Yesterday, I noticed that Channel 4 was showing the Noel Coward/David Lean collaboration This Happy Breed (1944) at midday, so I recorded it to watch in the evening while progressing slowly with my Aran knitting. Channel 4 sneered before the film started, ‘Now we go frightfully British’. The listings mag called it ‘a quaint portrait’. OK, it may be a rather sentimental portrayal of lower middle class life, but I love this film. I think it’s essential viewing for anyone who wants to understand how the British once liked to see themselves. It’s also useful for readers of inter-war novels; the interiors and clothes are fascinating.
The film opens with the words, ‘This is the story of a London family from 1919 to 1939.’ Frank Gibbons (Robert Newton) comes home safely from the First World War and moves with his wife Ethel (Celia Johnson) and family to the south London suburbs, possibly to a house in this street. Frank is one of the lucky ones because he has a job. The family is relatively comfortably off, with enough to eat and money for new hats for weddings, but lives in a way few people do now. Frank supports three children, plus his whiney sister Sylvia and his mother-in-law, who never stop bickering. In spite of a daily help, Ethel is always working: washing up, hanging laundry in the kitchen or ironing (with the iron plugged into the light socket). Neighbour Bob Mitchell (Stanley Holloway) is also an ex-serviceman and he and Frank often enjoy a drink together. You have to concentrate on the dialogue at first, because everyone speaks so quickly. Celia Johnson has the accent off perfectly, showing what a fine actress she was. When I was very young, there were still people around who spoke like that.
The film uses stepping stones between the wars to show the passing of time. There’s the Empire Exhibition at Wembley, the General Strike (Frank and Bob are against it and run a bus), the death of King George V, the rise of Hitler, Fascists on London streets, Munich. After that, Frank makes a speech about how he’d never expected to see a British crowd screaming like maniacs because they’d been thoroughly scared. Baldwin, Chamberlain and appeasement are all being criticised. Meanwhile, the children grow up, causing varying degrees of happiness and heartbreak.
Reg is the only son. He’s a bit of a lad but settles down and marries. His wedding day is the scene of terrible family rows; even the cat, Percy, is in trouble for shedding fur all over a wedding outfit. Reg gets a little homily from his dad about the responsibilities of marriage and his duty to put his wife and children first. Later, he and his wife are killed in a car crash. Vi is the good girl of the family, never giving any trouble. She marries and tames firebrand socialist Sam, who turns from radical to family man worrying about his children’s health. Queenie is discontented, saying she hates suburban life and wants something better. She is loved devotedly by Billy Mitchell (a very touching performance from John Mills), but turns him down to run off with a married man. Her mother refuses to have her name mentioned in the house again. Needless to say, Queenie’s adventure turns out badly, she’s found and rescued by Billy and marries him after all. There’s a poignant (if obvious), shot at the end of her suitcase labelled ‘Singapore’ as she sets sail to join Billy, whose ship is stationed there. We, and the contemporary audience, know what is likely to happen to her.
Frank and Ethel are left alone in the house with their baby grandson and decide to move to a flat. Once again the house is empty and they wonder who will live in it and whether they’ll have any sense of the lives previously lived there. The final credits roll over a view of the Thames while an orchestral arrangement of London Pride is played. Superb propaganda and highly recommended to anyone who hasn’t seen it.