“I hate living here. I hate living in a house thats exactly like hundreds of other houses. I hate coming home from work on the tube. I hate washing up and helping Mum darn Dad’s socks … and what’s more I know why I hate it – it’s because it’s all so common”
I have had – for far too long – a David Lean boxset. A ‘centenary collection’ with remastered sound and restored footage. £25 from Fopp it felt like a bargain (until I saw a very similar boxset for, pretty much, £15 … bloody Fopp). Nevertheless, I recalled a huge David Lean season at the BFI whereby I attended a discussion about Lawrence of Arabia, Bridge on the River Kwai and Passage to India. Ian Christie was on the panal alongside some guy I recognised at the time – not Nick James… was it Andrew Collins? One of those dark-haired thirty-ish, forty-ish blokes who review for Sight and Sound. It was a funny event, whereby I vividly recall some old guy complaining about the footage used when screened (before discussing each film they screened a short sequence, understandably from the DVD, and this guy when into this complete tirade about how it wasn’t the original reel, etc, etc) and a woman who managed to slip into her – you couldn’t really call it a question – statement that she knew Sam Spiegel (“We seem to have forgotten about Sam Spiegel a force who Lean would be nothing without … and when I spoke to Sam…” – subtle). So I think when I got this boxset I was in this huge David Lean state-of-mind. I had seen the big Noel Coward produced-Brief Encounter (brilliant … though I did watch it in the BFI mediatheque) and the Oscar winners Bridge on … Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia and knew the huge influence he had on Spielberg amongst others. Either way … it sat on my shelf a long while before I actually watched a film. First off The Passionate Friends (another time … ) and, most recently This Happy Breed.
Gurinder Chadha, director of Bend it like Beckham, praised this film highly and, I have to admit, it truly is a great film. I heard that apparently half of the films made in America before 1950 have been destroyed … so it is great that in England we look after things. This really is a great film – though it does often feel like a film for a History lesson. The blurb on the back of the DVD praises the films smooth pans a zoom in’s – noting the start whereby the camera flys down from atop of London and, through three fades, zooms in through the house to focus on the door – which is promptly opened by Ethel and Frank Gibbons the parents of the family about to move in. The first thing I thought of was Citizen Kane and the famous opening in that film … a film made three years prior. Not as groundbreaking as you might think then. The title comes from Shakespeares Richard II whereby the monologue it is used within ends with the line “This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England”. So you are watching a very English film with a very traditional attitude – lots of tea and well-dressed middle-class folk talking about ‘society’.
It traces the life of a family between WWI and WWII: The Return and seems to capture a very specific attitude in England of the time – apparently. I wasn’t there, it simply seems to be the case. Frank Gibbons (Robert Newton) fought during WWI and, amongst many fantastic sequences between him and his neighbour Bob (Stanley Holloway), the two state that there won’t be ‘no war in our time’. Its difficult to imagine that attitude now – these two men who had fought during a World War. Who have seen the horrors and never want such a thing to happen again, having to live through the second World War two decades after. Truly a moment in history forgotten and rarely recorded. In the house are Frank and Ethel Gibbons (Celia Johnson), their three children Reggie, Queenie and Violet – Vy – and some entertaining family members in the guise of Aunt Sylvia (a brilliant sequence when ‘Syl’ sings a Christmas song completely out of tune provokes Frank to sneak away and have a cheeky cigar – its stranger still because I though he has this Mike-Myers quality too making it that much more cheekier) and Mrs Flint, who appears to be the Nana.
You have a great contrast between the kids, whereby Reggie is initially a man in strong support of the poor, praying that more money is given to people in poverty (this is influenced by his friend Sam, who loses his passion for his view when he marry’s Vy). Queenie on the other hand hates the house and middle-class of society she lives in (see the chosen quote) – trying exceptionally hard to have a rich lifestyle. You have a short sequence set in 1928, whereby you see how free Queenie is as she dances. We also have Bob’s son Billy – a Navy man – who never stops loving Queenie. Asking her to marry him many times – and being rejected – before finally winning her heart. The entire last act follows a situation whereby Queenie leaves the family home for a married man – Billy still loves her – but the shame she brings on the family forces her mother to hate her. To the point that she never wants to hear her name uttered in her house. Luckily the marriage to Billy rekindles their relationship.
Nevertheless, I am worried that the blatent influence of Welles on the opening may affect you view on this film and David Lean. There is still some flawless sequences in the film. At one point the camera seems to pan across a room and then, without an interruption, zoom out of a window and into the garden. Take Kane and add to it I guess. Another sequence, which reminds me of that sequence in Taxi Driver – when Travis is told via phone to leave Betsy alone – is also perfectly shot. Vy enters the house to inform Aunt Syl and Mrs Flint that Reggie has died in a car accident – her parents are outside and rather then show us the whole sequence, we see Vy go outside as the camera pans very, very slowly across the empty dining area. It must be a full minute before we see the parents drag themselves inside in complete shock. A speechless moment.
To conclude, the film places a firm emphasis on the family unit – and the strength of the couple Frank and Ethel themselves. Their love is what keeps the family together (well, Queenie leaves so … maybe not always together). Interestingly, Ethel is a housewife/mother very clearly – though stern and strict – she doesn’t work, and she supports Frank in every way so the establishing of the female in the house is a clear facet to the film – to the point that the freedom Queenie exercises is frowned upon by the family and, even for Queenie herself, she admits her ‘wrong-doing’ only to return to the family and marry the neighbour who has always been a traditionalist (even following in the military footsteps of his father). It is still a great study of this period with characters who are watchable and interesting – to the point that you feel strongly for the family when Reggie dies.
Stranger still is that one year later, Celia Johnson starred in the Noel Coward/David Lean combo of Brief Encounter – a film that explores female freedom moreso with Celia Johnson playing a character much more complex than This Happy Breed’s Ethel …