If ever you wonder why high quality films are frequently licensed by their owners to the Criterion Collection — and not just old, black & white classics — you need look no further than the new 4-disc set, David Lean Directs Noel Coward [Criterion]. These are not significant studio money-earners, true; one of the titles is a beloved and iconic classic, another might be termed a minor classic of sorts, and the others are respected films that have been relatively out of view.
What Criterion has done and repeatedly does — besides the not-insubstantial act of simply making these titles readily available — is restore these films beyond measure, both picture and sound. Which in the case of a stunning film like "Brief Encounter" is a true gift. Criterion also crams their releases with bonus features; not the sort that you can find here or there, but things which people who love the film(s) in question will actually be eager to watch. They add a booklet of pertinent essays, too. Criterion releases are, typically, somewhat more expensive than the plain variety reissue (with or without mastering, with or without bonuses). But the overall packages present true explorations of the film, not just simply a copy of the movie.
Lean — he of the sweeping "Bridge on the River Kwai," "Lawrence of Arabia," and "Doctor Zhivago" — does not necessarily seem an obvious match for the enfant terrible of the Haymarket. But the pairing made perfect sense at the time. Lean was already an expert editor, with credits including the film adaptations of Shaw's Pygmalion and Major Barbara. When Coward was signed to direct his first film in 1942, he enlisted Lean to co-direct. "In Which We Serve," the earliest title in this collection, was a full-throttle patriotic paean to the British war effort, with Coward starring, writing, producing, composing, and who knows what else. And, yes, co-directing with Lean.
Coward based his script on a real-life event, the 1941 sinking of the HMS Kelly during the Battle of Crete. Coward's friend Lord Louis Mountbatten was in command; Noel plays a fictionalized version of his friend, here called Captain Kinross. The film really does do its job, and does it well. The cast includes John Mills, Bernard Miles, Celia Johnson, Kay Walsh (the then-Mrs. Lean), and Michael Wilding (the future Mr. Elizabeth Taylor).
Next up was "This Happy Breed," in 1944. Not quite so much a Coward film as the first; while it was based on his 1942 play and he served as producer and co-composer, he was neither before the camera nor behind it. (Coward did star in the original play.) This was a domestic tale of a British family between the wars. Robert Newton and Celia Johnson star, with especially watchable turns from Kay Walsh (Lean), Stanley Holloway, and John Mills. The latter had appeared in the stage version, as well as in "In Which We Serve." He went on to star for Lean in "Great Expectations" and "Ryan's Daughter," receiving an Oscar for his performance in the latter.
During the making of these first two films, Coward was raking in the pounds and dollars from his longest-running comedy success, Blithe Spirit. The 1941 play was simultaneously produced in London (where it opened at the Piccadilly in July, for 1,997 performances) and New York (at the Morosco in November, for 657). Coward appeared in neither, presumably eschewing London so that he could recreate his direction in New York. He did, though, play the role in the U.K. tour which opened just after the 1942 release of "In Which We Serve." Blithe Spirit brought enormous cheer to war-weary audiences, with the Coward stand-in originated by Cecil Parker in London and Clifton Webb in New York. For the film, Rex Harrison took the lead, supported by Kay Hammond (Elvira) and Margaret Rutherford (Madame Arcati) from the West End company, along with Constance Cummings as Ruth. David Lean's film of "Blithe Spirit" — produced by Coward — remains a delightfully whimsical joy.
The prize of the set, naturally enough, is "Brief Encounter." Here we have Celia Johnson (once again) and Trevor Howard in that railway station refreshment room, as Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto swells on the soundtrack. "Brief Encounter" was derived from Still Life, one of the short plays that encompassed Coward's 1936 tour-de-force Tonight at 8:30. (These were ten one-acts — nine in New York — which were performed by Coward and co-star Gertrude Lawrence over the course of three evenings; given Coward's numerous professional activities, the runs were limited.) Still Life was significantly transformed by Lean to become "Brief Encounter"; this is a Coward/Lean collaboration, and an altogether magical one. Which is to say that Lean — before he approached that series of sweeping classics typified by "Lawrence of Arabia" — was indeed well suited to Coward.
The high-definition digital transfers in this 4-disc set — released simultaneously with the current "Noel Coward in New York" Festival — are crammed with special features. New interviews with Coward scholar Barry Day; audio commentary on "Brief Encounter" by film historian Bruce Eder; "David Lean: A Self Portrait," a television documentary from 1971; a 1992 episode on Coward from "The Southbank Show": an audio conversation between Coward and Richard Attenborough (who made his film debut in "In Which We Serve"); a 2010 interview with Ronald Neame, cinematographer of the first three titles and co-producer/co-scenarist of "Brief Encounter"; short documentaries on the making of "In Which We Serve" and "Brief Encounter"; and more. Plus a booklet filled with essays and keenly-selected photographs.
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