This Happy Breed
David Lean brings to vivid emotional life Noël Coward’s epic chronicle of a working-class family in the London suburbs over the course of two decades. Robert Newton and Celia Johnson are surpassingly affecting as Frank and Ethel Gibbons, a couple with three children whose modest household is touched by joy and tragedy from the tail end of the First World War to the beginning of the Second. With its mix of politics and melodrama, This Happy Breed is a quintessential British domestic drama, featuring subtly expressive Technicolor cinematography by Ronald Neame and a remarkable supporting cast including John Mills, Stanley Holloway, and Kay Walsh.
Criterion has put together a 4-disc box set representing the collaborative work of playwright Noël Coward and director David Lean, calling it David Lean Directs Noël Coward. The second film in the set, This Happy Breed, is presented here on a dual-layer disc in a new 1080p/24hz transfer in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1.
In association with ITV Studios Global Entertainment and StudioCanal the BFI conducted a vigorous restoration of Lean’s first ten films, with funding from the David Lean Foundation. These restorations were used for all of the transfers in this set and were supplied to Criterion by ITV. All of them look exceptional.
This Happy Breed is the first Technicolor feature in the set and looks about as impressive as the previous disc’s presentation for In Which We Server. There’s some colour separation and slight bleeding to be found but all be told this is an incredible looking Technicolor presentation. The image is stable and sharp, presenting a high amount of detail when the source allows, and edges remain clean and well defined, again when the source allows. Film grain is present and looks completely natural, never like noise, and there are also no other artifacts to speak of. The colour presentation itself is also stunning, with beautiful saturation and some vivid moments but it never loses that Technicolor look. It’s just absolutely striking.
In general its only limitations are with the source, and even these issues (the separation, bleeding, and mild fuzziness) aren’t of a very big concern. But the digital transfer itself is pretty much perfect, and it delivers a very film-like experience.
The disc’s lossless linear PCM 1.0 mono track is adequate to the material, but it is a bit hollow and flat. Music can be edgy but dialogue is generally clear and easy to hear.
Each disc in the set contains its own set of supplements, with a few focusing specifically on the film contained on the disc. This review only concentrates on the supplements included on the disc of This Happy Breed.
Each disc in the set includes an interview with Coward scholar Barry Day. The one included here runs about 15-minutes and goes over the history of this particular “play” (the play was basically shelved and it didn’t have an actual run until around the time the film version was released) and the early development of the project. Coward originally wanted to play the Frank Gibbons part, but Lean wasn’t a fan of Coward’s acting style and instead wanted Robert Donat for the role. He turned it down and the role eventually went to Robert Newton, who Day doesn’t appear to be a fan of (and according to other supplements it sounds like there were general issues with the actor.) He talks about Coward’s presentation of the working class and looks at how Lean makes this film more cinematic in comparison to In Which We Serve, saying Lean actually makes the camera itself a character in the film. Yes, Day is a bit dry, but he manages to still keep it an interesting analysis of the film and play.
Following this is a lengthy 44-minute interview with director of photography Ronald Neame (found under a feature called “The Golden Age”,) recorded in 2010 just before his death at the age of 99. He talks about how he first came aboard on the production of In Which We Serve, recalling the production, some of its controversies (there were those upset by the fact that this film showed a sinking English ship as opposed to a sinking German ship,) and the technical issues that arose while shooting in the pool used for the film’s water sequences. He then talks about This Happy Breed (recalling how they made the film in “glorious” Technicolor but did everything to make it look drab,) makes his way through the other films in the set (Blithe Spirit and Brief Encounter) and then ends with him talking about his move to producer and producing Lean’s film Great Expectations. Neame offers a firsthand account on the productions while also offering more technical details than other supplements found in the set. It’s an excellent interview and I’m glad Criterion was able to get his input on these films and his work with Lean.
The disc then concludes with the film’s original theatrical trailer along with its rerelease trailer, which is fairly similar to the other trailer. The set also comes with a booklet with a number of essays, including one by Ferran Smith Nehme on This Happy Breed.
On its own it’s not as impressive as the supplements on the In Which We Serve disc, but the Neame interview alone adds a lot of value.
As a whole Criterion’s Lean/Coward set is a strong release and each individual disc in the set would make a solid edition on their own. The Blu-ray for This Happy Breed offers a stellar Technicolor presentation accompanied by a couple of engaging supplements.