Thursday, March 22, 2012

No More Laughter, Prepare for Tears

On Tuesday, Criterion will be releasing David Lean Directs Noël Coward, a boxset of the four films -- Blithe Spirit, Brief Encounter, This Happy Breed, and In Which We Serve -- David Lean made at the beginning of his career, from 1942 to 1945 each one either adapted from one of Coward's plays, or with Coward serving the film in a much more hands-on way, as with In Which We Serve.

The jewel of the crown must be that aforementioned war film, which has been released on video before, but is still somewhat neglected (Brief Encounter has already been a part of Criterion's library for years), but watching these four films -- some for the second time, some for the first -- over the past four days has been something of a revelation. With a core group of repeat actors, and with Ronald Neame behind the camera, always, Lean and Coward created four films that now feel effortlessly moving, casually funny, observant, wise, and elegant.

Perhaps Noël Coward's single best-known work, Blithe Spirit stars Rex Harrison as Charles Condomine, and Constance Cummings as his wife Ruth. As the deceptively frothy film begins, the couple is preparing to host a seance, which they're doing from a skeptical point of view, Charles's motive being to observe the medium, Madame Arcati (Margaret Rutherford, who plays the role in a way that reminds me of a female, manic Alistair Sim), for tips on her methods of deception so that he may incorporate them into the plot of a mystery he's writing. However, Arcati's no phony, and the seance has the effect of bringing forth into the lives of Ruth and Charles the ghost of Charles's previous wife, Elvira, played by Kay Hammond in a way that suggests Elvira died in a state of pleasant drunkenness, and the rules of the spirit world dictate that she stay that way.

Of course, Elvira's appearance is not the first the audience has heard of her -- in the opening scene Ruth and Charles talk about the dead woman, and what Charles considers her upsides and downsides, as though Elvira hadn't died tragically young, and Charles had not been cruelly widowed, but rather that the couple had experienced one of those very sophisticated divorces I guess they used to have. "Flippant" -- a word used in the film at one point -- doesn't even quite cover it for me. It's very nearly mean, or anyway callous. And while I'm willing to consider the possibility that this vibe is heightened for me by virtue of the fact that the bulk of the callousness comes from Rex Harrison, a man who in real life would make Charles Condomine look like someone whose heart never stops bleeding, I'm not willing to consider it for very long.

Blithe Spirit is a very good film, a funny film (lines like "We're old friends, we meet each other coming out of shops" are completely thrown away on a routine basis), and, not accidentally, a visually very alive film -- you'll rarely see color used in film with more consideration than by filmmakers from the era when the possibilities were still new. But it's honestly less frothy than it is nasty, something I have no doubt was well understood by Coward and Lean. For one thing, there are dinner table scenes between Harrison and Cummings that seem on the cusp of gaining speed to become the dissolution-of-a-marriage dining montage from Citizen Kane if it was funny and in color and had a ghost in it. More alarming than anything, though, is Blithe Spirit's approach to death, which is less hopeful than mockingly gleeful. And this isn't a criticism! But death is sudden in Blithe Spirit, yet is presented as delightful and light-hearted. Which is of course the blackest thing about the film. This is the cynic's version of Powell and Pressburger's A Matter of Life and Death.

Or the cynic's version of Brief Encounter. This exquisite film came out in 1945, the same year as Blithe Spirit, and the two bear some interesting similarities regarding married life while adopting completely different attitudes towards those similarities. However, they don't exactly act as counterpoints to each other, because neither one could be said to put forth a winning view of marriage. But they're not approaching the same things at all. Brief Encounter, based on Coward's play Still Life, stars Celia Johnson as Laura Jesson and Trevor Howard as the idealistic Dr. Alec Harvey, each of them married to other people, who meet randomly in the cafe of a train station. Laura goes there once a week for lunch during her errands in town, and Alec passes through during a layover between trains during his once-a-week shift at a local hospital. They come together when Alec helps Laura get a piece of grit out of her eye, and this leads to familiarity in the coming weeks. This itself leads to a fierce love, even though up until this point in her life Laura would not have thought of her marriage to her husband Fred (Cyril Raymond) as unhappy. But Alec's passion and kindness and adventurousness makes Fred's love of doing crosswords by the fireside seem suddenly stultifying and imprisoning to her.

The film, as I say, is gorgeous. It is even, in my estimation, close to perfect, and it was one creative choice, or two related ones, that makes Brief Encounter soar. The film begins with the last meeting between Laura and Alec, after Laura has made the decision that they can never be together, and Alec has revealed that his philanthropic ambitions are going to take him away, essentially forever. But as the film opens, the viewer doesn't know this. They only know that these two people are sitting together, talking quietly, when suddenly their privacy is blithely(!) intruded upon by Dolly Messiter (Everley Gregg), a friend of Laura's. So now, unable to speak openly about their situation, or to say the goodbyes they want to say, in the way they're silently crying out to say, they are forced to part as near strangers. The rest of the film exists in part to reveal why this moment is so crushing.

The rest of the film flows from this heartbreak, and even, I suspect, works as a leavening agent for certain viewers to accept the potential infidelity of Laura and Alec. A great deal of the power of Brief Encounter does come from Coward and Lean's refusal to construct villainous spouses the viewer can easily reject. Poor Fred may be dull, but he's a good man, and the ending of the film is almost rapturously sweet, even if Fred himself can't recognize why. And does Laura, fully? Her reaction to this final moment with Fred seems loving to me, but I suppose some might read it as despairing. It can obviously be both, and this is the genius of Celia Johnson, who gives here one of the great screen performances. Her torment and joy and sweetness are felt deeply, and its Laura's decency that animates Johnson's face. You want her to do the wrong thing, if it is the wrong thing, and it probably is, if it will only give this good woman some measure of happiness. Also, and unfortunately I can't go on about Brief Encounter forever, but Trevor Howard ain't no slouch either.

Celia Johnson also worked with Lean and Coward in 1944's This Happy Breed, a domestic drama about an English family from 1919, when the patriarch, Frank Gibbons (Robert Newton), returns home from World War I, gets a job at a travel agency, and moves his family to South London, to 1939 and the dawn of World War II, when the family moves again. Frank and his wife Ethel (Johnson) preside over a household that includes three children, Ethel's mother (Amy Veness), and Frank's sister Sylvia (Allison Leggatt). The action of the film, or the drama anyway, usually revolves around the children, such as daughter Vi's (Eileen Erskine) relationship with a young Communist (Guy Verney); son Reg's (John Blythe, who mugs a bit, let's be honest) own anti-Capitalist leanings, as well as his approaching full-grown, responsible-adult manhood; and especially the social strivings of their daughter Queenie (Kay Walsh), a significant name, or nickname, as her very existence seems to depend on her ability to live better than her parents.

The film consists of a series of vignettes of varying lengths that highlight the changing attitudes of England after World War I, and the significant turns within the Gibbons family, through everyday banality. Christmas dinner, a quietly startling talk between father and son before the son's wedding, Frank spending occasional evenings drunk with his best friend and fellow veteran Reg (John Blythe), breakfast, dances, and so on. There are three marriages that occur over the course of the film, but no weddings; a couple of deaths, too, but no funerals. Films like This Happy Breed exist narratively in wild peaks and valleys, but Lean and Coward almost seem to want to make those peaks and valleys function on the same plane. This is not to say the film is bland -- it's not at all, but arguments between characters are not meltdowns, tragedy is greeted with almost complete silence, save for the incongruous swing music piping out of a radio that nobody has the presence of mind to switch off.

Again, like most movies of this type, This Happy Breed contains everything, but unlike most it shows almost nothing. The film's color photography by Ronald Neame is scrubbed, not until its clean, but until its dull, an extreme contrast to Neame's fantastical primaries in Blithe Spirit. It's the kind of family epic where one of the most emotional moments is when Frank tells his best friend, who is about to move away, "I'm going to miss you like hell."

The whole Coward/Lean partnership (or Coward/Lean/Neame partnership, or Coward/Lean/Neame/Celia Johnson partnership) began in 1942, and I realize now that I've written about these films in reverse chronological order. The intent had been to pair off the films, as they naturally do anyway, by theme, the theme of Brief Encounter and Blithe Spirit being broadly "love" or "marriage" or something, and the theme of This Happy Breed and the film I'm about to write about, In Which We Serve being, very broadly, "war." In This Happy Breed, the wars that bookend the story make their presence known in a manner that is just a shade or two more obvious than subliminal, but In Which We Serve is, as the title indicates, much more straightforward about it, even if it plays a little bit how The Best Years of Our Lives would if it had combat scenes.

In Which We Serve actually counts as David Lean's first official credit as director, and he shares it with Noël Coward. Coward also has the lone screenwriting credit, the lone composer credit, he produced the film, and he stars in it as Kinross, captain of the HMS Torrin, a destroyer that is torpedoed as the film opens, its crew abandoning ship to cling to life rafts and hope they don't get strafed by the Stukas zipping overhead. In this way, it sort of resembles Brief Encounter, because here, as in that film, we begin very near the ending. A core group of the Torrin's crew -- Coward, John Mills as Shorty Blake, Bernard Miles as Walter Hardy, and others -- clings to a single raft, and as they ponder their fates Lean and Coward takes us back to the homefront, to the lives of these men before first shipping out, to their precious moments of leave, where Mills (who played Queenie's frustrated suitor, also a Navy man, in This Happy Breed) meets his eventual wife Freda (Kay Walsh, also in This Happy Breed).

The lives of the women at home are not given short-shrift in any way, and in fact there is some rather queasy irony in store for the characters who think only the men at war are in danger. As Coward's wife, Celia Johnson -- the great Celia Johnson, an amendment I have no choice but to make after watching these films -- is the model for strength in the face of endless tension, Upper Class English Division, while those that scrape by a bit more, like Freda and Joyce Carey's Kath Hardy, knit and wince and don't talk about the German bombs shattering the London streets around them.

Like This Happy Breed, In Which We Serve was made to be a patriotic morale boost in the middle of the war. This Happy Breed does this by depicting an attitude of strength and forbearance often associated with the English of the era (even while criticizing them, as when Robert Newton rages about his countrymen's attitude towards England's appeasement of Hitler by lamenting that he saw Londoners cheering the fact that they'd been "thoroughly frightened"), and In Which We Serve shows what happens when that attitude is called to action. Like many British film's meant to awaken patriotism in the viewer, In Which We Serve is often very sad, but like all the best movie's of this type, the sadness serves to rouse as much as the triumphs do. This is what we must do, and this is the cost. They are inseparable.


Greg F. said...

I so wish I had this box set. I'll give you five bucks for yours. Deal?

bill r. said...


Wait, no!

Greg F. said...

I almost had you!