This Happy Breed (film)

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This Happy Breed
DVD release cover
Directed byDavid Lean
Written byDavid Lean
Anthony Havelock-Allan
Ronald Neame
Based onThis Happy Breed
by Noël Coward
Produced byNoël Coward
StarringRobert Newton
Celia Johnson
Stanley Holloway
John Mills
CinematographyRonald Neame
Edited byJack Harris
Music byMuir Mathieson
Clifton Parker
Distributed byEagle-Lion Distributors Limited (UK)
Universal-International (US)
Release date
1 June 1944 (1944-06-01)
Running time
115 minutes
CountryUnited Kingdom

This Happy Breed is a 1944 British Technicolor drama film directed by David Lean and starring Robert Newton, Celia Johnson, Stanley Holloway and John Mills. The screenplay by Lean, Anthony Havelock-Allan and Ronald Neame is based on the 1939 play This Happy Breed by Noël Coward. It tells the story of an inter-war suburban London family, against the backdrop of what were then relatively recent news events, moving from the postwar era of the 1920s to the gradual inevitability of another war, and social changes such as the coming of household radio and talking pictures in the cinema.

The title, a reference to the English people, is a phrase from John of Gaunt's monologue in Act II, Scene 1 of William Shakespeare's Richard II. (Laurence Olivier provides the uncredited introductory narration.)


Opening in 1919, shortly after the end of the First World War, the film focuses on the Gibbons family - Frank, his wife Ethel, their three children Reg, Vi and Queenie, his widowed sister Sylvia and Ethel's mother - after they settle in a rented house in Clapham, South London. Frank is delighted that his next-door neighbour is Bob Mitchell, a friend from his days in the army.

Frank, Ethel and Bob attend a Victory Parade in the summer of 1919.[1] Frank finds employment in a travel agency, arranging tours of Western Front battlefields, run by another old army chum. As the children grow up and the country adapts to peacetime, the family attend the British Empire Exhibition held at Wembley in 1924. At Christmas 1925 the family acquire their first crystal set radio.

Reg becomes friendly with Sam, a staunch socialist, who is attracted to Vi. Queenie is pursued by Bob's sailor son Billy, but she longs to escape the suburbs and lead a more glamorous life elsewhere. During the General Strike of 1926 (in which Frank and Bob volunteer as driver and conductor of a bus), Reg is injured in a brawl in Whitechapel Road. Vi blames Sam, who had brought her brother to the area, but eventually her anger dissipates and she marries him.

In 1928, Charleston dance mania arrives in England and Queenie wins a dance contest. In 1929 Sam and Vi attend one of the new talking pictures at the cinema. News of the electoral rise of the German Nazi Party, led by Adolf Hitler, begins to appear in the newspapers.[2] Reg marries Phyllis. Billy (now a Leading seaman) proposes to Queenie, but she confesses she is in love with a married man and soon after runs off with him. Her mother says she cannot forgive her and never wants to see her again.

After a drunken regimental reunion, Bob expresses his faith that the League of Nations will keep the peace, and scoffs at Frank's concerns about the disarmament policies of the new National Government and the Japanese invasion of Manchuria. As time passes, Ethel's mother dies, Aunt Sylvia discovers spiritualism and Reg and Phyllis are killed in a car crash. The British Union of Fascists tries to stir up anti-Semitic sentiment in the city.[3] Stanley Baldwin wins the 1935 United Kingdom general election. King George V dies (January 1936) and Frank and Ethel join the crowds filing past his coffin. King Edward VIII abdicates (11 December 1936). When Neville Chamberlain returns from Munich (September 1938) with the promise of "peace in our time,” Frank is disgusted by people's enthusiastic response.

Billy, home on leave from the Royal Navy and now a sub-lieutenant, announces to the family he ran into Queenie while on shore leave in France. Abandoned by her lover, she and an older woman opened a tearoom to make ends meet. She deeply regrets having left home. Billy reveals they were married two weeks previously in the Plymouth Registry Office and he has brought her back to London; Ethel forgives her.

With the a new war on the horizon, Queenie leaves her baby son in the care of her parents when she sails to join her husband in Singapore. Frank and Ethel, faced with an empty nest, leave the house and move to a flat with their grandson.



In 1942, David Lean and Noël Coward had co-directed In Which We Serve. This Happy Breed marked Lean's solo directorial debut. He and Coward later teamed for Brief Encounter and Blithe Spirit.

Coward had played Frank Gibbons on stage, and he wanted to reprise the role on screen. Lean felt the playwright's public persona of witty sophistication was so far removed from his humble lower class origins that audiences would be unable to accept him as Gibbons, and he initially offered the role to Robert Donat instead.[4] Donat refused the role because he objected to the final speech delivered by his character in the stage version. As he explained in a letter to Coward: "Rightly or wrongly, I believe it is just that very political irresponsibility that got us into another war".[5] The role was given to Robert Newton, whose reputation for alcoholism led the producers to require Newton to sign a contract relinquishing £500 of his £9,000 salary, every time his drinking caused a delay in production.[5] According to the film's cameraman Ronald Neame, by the end of filming, Newton had forfeited his entire salary, although the producers forgave him and paid his full fee.[6]

Lean insisted on filming This Happy Breed on three-strip Technicolor stock, although the film was difficult to acquire in Britain during the war. At the time, a Technicolor representative was assigned to the set of every film that utilised the process to ensure everything looked right on film. Lean was contractually required to follow strictly the guidelines proposed by the consultant, whose expertise he questioned and who drove him to distraction because of her concentration on the minutest details. The released film barely resembles a standard Technicolor film, which was Lean's intention. It proved to be the most successful British release of 1944 and the first of many critically acclaimed films directed by him.[7]

Between March 2006 and January 2008, the restoration of This Happy Breed, combining digital and photochemical techniques, was carried out at the British Film Institute's National Archive's Conservation Centre in Berkhamsted and at Cineric, a post-production facility which combines optical printing and photochemical restoration with innovative digital techniques, in New York City. The project included correcting the colour and a full digital restoration of the picture and soundtrack. The most time-consuming part of the sound restoration process involved removing background noise that caused dialogue to become muffled when conventional methods of noise reduction were used to remove it. Technicians had to filter the noise between individual words to eliminate static. The restored film was screened as part of a major David Lean retrospective at BFI Southbank in mid-2008.[8]

The film's soundtrack, which includes the song London Pride, was performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Muir Mathieson.


Box Office[edit]

According to Kinematograph Weekly the 'biggest winners' at the box office in 1944 Britain were For Whom the Bell Tolls, This Happy Breed, Song of Bernadette, Going My Way, This Is the Army, Jane Eyre, The Story of Dr Wassell, Cover Girl, White Cliffs of Dover, Sweet Rosie O'Grady and Fanny By Gaslight. Breed was the biggest British hit of the year followed by Fanny By Gaslight, The Way Ahead and Love Story.[9][10]


TV Guide rated the film four stars and called it "an immensely charming movie, with many tears and many moments of warmth."[11]

Time Out London said, "Though Lean and Coward are less happy here than in the brittle, refined atmosphere of Brief Encounter, their adventurous excursion into suburban Clapham remains endlessly fascinating."[12]

Channel 4 rated it 3½ out of five stars and added, "A toff propagandist's England, of course. But once you've got over its peculiar patrician tones and bitty structure, there's much to enjoy – not least the changing frocks and haircuts and wallpapers."[citation needed]

Radio Times gave it five out of five stars and said "This second of David Lean's four collaborations with Noël Coward provides a fascinating picture of the way we were. ... such is the ebb and flow of events (both domestic and historical) that the two hours it takes to cover the 20 inter-war years seem to fly by. Celia Johnson is superb ....the best scenes belong to neighbours Robert Newton and Stanley Holloway".[13]

Awards and nominations[edit]

The National Board of Review named Celia Johnson Best Actress for her portrayal of Ethel Gibbons.


  1. ^ after the Treaty of Versailles marked the formal end of the war
  2. ^ The headline refers to the September 1930 German federal election at which the Nazis achieved a major breakthrough, becoming a major party in the Reichstag. Hitler finally came to power in January 1933.
  3. ^ the speaker - wearing a black uniform as these had not yet been banned by the Public Order Act 1936 - refers to the recent disorder at the 1934 Olympia Rally
  4. ^ "BFI Screenonline: This Happy Breed (1944)".
  5. ^ a b Palmer, R. Barton and William Robert Bray (2013). Modern British Drama on Screen. New York: Cambridge University Press. pp. 49–50. ISBN 9781107001015. Retrieved 12 August 2015.
  6. ^ Neame, Ronald (2010). "The Golden Age" (Interview). Interviewed by Karen Stetler. Criterion Collection.
  7. ^ "This Happy Breed". Turner Classic Movies.
  8. ^ Archived 23 December 2009 at the Wayback Machine
  9. ^ Lant, Antonia (1991). Blackout : reinventing women for wartime British cinema. Princeton University Press. p. 231=232.
  10. ^ Robert Murphy, Realism and Tinsel: Cinema and Society in Britain 1939-48 2003 p 207
  11. ^ "This Happy Breed - TV Guide".
  12. ^ "Time Out London review". Archived from the original on 10 October 2012. Retrieved 8 January 2009.
  13. ^ "TV listings guide". Radio Times.

External links[edit]