Tuesday, March 27, 2012

This Happy Breed (1944), at the Criterion Collection

The Siren's essay, "Home Truths," about David Lean's film of the Noel Coward play This Happy Breed, is up now at the Criterion Collection. A brief excerpt is below. You can read the whole thing at the Criterion site; the Siren strongly encourages you to comment over there. And, should the spirit move you, please also click the "like" button at the bottom.

David Lean is a giant, and the Siren is still in (pleasant) shock that when she got a chance to write something for Criterion, it was about one of his movies. She's also developing a greatly expanded appreciation of the breadth and depth of Noel Coward. The piece is part of the booklet to the four-disc boxed set, David Lean Directs Noel Coward. Entirely aside from her participation the Siren tells you, in all honesty, that the set is a honey.

The film opens with the camera gliding across a panoramic view of London, followed by a dissolve to a street of houses. Then we pan again and descend toward the houses’ gardens, continue moving to an open second-story window, and finally dissolve inside to the bathroom. The camera moves past that filthy bathtub, down stairs so ramshackle you feel you can already hear them creak, and finally arrives at the front door just as Frank Gibbons does. This beginning, moving from the epic to the personal with exquisite precision, sets the film’s entire vocabulary. A large-scale interlude establishes the time period—whether it’s the strike or Neville Chamberlain’s return from Munich—then there’s a dissolve back to the Gibbonses, and as the family’s scene closes, Lean’s camera pulls away.


  1. Totally awesome that you got to do this. Great piece by the way.

  2. Thanks, Siren.
    Is that Olivier narrating the opening sequence?
    A really beautiful film. Lean captures that "infinitely suffering, infinitely gentle" quality of quiet British intrepidity we Anglophiles so admire. Newton, Johnson, Mills, et al. are all splendid.
    Your essay is a gem.

  3. Weird coincidence -- I got to check if Olivier indeed did the VO -- he did -- and see also credited Bessie Love and Anita Page, who appear by way of archive. And the film they're in together is Broadway Melody, which I only just watched last night.

    I was just wondering about MY luck in getting such great films to write about at Criterion, and then reflected that since their output is so consistently high, there's no way you're going to get offered a turkey.

    Well done, I'm looking forward to reading this (and seeing the film again, it's been years).

  4. It was bruited about that Bogart couldn’t beat Mike Romanoff at chess (the new banner; Bogey, Bacall, Robert Coote and Romanoff at his restaurant); of course the rumour was started by Romanoff.
    Bogart beat most opponents; here he’s about to checkmate Charles Boyer.

    Bogie was ranked an expert player – he had to be – after the 1929 crash, the broke actor earned lunch money as a chess hustler in Central Park.

  5. Y., I have been searching for a good (i.e., not scanned from the mag) copy of that Bogey v. Boyer picture for ages. There's a number of Bogart Plays Chess pictures around and they're all great. I didn't know he chess hustled, but I'd have bet he was very good indeed. In every photo you can see that he's got a laserlike focus on the game. I'm no good at it myself--can't seem to think ahead--but I'm fascinated by people who are. Also, thank you for identifying Romanoff, it was bothering me.

  6. Y, you don't by any chance have the
    photo of Boyer with Albert Camus (for which I've been reserving a blank space on my overcrowded walls these many years)?

    I recognized Mike Romanoff but am ashamed to say drew a blank on Robert Coote.

  7. Bogie liked to drink and to play chess, not a good combination unless the other player is doing the same.

    Looks like both are doing both in that picture and looks from the pieces that Bogie's on the attack!

  8. A lovely movie, though I rate "Brief Encounter" a little higher. The movie is excellent, but I must confess that I don't particularly care for Kay Walsh as Queenie