I watched David Lean's 1944 This Happy Breed yesterday for the first time and was very pleased with this British soap opera, adapted from a play by Noel Coward. It covers 20 years in the life of a middle-class British family, much the same way Coward's Cavalcade covered decades in the life of an upper-class family 11 years earlier in 1933. David Lean's direction and the leads' formidable talents (Celia Johnson - so wonderful an actress, Robert Newton, Stanley Holloway, John Mills) kept everything moving at a brisk pace and held one's attention as the years raced by. Afterwards I did some reading up on it and three things came to mind, two of which I had read just recently online.
First, I was reminded of something Arbogast said in his post on the 1951 film Five where he made reference to critics not actually seeing a movie but writing a review or synopsis anyway. As I scoured write-ups on This Happy Breed the first one that crossed my path was a brief, positive write up at a film site in which the critic quoted the lines spoken by Robert Newton to his grandson at the film's end. The only problem with that? That scene is in the play, not the movie. Our esteemed critic looked up This Happy Breed for quotes, came across lines from the play not contained within the movie and went with it. Oops.
Second, I was reminded of something Roger Ebert said by way of Jim Emerson's blog Scanners in this post. The summary of Ebert's thoughts being how surprising it is when a critic, in this case Ebert, discovers everyone else thinks the opposite way about a movie than he does. I felt this way as I searched and found one positive review after another, confirming my own views on the film, until I came across this from Halliwell's Film Guide, most likely from editor John Walker since the review was a part of the new restoration of the movie in 2008 and Leslie Halliwell died in 1989: Coward's domestic epic is unconvincingly written and largely miscast, but sheer professionalism gets it through, and the decor is historically interesting.
I know everyone is entitled to their own opinion and we all see things differently and yadda, yadda, yadda but the person who wrote that not only stands alone but clearly didn't see the movie, so it's a two-for-one deal really. Anyone who couldn't see the tremendous performances given by Celia Johnson and Robert Newton is someone who simply can't see good acting. Miscast? That's insane. Johnson and Newton are perfectly cast. They seem like an average unglamorous middle-class couple. Some of the actors are a little old for their parts at first, it's true, but that's because it was easier for the filmmakers to put lots of cover-up on their faces for the earlier scenes when they are in their twenties and then show them as is twenty years later in the story, rather than cast young actors for the early scenes and apply unconvincing old-age make-up later on. Makes sense to me. Unconvincingly written? Maybe Coward's dialogue lacks the necessary naturalist, realistic ring to the modern ear but I found the characters and the scenarios surrounding them refreshingly lacking in the usual Coward upper-crust cleverness. All in all, I'd say it was one of Coward's better efforts (although he had little hand in the screenplay from what I understand).
Third, I thought of the sad life of Robert Newton. Interestingly, I had just spoken of him to my wife a week before after I came across some archival photos of him being arrested for being drunk and disorderly or driving while intoxicated or the like, photos I would never put up here. His alcoholism weakened his body until at the early age of 50 his heart gave out and he died. But he was an excellent actor and left behind a legacy that few actors or, well, anyone can claim the equivalent of. You see, Robert Newton played Long John Silver in Walt Disney's Treasure Island in 1954. Now plenty of actors had played Silver before, including Wallace Beery in the 1934 version, and others from Errol Flynn to Basil Rathbone had played pirates, and they all used voices they thought fitting for the character. But it was Newton who decided to use that voice - the voice - the pirate voice. The one we all know. Now it's true, Lionel Barrymore is credited with the first use of "Arrrggh" in Treasure Island (1934) but it was Newton that provided the full accent, his native Dorset accent, one of the West Country Dialects, that gave the world the Pirate Voice, as it is now known and spoken by people like me ( and you too right? ) every September 19th, on International Talk Like a Pirate Day.
Fine performances, crisp direction and fast pacing all made This Happy Breed an enjoyable experience for me. It's an excellent showcase for the talents of Johnson, Newton, Holloway and Mills, all in top form. And it's a reminder that Newton was gone too soon, but left a legacy behind most actor's couldn't dream of, outside of possibly Bela Lugosi: He's been copied, imitated and impersonated by practically everyone on the planet at one time or another in their lives. Unfortunately most folks don't know it, so this September 19th, be sure and tell anyone who calls you "matey" that their imitating Robert Newton. It's time he got his due.