Taken from the BFI National Archive’s 2008 restorations, The Criterion Collection presents David Lean Directs Noël Coward, a four-disc set that presents the first four films of the director’s career where he had the good fortune to work with noted playwright Noël Coward. Each film is presented in 1.37:1 aspect ratio and with mono sound.
In Which We Serve (1942) was a project originated by Coward, who wanted to do something for the war effort when he stopped working for British Intelligence. He wrote, starred, and co-directed the film. The reason he shared duties on the latter was because although he knew he could handle the actors from his time directing theatre, he knew he needed assistance in other areas, such as the action scenes, so he brought in film editor David Lean. Using the sinking of the destroyer HMS Kelly during the Battle of Crete in 1941 as its basis, the film tells the story of HMS Torrin, placed in the same battle, and the men who sailed her. The extras include a new interview with Coward scholar Barry Day 16 min), who makes contribution on each disc; the making-of A Profile of In Which We Serve from 2000 (25 min); a 1969 audio recording (60 min) between cast member Richard Attenborough (Young Stoker) and Coward, and the trailer.
Coward produced Lean’s This Happy Breed (1944), which was based on his 1939 play of the same name. It presents the story of working-class British family, The Gibbons, during the first two World Wars. They are comprised of Frank, his wife Ethel, their three children (Reg, Vi and Queenie), his widowed sister Sylvia and Ethel’s mother. Over the course of the two decades, the Gibbons experience events unique to their time, such as the British Empire Exhibition of 1924, the General Strike of 1926 and the rise of Hitler, and those universal to all families, such as birth, marriage, and death. The extras are interviews with Day (15 min) and one with cinematographer of all four films Ronald Neame (44 min) from 2010, and trailers.
Based on producer Coward’s 1941 play of the same name and winner of an Academy Award for its special effects, Blithe Spirit (1945) is a comedic, supernatural love triangle when writer Charles Condomine (Rex Harrison) finds himself between his wife Ruth (Constance Cummings) and his late wife Elvira (Kay Hammond) after a psychic (Margaret Rutherford) accidently summons the latter to his home. Similar to the previous disc, the extras include an interview with Day (11 min), the trailer, and a 1992 episode of British TV series The Southbank Show on Coward (50 min).
A previous Criterion title, Brief Encounter (1945) is an adaptation of Coward’s 1936 one-act play Still Life. He also served as producer and screenwriter of this heart-wrenching tale of an unconsummated love affair between Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson) and Dr. Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard), who are both married to other people. Extras include film historian Bruce Eder’s audio commentary, a Day interview (16 min), the making-of A Profile of Brief Encounter (25 min) from 2000, the 1971 TV documentary David Lean: A Self Portrait (60 min), and the film’s trailer.
For those curious about ’40s British cinema, the early work of director David Lean, or the film work of Noël Coward, David Lean Directs Noël Coward is a very good collection to view. The set also includes a 45-page booklet which includes essays by Ian Christie, Terrence Rafferty, Farran Smith Nehme, Geoffrey O’Brien and Kevin Brownlow.