Monday, April 2, 2012

On Being British: David Lean and Noel Coward

No filmmaker in the history of English cinema has ever devoted himself to the subject of being British as David Lean did. It was his great theme. He explored it in one way in his Dickens adaptations (Great Expectations and Oliver Twist) and in the comedy Hobson’s Choice, where the two main characters, a willful slob and his fierce, unyielding daughter, are as quintessentially English types as the figures who populate Dickens’s novels. His most celebrated and perhaps most indelible creation, Captain Nicholson in The Bridge on the River Kwai – played by his favorite actor, Alec Guinness – was a satirical portrait of the sensibility that upheld the crumbling British Empire, clinging religiously to tradition and regulations and choosing polish and follow-through over common sense. Lean’s final picture (and one of his finest), based on E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India, directly addressed the issues of empire and examined the qualities of the colonial English by pitting them against the Indians and demonstrating the futility of their attempts to emulate their masters.

It seems fitting, therefore, that Lean’s first four movies were all collaborations with Noël Coward, the jack of all show-biz hyphenates (playwright-screenwriter, producer-director, actor-singer, composer-lyricist), who perfected a dramatic language built on English understatement, English middle-class and working-class English cliché, and that celebrated English repression of emotion that is in fact sentimental at its core. Coward is otherwise (and best) known for his high comedies, two of which, Private Lives and Design for Living, are masterworks of the genre, perfect specimens of how a prodigiously gifted playwright can subsume tragic depths in brittle, inconsequential-seeming farce. (The first is a portrait of the marriage of two people who are both profoundly in love with each other and profoundly unsuited to living with each other – or, most likely, in the world. The second is about a trio of true social revolutionaries, and it’s still shocking.) But many of his plays were depictions of bourgeois English life that reveled in presenting unexceptional characters caught in soap-opera situations, and it’s the paradox of his career that he was able to shift so easily back and forth between these two sorts of plays. And every now and then he paused to write an operetta.

Three of the four movies he worked on with Lean, all of which are collected in a new box set by Criterion, fit in the second category: In Which We Serve (1942, on both of which he and Lean are listed as co-directors), This Happy Breed (1944), an adaptation of a Coward play, and Brief Encounter (1945), an expansion of a Coward one-act called Still Life which was part of three evenings of short pieces that he produced in the mid-thirties under the title Tonight at 8:30. (Both the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts and the Shaw Festival in Ontario have produced the entire set, with dismal results. They’re best relegated to the archives of British theatre.) The fourth, also from 1945, is Lean’s film of Coward’s most often produced play, the ghost comedy Blithe Spirit. The transfers – it need hardly be said of any Criterion disk – are sumptuous, preserving the vibrant pastels of the two color films, This Happy Breed and Blithe Spirit, both lit by Ronald Neame, and the evocative black-and-white palette of the other two, shot by Neame and Robert Krasker respectively. The one visual misfortune could hardly have been avoided without subverting Lean and Neame’s bizarre aesthetic: as the spectral Elvira in Blithe Spirit, who returns to haunt her husband (Rex Harrison) and infuriate his second wife (Constance Cummings), Kay Hammond looks less like a ghost than like a fury with a poisonous greenish-white face and a forbidding smear of scarlet lipstick. It’s one of those artistic crimes committed in the name of Technicolor in the forties.

A scene from In Which We Serve

In Which We Serve, which Coward wrote directly for the screen, is a wartime artifact, the story of a Royal Navy vessel; it pays homage to Britain’s fighting forces. (A scene in which the ship, the H.M.S. Torrin, plays host to soldiers they’ve picked up in the Dunkirk evacuation allows the filmmakers to widen their tribute briefly.) The frame of the screenplay is the ship’s sinking under German attack; the flashbacks are the reminiscences of a ragged but resilient band of survivors, including the captain, Teddy Kinross (played by Coward himself), clinging to a lifeboat and waiting for rescue. (Coward and Lean cheat in one scene, where a house containing the wives, played by Joyce Carey and Kay Walsh, of two of the men, played by Bernard Miles and John Mills, is bombed during the Blitz – an episode that neither of these naval men could possibly remember since both were at sea at the time. The gaffe is easily forgiven.) And though Coward wrote three lengthy speeches for himself, each embroidering the virtues of the spirit of the English fighting spirit, the notion, introduced in the voice-over narration at the beginning, that the movie is really about a ship isn’t just a conceit; it’s how the film works dramatically. And this is a marvelous ship. In his biography of Lean, Kevin Brownlow reveals that it was two hundred feet long and fifty-six feet wide, the largest moving set built on either side of the Atlantic up to that time. The point is that the ship is the symbol of the English fighting spirit: when it goes down, other ships take its place without fuss, just as other men quietly replace the more than half of Kinross’s crew that goes down with it. The intercutting between scenes on shipboard and the interactions between the men and their families develops that dramatic idea. The women are warriors, too, of course: the last words Carey’s Kath Hardy speaks before expiring in the hospital are a message for her husband that she stayed true to their home by refusing to leave it right up to the end.

The stiff-upper-lip ethic of these courageous wartime characters that the movie enshrines is a construction, and of course propaganda; it’s the Englishmen’s vision of themselves in this era that John Boorman undercut so deftly and hilariously in his 1987 film memoir Hope and Glory. But you’d have to be pretty tough to resist it, and I don’t think you have to. Perhaps because the ensemble is so good, In Which We Serve doesn’t make you feel cheap, the way the phony Hollywood dramatization of the same virtues, William Wyler’s Mrs. Miniver, from the same year, does. The cast also includes Michael Wilding; Richard Attenborough as the young stoker who exhibits the single act of cowardice (deserting his station during a sea battle) and later responds to Kinross’s generosity in not punishing him for it by dying heroically in the next one; and most memorably Celia Johnson as Kinross’s wife, who delivers the one speech Coward didn’t give himself, a toast to her rival, her husband’s ship. Johnson, who also stars in This Happy Breed and Brief Encounter, is an actress of stunningly accomplished technique. She transcends the rhetoric in this speech just as she transcends the dramatic obviousness of the scene where the Kinrosses quietly face up to the reality that, war having been declared, as spouses who adore each other and as parents they’re in for a drubbing. She does it by playing these sequences for their full emotional value and not faking a syllable.

Celia Johnson and Robert Newton in This Happy Breed

This Happy Breed is the same kind of animal as Brief Encounter – an attempt to use the life of a single family to suggest the story of the nation between the two world wars – but the strategy is considerably less interesting, and the banality is suffocating. This time Robert Newton, as the patriarch of the family, gets to deliver Coward’s infusions of jingoistic wisdom – the movie’s chronology stops shortly before the Second World War, but it’s a wartime picture nonetheless – and they’re insufferable. The one high point is Johnson’s performance. She plays against type as a woman whose strength is inseparable from her stiffness and sourness, a woman of such unremitting Victorian respectability that when her daughter (Kay Walsh) runs off with a married man she can say without hesitation that she never wants to hear her name again. If the movie had the courage of its convictions her obstinacy and intractability would break up her marriage to a much softer man, but Coward and Lean merely flirt with that idea, and then they rig the finish to permit a reconciliation between her and the wayward daughter.

Kay Hammond and Constance Cummings in Blithe Spirit

Still, This Happy Breed is skillfully directed; if you’ve seen it you probably remember the scene where Newton and Johnson’s other daughter (Eileen Erskine) runs into her parents’ garden to deliver the terrible news that her brother and his wife have been killed in a car accident, and Lean keeps his camera in the deserted dining room, where the family was to have gathered for tea, for a disconcertingly long time while we imagine what’s going on outside. Blithe Spirit, which is different in style and genre from the other three projects Lean worked on with Coward, decidedly isn’t. Kay Walsh, who was married to Lean, told Brownlow she thought he wasn’t ready to take on a sophisticated comedy, and Harrison, who wasn’t the easiest actor to work with in any case, thought Lean’s approach was inadequate and hated working on it. It’s a clumsy piece of filmmaking – probably the only time in Lean’s career that word could be applied to one of his movies, including the few lousy ones. The shifting back and forth between the protagonist Charles Condomine’s point of view and that of his current wife Ruth, so sometimes we see Elvira and sometimes we don’t, is irritating rather than clever, and the staging is uncomfortable. But could anyone make a good movie out of this material? I saw it performed by the National Theatre with Richard Johnson as Charles in the seventies (under Harold Pinter’s direction), and then on Broadway in the eighties with Blythe Danner as Elvira and Geraldine Page as the dotty medium, Madame Arcati, and then again a couple of seasons ago with Rupert Everett and the sublime Angela Lansbury as Arcati, and none of these productions worked. The play tries for the brittle wit of Private Lives and Design for Living, but without substance the dialogue comes across as mean and the characters as heartless. The only element of Blithe Spirit to recommend it is Margaret Rutherford as Arcati. Rutherford holds the muscles around her mouth and beneath it in almost miraculous balance; her eyes are wide and bright, with huge rings around them like the circles on the cross-section of an ancient oak; the pouches under them are like deep pockets, and there’s so much flesh between her eyes and her eyebrows that these areas remind you of old-fashioned theatrical curtains. Rutherford is a remnant of the English music hall but she has stupendous camera technique. She’s also got the only role in the play that always clicks. (Lansbury brought the house down with it.)

Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard in Brief Encounter

Brief Encounter came out later the same year, but it has a confidence and elegance that Blithe Spirit lacks. The chronicle of a love affair between two married people (Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard) who meet by chance, see each other for an afternoon a week in town (they train in from opposite directions) and agree to separate before it ruins their lives, it’s the movie that made Lean famous. Many fans of forties movies know the high points by heart: the scene in the railway-station café where Dr. Alec Harvey removes a piece of lint from Laura Jesson’s eye (their first contact); the scene where they fall in love while he’s chattering at her about his vocation, and eventually it becomes clear that his words and hers are blinds for what they really want to say to one another; the acrid, discomfiting conversation when the friend he stays with in town (Valentine Dyall) comes home to his flat and finds Alec has sneaked Laura out the back door; their agreement to part; and of course the end, where Laura’s husband (Cyril Raymond), who has seemed so oblivious, senses something of what’s happened when she cries in his arms and tells her, “You’ve been a long way away. Thank you for coming back to me.” The picture is the last word in repressed English romantic melodrama – the hero and heroine go through a great deal of anguish but they never actually sleep together (a detail that evidently baffled Howard during the shooting). And though their feelings for each other seem entirely sincere, their passion doesn’t exactly smolder, the way Bogart and Bergman’s does in Casablanca, the most famous Hollywood romantic melodrama from the same period. It’s a rather fascinating film, and easy to make fun of if you’re in a certain mood, but the two actors bring so much warmth to their roles that, like In Which We Serve, if it doesn’t precisely transcend its own limitations, at least it embodies them poignantly.

Lean does a charming job with the scenes in the café, where Laura and Alec watch the progress of a workplace amour between the station master (Stanley Holloway) and the pretentious café proprietor (Joyce Carey). You can see him working out his cinematic resources in In Which We Serve and This Happy Breed, but by Brief Encounter he’s got them down. Laura, traveling home after a day out with Alec, looks at her reflection in the train-car window before her imagination takes over and she imagines herself on a series of escapades with him. The doubling image suggests two Lauras, the one who has begun to carry on this not-quite-affair and the one whom her husband will recognize when she comes home to him; it prepares us for a line in her voice-over a few moments later about his failing to notice that he was living with a stranger in the house. Before she and Alec part for the last time, they walk through the station and their shadows double them. This image, which builds on the earlier one, sits right on the cusp of realism and expressionism. The next films Lean directed would be his glorious Dickens adaptations, which contain some of the most imaginative expressionistic sequences in movies. Perhaps a future Criterion set will take us into the next phase of his investigation of the complex process of being English.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review, The Boston Phoenix and The Christian Century and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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