This Happy Breed is a 1944 British film based on a 1939 Noel Coward play. The film was directed by David Lean and produced by Noel Coward.
Frank Gibbons returns home after World War I and moves to a house in the suburbs with his wife and three children, as well as his widowed sister and his mother-in-law. Frank settles back into normal working life trying to bring his kids up properly adjusting to life after the war yet his daughter Queenie isn't satisfied with her life and shuns the neighbour's son Billy who's in love with her and seems to have ideas above her station. Frank's son Reg and other daughter Vi both get married over the years to Phyllis and Sam respectively after Phyllis hating Sam for a while as he believes he led her brother astray. As events unfold Queenie dishonours the family and things may never be the same again. Will the family ever find peace?
This Happy Breed is one of those films you could easily watch on a lazy Sunday afternoon if you enjoy old films from a bygone era (as I do). The films starts off at the end of World War I and follows the family through a couple of decades to the start of World War II and in some ways they seem like simpler times but in other ways it's a time that most of us would find rather strange. Imagine a father telling his grown up son that he'll get a good hiding if he stays out all night again as it worried his mother so. The way it was done was very touching and you could see whether the father was coming from as having returned alive from the war, he didn't want his wife worrying (or himself) when his son didn't come home all night. And which mother would disown their daughter for having an affair with a married man in this day and age? Doesn't happen very often I imagine.
Robert Newton plays Frank Gibbons. Newton was famous for roles such as Long John Silver in the 1950 film Treasure Island and Blackbeard in Blackbeard the Pirate (1952) and roles in Jamaica Inn (1939), Les Miserables (1952) Around the World in 80 Days (1956) and Tom Brown's Schooldays (1951). Frank is rather a pleasant character throughout the film, quite soft-hearted generally and not standing any nonsense from his sister as she becomes spiritual. To Frank, things are black and white, right and wrong. He tells his sister that people don't pass on, pass over or pass out, they just DIE! He is stricter with his son than with his daughters but his son respects him for it. I really found the character to very amicable in general and it was obvious how much he loves his wife Ethel.
Ethel is played by Celia Johnson who also starred in Brief Encounter a year later and was the recipient of many Oscar and BAFTA nominations in her career as well as the winner of several BAFTAs. Ethel's character was more complex than Frank's. She was stricter than her husband and seemed to be more hardened by the toils of war. She obviously took care of the children as well as her own mother and sister in law whilst her husband was away at war. This definitely was not a glamorous role for Johnson. She looks older and more "worn out" than in her other roles. This was to depict how hard a life she had and that her character carries the weight of the world on her shoulders. In one scene she scolds her husband for bringing in his dirty boots saying she won't clean then as she has enough work to do already, yet as soon as he leaves the kitchen she picks them up and affectionately proceeds to clean them anyway. In another scene she tells her sister-in-law that she's just had an awful nightmare which made her feel the world was about to end and is told that the opposite generally happens, yet minutes later the family receives some tragic news. Johnson won the National Board of Review Award for Best Actress for her role in this film.
I don't want to mention all of the main characters in the film but had to mention Stanley Holloway who was a pretty decent actor in his time. Holloway plays Frank's good friend and next door neighbour Bob Mitchell for two decades. There's a really good scene between Holloway and Johnson when he says goodbye to her and it looked very strange that they seem like they're just going to shake hands formally despite being such close neighbours for so many years and then just when you think how formal the scene is, you're rewarded with a very touching moment between the neighbours. Holloway plays his role in his usual cheery manner (he was most famous for playing comedy roles).
Bob's son Billy is played by John Mills and I found this character to be very likeable but have to mention that John Mills was 36 when he played this role but he looked considerably older. I found it odd for him to be playing Holloway's son as they physically looked about the same age. Aside from that Mills is adorable as Billy Mitchell (NB: nothing like the Eastenders character of the same name) and is totally in love with the Gibbons' flighty daughter Queenie throughout the film despite what she does.
As well as being a depiction of an "average" family trying to get on with life with the two World Wars this film has some historical value too. We see during the film announcements about general elections and announcements on the radio (or wireless as they called it back then) about the King being at his deathbed. British people supporting Hitler and standing on boxes in Marble Arch preaching to whoever will listen (thank God we don't have to put up with political nonsense like that now, although you still see the random religious person sometimes preaching the virtues of their particular beliefs). It was interesting to see what Clapham looked like in the 1940s as well as seeing Marble Arch. Being a Londoner I've been to Marble Arch and the West End many times over the years and it was interesting to see what it looked like all those decades ago. Comments made by Frank and Ethel walking through Marble Arch show progress taking place when Ethel mentions how many big hotels are sprouting up all over the area.
Even though this was filmed back in the 1940s, I felt I had to mention the cinematography and sound effects. In one scene the radio is playing a jolly song whilst someone is delivering some tragic news to someone in the garden and we are just shown the view of the garden from inside the house with the radio blaring away and the screams of shock and grief for several moments off screen with the camera just aimed at the empty doorway to the garden. It was very effective and extremely sad at the same time. Scenes of London back in the 1940s were interesting to me and I understand the house inhabited by the Gibbons in the filming of This Happy Breed still stands in the same place in Clapham.
All in all This Happy Breed is an entertaining film. It's not an action film, it's not a romance, it's somewhat; it's somewhat of a drama with not many light moments in between the seriousness of life after and before a major war.
I'm happy to give This Happy Breed a decent 4 out of 5 stars with a recommendation to watch if you enjoy good drama with historical elements thrown in for good measure.
Starring: Robert Newton, Celia Johnson, Stanley Holloway, Alison Leggatt, John Mills, Kay Walsh, Amy Veness, Eileen Erskine, John Blythe
Director: David Lean
Producer/playwright: Noel Coward
Cinematography: Ronald Neame
Release date: 1944
Duration: 115 minutes