Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

Odd couple on film:
Lean directs Coward


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Director David Lean (1908-91) is best remembered for his sweeping epics: The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957); Lawrence of Arabia (1962), for which he won Oscars; Dr. Zhivago (1965); and A Passage to India (1984). In his more intimate films like Summertime (1955), the drama is played out against a glorious setting – in that case, Venice. His versions of Charles Dickens' Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948) are dark and frightening, their young heroes small in comparison to the hostile world around them. He hardly seemed the right director for Noel Coward (1899-1973), the master of high comedy and elegant dialogue.

Yet it was Coward who gave Lean, an experienced film editor, his first chance at directing movies. They collaborated four times, and the results can be seen in the recently issued DVD set, David Lean Directs Noel Coward.

The pair co-directed In Which We Serve (1942), Coward's stirring tribute to England during the darkest days of WWII. The movie tells the story of the HMS Torrin, from the day she is built to her capsizing in the Mediterranean Sea while fighting the Fascists. Coward plays Captain Kinross, who exemplifies courage, gallantry, and confidence that England would triumph over her enemies. The crewmen face terrible losses – families during the Blitz, shipmates at sea – with great heroism. Lean also edited, and the movie is action-filled. With a young Michael Wilding, a decade before he would marry Elizabeth Taylor, and John Mills, father of Hayley. Released in the United States the next year, it earned Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay.

The Happy Breed (1944) is a rarity in the Coward canon. Rather than his usual sophisticates, the film deals with a typical middle-class suburban family during the decades between the two World Wars. The 1926 General Strike, the Jazz Age, the rise of Socialism, and the Great Depression are seen through their eyes. Based on Coward's 1939 play, adapted by Lean, Anthony Havelock-Allan, and Ronald Neame. With Robert Newton, Celia Johnson, and Mills. Laurence Olivier provided the uncredited narration. The title comes from John of Gaunt's Act II monologue in Shakespeare's Richard II.

Blithe Spirit, Coward's brilliant 1941 comedy, was adapted by Lean, Neame, and Havelock-Allan for the 1945 film. A superbly cast Rex Harrison is socialite and novelist Charles Condomine, whose marriage to his second wife, Ruth (Constance Cummings), is complicated by the ghost of his first wife, Elvira (the ethereal Kay Hammond). Margaret Rutherford is unforgettable as the bicycle-riding Madame Arcati, a medium who, much to her own surprise, stages a successful seance. Only Charles can see and hear Elvira, who is determined to undermine her successor. Hammond and Rutherford repeated their West End stage successes. The entire cast handles the elegant banter with aplomb, but the play's serious undertones remain. The ending is ironic. Coward, however, was unhappy with the movie. He had offers from every major studio to film his hit play, but chose his own company to produce, with Lean to direct, to his regret.

Despite their differences, Lean directed Brief Encounter (1945), based on Coward's one-act 1936 play, Still Life. Once again, Lean, Neame, and Havelock-Allen adapted Coward's work, but this time, oddly, no one was given credit for the screenplay. Narrated by Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson), a suburban housewife whose humdrum, conventional life changes after a chance meeting with an idealistic  married doctor, Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard). The two see each other furtively but in public, then, when a private tryst is interrupted without physical consummation, they realize they cannot betray their families and values. He decides to go to South Africa. They plan a final meeting, eager to express their hopeless passion, only to have it spoiled by a talkative acquaintance (Everely Gregg). The story is a model of British self-sacrifice and repressed emotions. Coward's bleak ending was softened for the movie. Women throughout the English-speaking world wept copiously, watching the sad-eyed Johnson suffer and exchange poignant looks with the sympathetic Howard. Johnson won the New York Film Critics Award for her performance and received a losing Oscar nomination as Best Actress 

In addition to being a successful writer, Coward, known affectionately as "The Master," was a celebrated actor/matinee idol, singer, director, composer, and lyricist. Most people in show business and cafe society knew he was gay, but he never came out in public and kept his personal life very private. He denied a physical relationship with Prince George, Duke of Kent, although the two were very close for 19 years. It's easy to see the elements of a life in the closet in Brief Encounter. Lean, who was married six times, also refused to discuss his private life. This may have been another strong bond they shared that allowed them to work so well together.

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