Noël Coward was one of the most famous men in Britain in the 1930s, a legendary playwright, actor, songwriter, showman, wit, and bon vivant, a British pop star before there was such a name for it. But he was not served well by the movies, where his plays were reworked until they lost the snap of his British society champagne wit (the 1931 Private Lives) or simply rewritten beyond recognition (Ernst Lubitsch’s superb, but no longer Coward-esque, Design For Living). So when he decided to embark on an original production during World War II to celebrate the men and women in the war effort, he decided to do it himself, as writer, director, producer, star, and even composer. He just needed a little help on mastering the filmmaking thing, and to that end he gave a talented and ambitious film editor his first big break as a director. Noël Coward took top billing as co-director of In Which We Serve, the “story of a ship” and the men who served on it, but he shared that billing with David Lean, who was brought on to handle the more technical aspects of the production. Lean soon took over much more of the direction on set and Coward launched a magnificent career.
The four films in Criterion’s superb box set David Lean Directs Noël Coward survey a unique collaboration of artists, to be sure, and not just between Lean and Coward, who takes top billing in all four films even when’s simply serving as producer and source material. Co-producer Anthony Havelock-Allan, who ran point of all four productions, and cinematographer Ronald Neame, who shot three of the pictures and co-produced the fourth, both collaborated with Lean on the screenplays, reshaping Coward’s plays for the screen.
This collection offers a superb survey of David Lean’s rapid growth from talented director with solid instincts and professional craftsmanship to an artist in his own right, and a showcase of the best cinematic incarnations of Noël Coward’s work. But it’s also a time capsule of Britain’s self image during the war (as refracted through Noël Coward’s sensibility and David Lean’s sense of restraint), an introduction to the young John Mills (soon to be one of Lean’s defining actors), and a celebration of the magnificent stage actress Celia Johnson, whose big-eyed, crooked-faced radiance takes on an uncommon beauty by her third film with the team.
“This is the story of a ship,” intones the narrator (an unbilled Trevor Howard) in In Which We Serve, a 1942 production inspired by the story of Lord Louis Mountbatten and his ship, which was sunk off of Crete. It opens with the building of a British Destroyer, the HMS Torrin, segues into a whirlwind introduction to the Captain (Noël Coward), crew, and loved ones back home, and then rather unexpectedly brings us right to the ship’s end, sunk by German bombers barely a few minutes into the film. As the planes try to pick off the oil-covered survivors hanging on to a life raft, their stories play out on flashback, from Captain down through Chief Petty Officer Hardy (Bernard Miles) and Ordinary Seaman Shorty Blake (a fresh-faced John Mills), and even a side trip to an unnamed powder handler played by a very young Richard Attenborough in his film debut.
You could call it a propaganda piece, an uplifting film about sacrifice and duty in the face of war that celebrates the service of Britain’s men in war and the endurance of the women (including Celia Johnson as Coward’s wife) left behind. But it is also an accomplished, sincere, and moving piece of filmmaking that honors the characters and involves the audience. The stories and sensibility of emotional restraint and understated commitment to duty is all Coward, but the structure and the storytelling comes from Lean, a talented editor with a keen understanding of the power of images and editing to invite audiences into the film.