Before tackling such classics as The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and Doctor Zhivago (1965), British director David Lean began his career with a quartet of collaborations with acclaimed playwright Noël Coward. The Criterion Collection has issued these films – In Which We Serve (1942), This Happy Breed (1944), Blithe Spirit (1945), and Brief Encounter (1945) – in the four-DVD package David Lean Directs Noël Coward. The four films are presented in superb audio/visual quality, each supplemented with interesting and informative special features.
In Which We Serve is a testament to Noël Coward’s diversity. He produced, wrote, scored, and starred in the film, in addition to co-directing with Lean. The very patriotic World War II film has an intriguing structure. The opening depicts an attack by German aircraft on the Royal Navy ship HMS Torrin, leaving it badly damaged and slowly sinking. A smattering of survivors cling to a raft, enduring further attacks from above. Several survivors’ backstories are told via flashbacks, creating a time-shifting narrative that keeps the film consistently interesting.
Rather than taking a stance for or against war in general, In Which We Serve proudly endorses the efforts of Britain’s Royal Navy. The focus is squarely on the personal lives of the ship’s crew and the sacrifices made by each after joining the war effort. Coward turns in a sturdy, noble performance as the Torrin’s captain, E.V. Kinross. Celia Johnson is dignified in her portrayal of the captain’s wife, Alix Kinross. The rest of the surviving crew fill out a fine ensemble cast, including a young Richard Attenborough in his film debut. The production values are excellent, with near documentary-style realism in scenes depicting work aboard the ship. The film was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay. Though it lost in both categories, Coward won an Academy Honorary Award for the film, recognizing his “outstanding production achievement.”
After the gritty black & white In Which We Serve, This Happy Breed is startling and much more modern-looking with its color cinematography. Lean was the sole occupant of the director’s chair for this outing, with Coward taking a greatly reduced role as producer only. Lean co-wrote the screenplay, based on Coward’s play, with Anthony Havelock-Allan and Ronald Neame. The title “breed” is that of the Gibbons family. The story begins shortly after the end of World War I, as the Gibbons family moves into a new home in a London suburb. This slice of life traces the lives of this ordinary family for a number of years, eventually concluding as the second world war is near.
Robert Newton plays the head of the Gibbons’ household, Frank. He and his wife Ethel (Celia Johnson) have three children, Reg, Vi and Queenie. As the years pass, the adult offspring emerge as very different personalities. Reg (John Blythe) takes an interest in socialist politics, accompanying his friend Sam (Guy Verney) to organized protests. Vi (Eileen Erskine) is the object of Sam’s affection. They eventually marry, despite Vi’s initially angry feelings towards Sam following Reg’s injury during the U.K.’s General Strike of 1926. Free spirit Queenie (Kay Walsh) ends up being spurned by her mother after she takes up with a married man. This Happy Breed is a rather dry melodrama, but emotions run strong and passionate among the ensemble cast.
Much lighter in tone than anything in the set is Blithe Spirit, a comedy with supernatural themes. Based on Coward’s play of the same name, Lean again co-wrote the screenplay with Havelock-Allan and Neame. Coward once again served as producer. Neame’s color cinematography is a bit more vivid this time, appropriate given the film’s comic tone. Novelist Charles Condomine (Rex Harrison), searching for fresh material for his next book, hires a medium named Madame Arcati (Margaret Rutherford) to perform a séance. Arcati, though snickered at by Charles’ guests, is far more competent than anyone thought. She conjures up the spirit of Charles’ deceased first wife, Elvira (Kay Hammond).
Charles begins conversing and interacting with the ghost of Elvira, much to the dismay of his current wife Ruth (Constance Cummings). No one can see the pale, green ghost except Charles, who appears crazy to bystanders who witness him speaking to thin air. Ruth, once she is convinced Charles is really communicating with his dead ex-wife, implores Arcati to rectify the situation. Blithe Spirit is a clever and quaintly amusing film, aided by sharp, witty writing. Though of course primitive by today’s standards, the film won an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects.
Brief Encounter was written by the same trio responsible for the previous two films’ screenplays, though accompanied this time by Coward himself. Lean directs this dry romance with great economy. The Coward play from which it was adapted was a one-act piece titled Still Life. All the action took place in a single location, the lounge at a train station. The film expands the scope to include a great deal of locations, though the focus remains on its two leads: Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson) and Dr. Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard).
Laura feels stuck in an unfulfilling marriage. She derives no satisfaction from her family, which includes two young children. She meets Dr. Harvey at a train station, and the two strike up an immediate friendship. Though she feels twinges of guilt, Laura willingly builds the relationship. She falls deeply in love with Dr. Harvey. Despite a wife and children of his own, the doctor feels the same way about Laura. As the film’s title suggests, their relationship is destined for brevity, though Laura and Alec are both very passionate in their feelings for one another.
Johnson does a remarkable job of conveying the searing loneliness and isolation Laura feels. Unfortunately, not much time is spend showing why she has grown so tired of her husband. Fred (Cyril Raymond) does seem a bit too preoccupied with his crossword puzzles to notice his wife’s boredom. But more exploration of Laura’s home life would have have helped make the character more sympathetic. The fact that Laura is literally suicidal over the prospect of not carrying on her relationship with Alec speaks volumes about her general unhappiness. But there is no evidence provided that her roles as wife and mother should lead her to such deep despair. Even so, Brief Encounter, in its unsentimental way, remains an engrossing character study.
As for supplementary features, In Which We Serve includes a 24 minute making-of documentary, “A Profile of In Which We Serve,” that packs in quite a bit of information. Also included is a 16 minute interview with Noël Coward expert Barry Day, who discusses In Which We Serve. An hour’s worth of audio from a 1969 discussion between Richard Attenborough and Noël Coward at London’s National Film Theatre rounds out the first film’s features.
Barry Day continues his illuminating discussion of Coward’s work with a fifteen minute interview included with This Happy Breed. There is also an interview with the film’s cinematographer and co-screenwriter Ronald Neame. Neame, who worked in various capacities on each film in this set, was 99 years old in this 2010 interview, the final year of his life. He speaks with great lucidity about his collaborations with Coward and Lean.
Blithe Spirit includes another Barry Day interview. Day offers 11 minutes of historical perspective on the film. A 50 minute episode of the British television program, The Southbank Show, takes a look back on the life and career of Noël Coward. This episode originally aired in 1992 and includes archival performance footage of Coward. Various interview subjects weigh in on Coward’s legacy as a playwright, songwriter, and performer. It’s an excellent primer on the multi-talented artist, who passed away in 1973.
Brief Encounter is also fleshed out with numerous useful supplements, including a commentary track by film historian Bruce Eder. Barry Day’s series of interviews concludes on this disc with a 17 minute discussion of the film. “A Profile of Brief Encounter” is a 24 minute documentary that sheds light on the making of the film. David Lean: A Self Portrait is a made-for-television documentary. The hour-long piece offers a solid overview of Lean’s entire directorial career.
The Criterion Collection has knocked this one out of the park. With uniformly excellent presentation, David Lean Directs Noël Coward offers four very different and interesting films that trace the early stages of Lean’s career. A 43 page booklet rounds out the package, containing extensive essays on all four films.