Choose one film and discuss it through illustration. How does its social, political, historical context inform the form and content?
Noël Coward’s, This Happy Breed (1944)
British national cinema following the First World War was somewhat subdued compared the fantastical pictures of the preceding peacetime. 1940’s British cinema is often referred to as a ‘Golden age’, whereby British films were able to compete with Hollywood in both domestic and international markets. This art house strategy contested the Hollywood paradigm by “Combining the objective temper and aesthetics of the documentary movement with the stars and resources of studio filmmaking” noted critic Richard Armstrong (Armstrong, 2012). This artistic compromise suited both the British southeastern bourgeois class, who favored educational films of high importance and the working class, who favored Hollywood’s mainstream genre films.
Noël Coward’s sophomore collaboration with director David Lean, This Happy Breed (1944) follows the Gibbons family, lead by Patriarch Frank Gibbons (Robert Newton) over a twenty-year period starting at the end of the Great War and concluding at the dawn of the Second World War. Coward presents the family life of the Gibbons’ like any family, juxtaposing their love for one another with the trials and tribulations of life, specifically, post war life, and how the Gibbons family find their way in a changing society. A fundamental feature in the hard to define movement of cinema realism is depicting “some aspect of life as it is lived” (Lay, Samantha, 2002: p 8). Lean displays just that by focussing on family trivialities, the Idiosyncratic exchanges between Frank’s recently widowed sister Sylvia (Alison Leggatt) and Ethel’s elderly mother, (Amy Veness) for example, adds to the illusion of reality.
When Britain declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939, gone was the 'flag-waving patriotism' of August 1914. The First World War had stripped the idealistic notions of the British Empire at war. The British public were able to fathom that this war would involve hardship, endurance, and great losses.
That being said, This Happy Breed is an inherently patriotic film. The Shakespearean title is a quote taken from Richard II where it is used to rather appropriately describe the general English public. Rather fittingly, this is what Noël Coward’s film concerns itself with. However Coward doesn’t concern himself with typical British mementos. The family do not sit around the piano recanting praise to the country and monarch. As Dawson puts it, there is “nothing that ham-fisted or cringe inducing” (Dawson, 2008). Instead, Coward focuses on the family, and ordinary family experiences through important historic events, such as the British Empire Exhibition of 1924 and the General strike of 1926. The film is a song of British reliance and stoicism through the turbulent quarter century in which the film is set.