Next week, on March 27, the Criterion Collection releases David Lean Directs Noël Coward, one of their lavish boxed sets. It includes In Which We Serve, This Happy Breed, Brief Encounter and Blithe Spirit. And the Siren is most pleased to announce that it will include an essay from her about This Happy Breed, the second film that Lean and Coward did together, and Lean's first in color. Brief Encounter is the acknowledged jewel of the set, but after watching, rewatching, living and breathing This Happy Breed for the weeks it took her to write the essay, the Siren stoutly maintains it's a close second. Restored to its full glory by the British Film Institute, the movie is simply dazzling. On the release date, the Siren's essay will go live on the Criterion site, and she'll post a small excerpt and link then, and explain why she thinks This Happy Breed deserves a much higher reputation.
For her research the Siren bought a biography of This Happy Breed's female lead Celia Johnson, written by Johnson's daughter Kate Fleming. Johnson was married to Peter Fleming, an explorer and writer who was also the brother of Ian Fleming. Their marriage lasted from 1936 to 1971, when Fleming died of a heart attack while on a hunting trip to Scotland. Together they had three children, and the book chronicles Johnson's professional life as well as her efforts to maintain a household with a husband who was frequently absent. (The Siren doesn't know whether it was ever even published here--she had to order hers from a bookstore in the U.K. via ABEbooks, where it can be had quite cheaply.)
The biography has sneakily become one of the Siren's favorites. There's Fleming's attitude toward her mother: love and gratitude. That's it. No grim secrets. No "how I overcame the staggering burden of having a star for a mother." Johnson certainly doesn't come across as a saint, but Fleming believes her mother was a remarkable woman. Fancy that.
The larger reason is that the Siren grew to love Johnson. Fleming quotes her mother's witty, intelligent, loving letters throughout, many of them written to Peter as he journeyed anywhere, everywhere. She tells Peter she wants to get on a boat and cross the seas to get to him: "There I would say 'Where please is Peter Fleming?' They would tell me without hesitation and I should walk rapidly inland avoiding all bandits and fall into your arms."
Johnson never considered herself a beauty of any sort (although the photo above, taken in 1933, offers its own disagreement) and one small subtheme of the letters concerns how lousy she always thinks she looks on camera. She moans over that, but her household burdens merit less complaint. And Johnson had plenty to complain about, had she chosen to do so. She and Fleming bought a house well outside London that required much more commuting time and upkeep than was strictly practical for a working actress. During World War II, including during the filming of This Happy Breed, the Fleming menage swelled to include her widowed sister, her sister-in-law and a total of seven small children, hers and theirs, the men all off at war. The Siren read accounts of Johnson's determination to make her train home without fail, gas for a car being out of the question--and doesn't blame her a bit.
She was a marvelous actress, of course, and that's enough. But how wonderful to open this book and find out, shoot, the woman was a riot. Here she is on holiday in Majorca, mentioning to an American tourist that she had just been working in New York. The American remarks:
'Oh I saw [Raymond] Massey's Hamlet on the first night and couldn't stand the Ophelia--who was that?' In a still small voice I said 'Well that was me'--and [he] spent the rest of lunch apologising and explaining it away, and me by saying how right he was about it over and over again. He has avoided me frantically ever since, smiling nervously when he sees me and immediately starting to talk very hard to someone else.
Johnson's filmography is short, shorter than it could have been, though it includes the indelible Brief Encounter and fine late-career work in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and the television drama Staying On. And while she was primarily a theater actress, her list of credits there isn't large, either. She simply didn't pursue or accept roles that would interfere too much with her family. Like most great talents, though, the acting still mattered. It mattered a lot. So the Siren closes with this from Johnson, a piece called "Film Star Manqué" that she wrote in the 1950s and sent to a literary agent, but never published. Johnson's mind never switched off; she saw a great deal more on a set than her own scenes. She starts with a hilarious story about a director who introduces her at a film festival, and she wonders why his speech (in German) is taking so long, until she floats onstage, he thrusts some flowers at her and whispers, "That was a near thing…I had to spin out my speech for ages because I simply couldn't think of your name."
The passage that follows will remain one of the loveliest things the Siren has ever read about film acting.
…Sometimes I get a sort of nostalgia for the actual work of filming. I miss the strange, unmistakeable smell of size and paint that you find on all film sets and the hot powdery smell of the makeup rooms. I miss the curious sort of camera worship that goes on. It has its own devoted band of acolytes who feed it and polish it and push it gently about and shield it from harsh lights. They even fling blondes in front of it like tributes to a savage god. There is an an organised confusion on a film set when nothing seems to happen for hours and then everything goes quiet for a seconds, and in those few seconds you have to try and fit something consistent and true on to something that you probably did days before or have not yet done. There is a challenge in trying to act in a little cut-off bit of light, with no audience but the technicians and a fastidious director. Those technicians not concerned with the take are probably filling in their football pools and if you can make them look up and watch to the end of your shot you have probably achieved something.
I like the dedication that great directors have, when nothing matters except the film they are making and they cannot think that anything matters to anyone else either. I like being measured for focus by a tape from the end of one's nose to the camera and measured for light by the camera-man with his meter and I like to watch the skill of the technicians and I forget all the things I don't like. There were many. Mainly the waiting about, particularly on those depressing days when one had an early call, and that means dawn rising, and then, because of some hold-up, not be needed on the set until dusk. Rushes I never liked. That is when you see the shots of the day before and are horrified at your lack of subtlety or the size of your nose.
I used to be annoyed by what I thought was the waste, but at the same time impressed by the lordly way in which anything--however peculiar, rare or costly--could be produced at a moment's notice. I liked the machine that can make cobwebs, delicate threads of a rubbery solution shot from a spray in a twinkling and the detailed observation shown by the continuity girls, who can tell you the length of ash on your cigarette necessary to match for a close-up. I have always liked professionals and to watch professional film-making from the inside is a pleasure, though not, I think, from the outside, and I am glad that for a while I was able to do this. I never felt anything but surprise at being there, but I also think and hope that I became a professional at it on the set, though never on parade.