Taken from Noel Coward’s popular and charming stage play of the same name, This Happy Breed looks at the way in which a working class family adapts to life after World War I as they slowly move up the class ladder.
Celia Johnson stars as dowdy housewife Ethel Gibbons, married to Frank (Robert Newton), who has just returned from the war. Ethel had been sharing a house with her daughter Queenie (Kay Walsh, director Lean’s wife), son Reg (John Blythe), crotchety mother Mrs Flint (Amy Veness) and spinster sister-in-law Sylvia (Allison Leggatt). Frank returns from the war to move them all into a bigger house in Clapham and the film traces the ups and downs of the family’s fortunes as the new peace allows them to reach for a greater standing in life.
Ethel’s mother complains constantly about the world around her and everyone who lives within a hundred mile radius. Sylvia is lonely and hurls herself into charity work – where she might meet a potential husband – and Ethel and Frank have to rediscover the stability in their relationship. Meanwhile, the children are growing up and away from their parents. Reg becomes a radical activist who throws himself into the stew of the General Strike, while Queenie starts work in beauty salon, while carrying on an affair with Billy (John Mills), son of next-door-neighbour Bob Mitchell (Stanley Holloway). However, all their worlds are thrown into terrible disarray when Reg decides to marry his sweetheart Phyllis (Betty Fleetwood) and invites Queenie and Billy to the wedding…
Although episodic, This Happy Breed is essentially a dynastic drama that unfolds to illuminate the aspirations of England’s lower classes, in part pointing towards an evolution of the class system that would break it almost entirely from the Victorian system that would be familiar to most of the film’s British audience.
UK / 1944
Director: David Lean
Writers: Ronald Neame, David Lean, Anthony Havelock-Allan, based on the play by Noel Coward
Cast: Robert Newton, Celia Johnson, John Mills, Kay Walsh, Stanley Holloway, Amy Veness, Alison Leggatt, Eileen Erskine, John Blythe, Guy Verney, Merle Tottenham, Betty Fleetwood, Laurence Olivier