|David Lean (left, Noel Coward (right); photo from that Criterion box set I can't afford|
There's a Noël Coward retrospective at Lincoln Center this weekend, because Noël Coward's awesome. I took in a double feature Friday night, of the first two films Coward made as producer: 1942's In Which We Serve and 1944's This Happy Breed, the latter from his 1939 play. These also, notably, mark the beginning of David Lean's career as a director. When Coward was approached by Anthony Havelock-Allan to make a propaganda film for the British war effort, he accepted the invitation on condition that he was allowed to write, produce, direct, and star. (Because part of being Noël Coward is knowing that you're Noël Coward.) Though he was sure that his experience in the theatre and Ronald Neame's skill as cinematographer would be sufficient for most of the task that would be In Which We Serve, Coward brought in Lean, who had to that point been a film editor, to supervise the action scenes, for which (as well as for other direct and indirect influences on the shape of the film) Lean was ultimately credited as co-director.
One immediately apparent influence Lean had on In Which We Serve, as related by Barry Day, was in advising Coward that his treatment was too long, and that Coward go see Citizen Kane, then in theaters, for inspiration to shape his idea into something more specifically cinematic. Not only Coward's script—built around flashbacks—but Neame's camerawork, with its unconventional tilts and use of deep focus, recalls Kane. While Coward's script and scenes of life on the home front give In Which We Serve its heart, Lean's action scenes give the film its teeth: they're a really extraordinary achievement in action cinema, shot and cut for maximum tension (and in a way that shows the influence of Eisenstein's Potemkin as well as Kane; if you're going to show influences, those are two good ones to flash, to be sure), but their simultaneously realistic and stylized use of sound prefigure modern action cinema, and hold up to what was done decades later in the genre.
But as skillful and ambitious as the filmmaking is, what makes In Which We Serve so effective as both cinema and propaganda is its characters. Family, country, and the Royal Navy intertwine, and are essentially as one; the affection the film builds for the crew members of the HMS Torrin makes the political point better than a speech would have. At the story's end, we want England to win the war because we like Captain Kinross, Chief Petty Officer Hardy, and Ordinary Seaman Shorty Blake so much. It's one thing to know that Great Britain was in a battle in which its very existence was at stake, it's an entirely other thing to know that, really, we serve because of our comrades. Love for one's fellow human beings is a far more effective motivator than abstract political principles; where the latter, when fully understood, are the actual reasons to fight and win, the former is the fuel that keeps the fire going. That Coward knew this so totally is the fundamental thing that makes In Which We Serve so great.
Part two of the double feature, an entirely different kind of film though embodying much the same theme of one group of Britons representing the entirety of the kingdom, was This Happy Breed. Lean's first solo credit as a director, and an adaptation of Coward's play, This Happy Breed is, like In Which We Serve, a departure from the prevailing notion of Noël Coward plays as being things where people swish around in silk dressing gowns and cigarette holders and banter dazzlingly. The Gibbons family, and their friends and neighbors, are working-class Londoners. Their lives are deliberately those any of their countrymen could easily have lived, as, like In Which We Serve, the film universalizes the British experience. Lean (with, of course, the help of the brilliant Ronald Neame, and in gorgeous Technicolor) accomplishes this universality by bookending the film with two rather glorious establishing shots: the first pans from a shot of the entirety of London to the house in Clapham where twenty years in the life of the Gibbons family play out. Then, at the end, the shot in reverse connects the house back to all of London, and thus, of Britain itself.
There's a repeated sentiment in This Happy Breed about the English character as being one not easily rushed, and of change happening gradually. That characterizes the movie quite well; its pace would be called slow by anyone unable to connect emotionally to the Gibbons. Indeed, parts of the story, especially in the middle-ish sections, do lag a bit (these are also, not coincidentally, where the film still feels excessively beholden to its one-set origins on the stage). But that's kind of the point of This Happy Breed. It's so warmly written and beautifully acted, not to mention the clear genius already present in Lean's direction, that its slowness is what makes it what it is, a deeply human drama.
The lead performances, by Robert Newton as Frank Gibbons and Celia Johnson as his wife Ethel, are both masterful bits of work. Newton, in the role Coward himself played onstage, brings an earthy gravitas Lean felt Coward couldn't (this in spite, ironically, of Coward actually having grown up in just such a manner as the Gibbons). Whether or not this was the case, we'll never know, but This Happy Breed does feature one damn fine Robert Newton performance. His Frank Gibbons is who he is, as he was and ever shall be, like the England he so loves. Also conveying that same reassuring sense of eternity is Celia Johnson as Ethel. She plays a variation on her character in In Which We Serve in This Happy Breed, with the variation being one of class, though she's every bit as powerful and real as the working-class Ethel as she is as the more genteel Alix. Just watching Celia Johnson act is a glorious thing, as well: every gesture is exactly what it needs to be, every line reading simple and direct. Without going in for a bunch of Method histrionics, she manages to convey a sense of real humanity even more effectively. Even more than her physical beauty (which she personally downplayed, presumably out of owning neither a mirror nor an ego) this sublime precision to her craft (most famously seen in Lean and Coward's subsequent Brief Encounter) is what makes her one of the great film actresses (in stature, if not resume).
There's a shot a ways into This Happy Breed that's both profoundly British and a sign that David Lean was well on his way to becoming David Lean even in his solo debut: their daughter has to break some tragic news to Frank and Ethel, and runs out to them in the garden. Rather than follow her or cut to the garden the camera stays inside and politely lets them hear it without eavesdropping, and slowly, as if not to make a noise, pans across the room to the door. At the end, Frank and Ethel enter, stunned. It's almost like the film itself is saying, we already know what they're going to hear, let's just give them their space.
That right there is what this whole cinema thing is about. That shot, more than anything else in either of these two pictures, is where the partnership of Coward and Lean clicked into place and harmonized perfectly. Coward's drama giving Lean's camera something great to observe, Lean's camera lending a whole other level to Coward's drama that mere words couldn't convey. Two brilliant minds working together and saying, this is where I'm from. This is me. “This little world, this precious stone set in the sea . . . this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.”