Based on Noel Coward’s popular stage play, This Happy Breed sees Coward leave behind his appetite for writing about the middle class, opting instead for characters with more humble beginnings. This Happy Breed is a family saga, following the Gibbons three generation household between the wars (1919-1939). Opening with the men returning home from World War One, This Happy Breed makes numerous references to world events during the time period including the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley in 1924, The General Strike in 1926, the rise of Adolf Hitler and the death of King George V in 1936. These events impact on the characters’ lives throughout This Happy Breed’s 105 minutes. This is an emotional film that is both uplifting and saddening, encompassing love, marriage, birth and death and taking the audience on a well rounded journey seen through the eyes of different generations.
One of the most interesting characters is the Gibbons’ youngest daughter, Queenie (Kay Walsh). A young woman with high aspirations, Queenie turns down marriage to an eligible sailor on the grounds that, ‘it’s all too common,’ while the Gibbons’ eldest daughter marries a devoted Socialist. Frank’s widowed sister, Sylvia (Alison Leggatt), and her highly strung temperament also provide much amusement. This Happy Breed is full of harmless bickering between the siblings, parents and extended family with some very sharp and comic dialogue. The trailer (you can watch it below) describes the Gibbons as ‘a very real family’ and This Happy Breed does seem to encapsulate real life. The performances are compelling, while the story’s mix of joy and tragedy – the way in which hopes and dreams are never fully realised – offers a powerful, if not always happy, truthfulness.
“The way hopes and dreams are never fully realised offers a powerful, if not always happy, truthfulness”
If there’s anything to criticise in This Happy Breed, it’s that Frank Gibbons (Robert Newton) returns from World War One relatively emotionally unscathed. As he sinks back easily into everyday life, selling tourist trips to the battlefields, his relationship with fellow comrade Bob (Stanley Holloway) seems a little too lighthearted. That said, the whole mood of This Happy Breed is rousing and patriotic – stirring Britishness and nostalgia at every turn and evoking the Englishness of that stiff upper lip. The way these characters just ‘get on with it’ is almost inspiring.
Directed by David Lean (Great Expectations, The Bridge On The River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia), This Happy Breed is perhaps one of his lesser known films. Having co-directed the Oscar nominated In Which We Serve with Noel Coward in 1942, This Happy Breed was Lean’s first solo director credit. Although This Happy Breed was not recognised at the Academy Awards, it was the most successful film of 1944. David Lean went on to adapt and direct Coward’s play Still Life, which became the acclaimed and Oscar nominated Brief Encounter in 1945.
Lean’s direction in This Happy Breed is beautiful and often poignant. In a striking scene, tragic news is delivered out of view, while Lean leaves us in an empty room filled with cheerful 1940s music playing on the wireless – the audience is left to contemplate the impact of the tragedy and the inevitability that life goes on. In another remarkable moment, the camera follows behind Ethel Gibbons as she strides towards the front door and the score stops abruptly for another installment of bad news. The BFI describes, ‘Lean was already employing one of his trademark devices of ‘leaking’ one scene into another – a new scene begins before the previous one has quite faded away. He especially uses sound to anticipate the next scene, keeping the audience in a constant state of expectation’.
By the end of the film, the Second World War is rapidly approaching, adding an atmosphere of despair to an ending that is simultaneously melancholic and uplifting. This Happy Breed is a film that demands quiet reflection as the credits close. A strong story, with believable, compassionate characters, it’s easy to see why This Happy Breed was so popular both in 1944 and today.