”
In the end, after a series of bad experiences, Queenie does come to accept this. Maybe that’s just the way life turns out for a lot of people, this settling down into the mundane — for example, Vi’s husband Sam (Guy Verney), a zealous leftist early on, appears to mellow out completely as the years go by — but it also reflects the confining class system of the era, as well as the limited opportunities for women. (Queenie’s best hope for escaping her unremarkable life, at least in her eyes, is running off with a married man, and Frank actually proves more understanding than Ethel in the face of this crisis.) This Happy Breed is very much a portrait of its time and place, of the English national character (as Coward and Lean saw it), for better or for worse. Frank, content with his lot, describes his country as “a nation of gardeners,” explaining, “We like planting things and watching them grow and looking out for changes in the weather. What works in other countries won’t work in this one. We’ve got our own way of settling things. It may be a bit slow, and it may be a bit dull, but it suits us all right and always will.”
Whereas Lean’s epics often depict characters swept up in history, taking part in wars or having their lives upended by revolutions, This Happy Breed is, fittingly, more interested in the everyday, the domestic. History happens all around the Gibbons family and their friends and neighbors, but though they discuss the issues of the day and sometimes get directly involved, as in the general strike, their personal affairs, major and minor, tend to take precedence. There are a number of little moments that illustrate this: when Frank and Ethel happen across a fascist rally while out for a walk, they only pause for a moment before Ethel says, “How about that cup of tea?”; later, just before the Munich Agreement, Ethel and Queenie pass men digging trenches in preparation for a possible war, but Queenie is more concerned with her baby in his pram. (“Well, you’ve chosen a nice time to be born, I will say.”) Changes within the family — births, marriages, departures and deaths among them — denote the passage of time as much as these historical events, and so do such cultural markers as the Charleston, the advent of the talkie and the characters’ ever-evolving clothing and hairstyles.
Of course, both the film’s original audience and the modern viewer know that England’s ostensible return to normalcy after World War I — neatly symbolized in the window of Frank’s travel agency, where an advertisement for battlefield tours is replaced by one promoting the British Empire Exhibition of 1924 — is only temporary. The ordinary will soon be overtaken by the extraordinary once again, adding a bittersweet note to even the happiest moments. Though the characters aren’t major players in history, they’re sure to be affected by the looming international conflict, but their exact fates are anyone’s guess.
This post is part of The David Lean Blogathon, hosted by Maddy Loves Her Classic Films. Click the banner above to see all of the other great posts.