It Made Me Happy
I don't think I have been as pleasantly surprised by a movie as much as I have "This Happy Breed" because on paper it doesn't sound like much, well the life of an ordinary family in the years between WWI and WWII does not sound interesting. But this adaptation of a Noel Coward play and directed by David Lean is mesmerising, seriously mesmerising in the way it draws us in to the Gibbons family and gives us a potted history of their ups and downs whilst dropping in various historical references. That probably still doesn't sound that good and it is hard to put into words how simply wonderful "This Happy Breed" is and how much you don't want it to end when the credits arrive.
The year is 1919 and after coming back from WWI Frank Gibbons (Robert Newton - Gaslight) and his wife Ethel (Celia Johnson) along with his children, his sister and Ethel's mother are moving in together at No. 17. Much to Frank's surprise and joy his neighbour is Bob Mitchell (Stanley Holloway - The Lavender Hill Mob) a fellow soldier he met during the war and who shares similar ideals to him. Over the years life changes in the Gibbons household as the children grow, people get married, some die others have children whilst society changes as well from the passing of the King to the ominous sight of another war on the horizon.
I am going to get my one and only negative out of the way with when it comes to "This Happy Breed" and whilst it is a clever move which does a good job of incorporating historic elements it is a classic movie of its time. By that I mean the image of the Gibbons family portrayed is not what I would call completely authentic but a vision of a more positive family where the stresses and strains of life are not realistically shown. It's not just the Gibbons family because we also see men returning from WWI and there is no mention of the physical and mental damage to the men. Now some may say that Noel Coward may not have been the best person to write about ordinary people but in truth "This Happy Breed" is just a typical, positive movie about British folk from the 1940s and so lacks gritty authenticity.
But that is my one negative and never has watching ordinary folk and the events in their life at No. 17 been so compelling. From watching them move in to issues with political beliefs as Frank's son grows up to romance and friendships this is a beautiful picture of a life I would have loved to have been part of. It's not gritty despite showing episodes of loss and upset especially as one member of the Gibbons family brings shame but it is simply entertaining and you warm to every character especially the trio of Ethel, Frank and Bob. And the way it references the changing times from seeing the house go from gas lighting to electric to the sad news of the King's death is masterfully done and occasionally comical as it makes fun of how people thought one thing, such as a politician they believed was trust worthy.
Now of course whilst this is adapted from a Noel Coward play it is also a David Lean movie and his first in colour and what a beautiful looking movie it is. In fact for a movie which is almost 70 years old "This Happy Breed" blew me away at how good it looks and the way every scene is staged is magnificent. Lean really captures the feel of life in a terraced house from Frank and Bob chatting over the fence to just how the rooms look and are laid out. And his pacing is impeccable because he cleverly slides in those historical references which triggers a thought in are heads, allowing us to make are own conclusion such as when we see a label for Singapore on Queenie's suitcase as she leaves to be with her husband in 1939 and then he moves it on to the next moment having let it sink in enough to give us that moment of realisation.
And to cap this all of is a collection of brilliant performances with the likes of John Mills, Kay Walsh and Stanley Holloway all doing brilliant jobs at creating likeable characters. But at the heart of this movie is Robert Newton and Celia Johnson who are wonderful as Frank and Ethel, delivering this wonderful couple, so in love in a typical old fashioned way even when Frank comes home plastered. Watching how they deal with the ups and downs of life together and separately is a joy to watch and they are a huge reason why you don't want the movie to end, you want the next chapter of their life rather than the door to shut on this one.
What this all boils down to is that if the thought of watching a movie about the lives of an ordinary family sounds boring then think again because "This Happy Breed" is one of the most beautiful, mesmerising and surprising movies I have had the pleasure to watch. And whilst David Lean may be known for his epics such as "Doctor Zhivago" this simple story is right up there with it but for very different reasons.