Director’s Spotlight: David Lean’s This Happy Breed (1944)

David Lean's This Happy Breed (1944)


This Happy Breed depicts twenty years of British history through the eyes of a working class family. The story begins in 1919 (the end of World War I) and it ends in 1939 (the beginning of World War II).

Reaction & Thoughts:

“There will always be wars as long as men are such fools as to want to go to them.”

There isn’t a false note in This Happy Breed, an adaptation of Noel Coward’s hit play. Despite Coward’s reputation as the perfect embodiment of upper-class sophistication, the dramatist had a blue-collar background. This Happy Breed is mostly autobiographical. It’s obvious that director Lean, in his first solo directorial assignment, went to great lengths to make this film as true-to-life as possible.

Lean, who co-wrote the script with producer Anthony Havelock-Allan and cameraman Ronald Neame, felt that Coward had distanced himself so much from his humble beginnings that he no longer understood the British working class. Much effort was made in making the story more realistic.

Perhaps there are too many speeches about England and its people, but that’s Coward’s fault, not Lean’s. The director does make a valiant effort to overcome staginess. Lean adds a little something to each scene. There are many wonderful bits of business throughout the film. It’s one of the first British movies to show mundane things like washing dirty dishes. Also, Lean finds ingenious ways to show the passing of time.

Neame, who would later become a celebrated director on his own right (e.g. Tunes of Glory, The Poseidon Adventure, and The Odessa File), shot the film in beautiful Technicolor. Interestingly, Lean and Neame chose to water-down the Technicolor process, a big no-no at the time — This Happy Breed  looks like a homemade movie.

Robert Newton (Walt Disney’s Treasure Island) is the patriarch of the family. Celia Johnson (The Prime of Miss Jean Broadie) is his devoted wife. Kay Walsh (Oliver Twist) is their unconventional daughter, and John Mills (Ryan’s Daughter) is the sailor in love with Walsh. They are all terrific.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

The film hit the right nerve; This Happy Breed became the highest grossing British film of 1944. It remains a compelling time capsule. The wonderful cast includes Stanley Holloway (My Fair Lady), Amy Veness, Eileen Erskine, and Alison Leggatt. Laurence “Lord Larry” Olivier (Wuthering Heights) narrates. Color, 115 minutes, Not Rated.


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