Criterion, who probably makes more film fans happier than any other company, has just released David Lean Directs Noel Coward. An odd pairing, at first glance---the man who directed such epics as Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago and The Bridge on the River Kwai---with the premier light comedy actor/author/composer of the twentieth century. Even odder is the choice of material: A world class war story about the sinking of a ship; a world class romance about lost love; a world class picture of the British lower-middle class; and the world class comedy fantasy of the last century, respectively In Which We Serve, Brief Encounter, This Happy Breed and Blithe Spirit. Perhaps even more surprising is that all four were made during a period of about three years, from 1942 to 1945.
Briefly, all four films are extraordinary examples of propaganda at its best. Lean and Coward were both fervently patriotic, and England was the underdog at the time in a war. Lean was just beginning his astonishing career; Coward had just finished a dozen or so years of incredible success on the stage, but considerably less success, or even attempts, at a film career. In 1941, Germany bombed London for 57 consecutive evenings.
Coward wrote and Lean directed these films, with Coward playing the lead for In Which We Serve. Coward also produced, wrote the screenplay, composed the score, and officially codirected, though he handed the reigns to Lean in his directorial debut.
Coward was entertaining the troops during the shooting of the other three films, yet his mark is clearly visible in each films. The cameraman for the quartet was Ronald Neame, perhaps less a household name, yet later the director such gems as The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, I Could Go on Singing and The Horse's Mouth.
In Which We Serve is the story of a ship, sunk off the coast of Crete during the war. Based on incidences in the life of Coward's great friend Lord Louis Mountbatten, flashbacks tell the story of the few remaining survivors, clinging to a lifeboat, waiting for rescue. In lesser hands, this narrative technique would be worse than banal, but the creators, relying so very strongly on flashbacks, allow the audience to see war through the eyes of the women left at home, waiting, not knowing when or if their sons, husbands or boyfriends will return.
Brief Encounter is based on a slight one-act play Coward wrote for Tonight at 8:30 entitled Still Life. A man and a woman, both more or less happily married to other people, meet quite by accident in a train station. To the overused strains of Rachmaninoff, they fall hopelessly, helplessly and enormously in lover. Again, in lesser hands, this stiff-upper-lip-do-the-right-thing sort of drama could be cloying and irritating, but the moral quandary this couple feels somehow slips into the audience's brain, and the horrible realization that although love is usually just nifty, it can cause extraordinary heartache and pain. Parenthetically, Andre Previn has just turned this text into an opera.
This Happy Breed, an ordinary story about an ordinary family living an ordinary life just before the war, grabs the audience with its specificity and universality, until the ordinary becomes extraordinary, and the small pains and pleasures of everyday life insinuates into the audience's psyche. Based on an early play of Coward and drawing on his own lower-middle class background, the triumph here is really Robert Newton and Celia Johnson as the father and mother experiencing the trials and triumphs of everyday life.
The final film, Blithe Spirit, is perhaps the most well known. Rex Harrison stars as an author, re-married after the death of his first wife, hiring psychic Margaret Rutherford to perform a séance so he can learn the lingo of the telepathic trade for his new book. Alas, Madame Arcarti, Rutherford's character, somewhat ineptly brings back the ghost of his first wife, with hilarity and confusion ensuing.
Criterion's restruck prints are wonderful, the extras are pretty astounding, with the complete South Bank show on Coward and some lovely interviews with author and critic Barry Day who has made Coward very much something of his own cottage industry. Day resembles someone who might be in an unexpurgated Alice in Wonderland, but has that fuzzy British charm which can be so endearing. All in all, we owe a deep debt of gratitude to Criterion.
Now, if we could get them to clean up and release the nearly unavailable films Coward acted in, such as The Scoundrel, The Astonished Heart, and perhaps even the television version of Blithe Spirit?