- The Washington Times - Friday, March 28, 2008

The centennial of David Lean’s birth, on March 25, 1908, in Croydon, England, passed a few days ago without recognition in the customary repertory places: not a single Lean title on Turner Classic Movies or even a token Lean salute at the American Film Institute Silver Theatre.

The prowess of David Lean, who died in 1991, would have been difficult to overlook in the English-speaking movie world for about four decades, from the release of the haunting tear-jerker “Brief Encounter” in 1945 through 1984’s “A Passage to India,” which signaled his comeback as an esteemed director.

His productivity tapered off once prestige caught up with him in a big way, after the Academy Award-winning adventure epics “The Bridge on the River Kwai” in 1957 and “Lawrence of Arabia” in 1962. Nevertheless, at least half of the 16 films Mr. Lean completed remain reasonably secure classics, so it’s odd to find his 100th birthday so neglected.

The best of Mr. Lean’s movies could be folded into a single programming day at TCM. Almost perversely, the most obscure of his films, “Madeleine,” a murder melodrama released in 1950, got a pre-dawn TCM booking yesterday. Go figure.

A more deserving rescue project would be the admirable comedy of emancipation, “Hobson’s Choice.” Derived from a theatrical favorite of 1915 by the Lancashire humorist Harold Brighouse, it was filmed by Mr. Lean in 1953. The result: the single most satisfying movie comedy designed to revolve around Charles Laughton, cast as a widowed, blustering, tyrannical Victorian patriarch and tradesman who is adroitly humbled by his eldest daughter.

The heroine, Maggie Hobson, portrayed by Brenda De Banzie, is an eminently practical spinster of 30. She has diligently kept house for her ungrateful dad and managed his boot-making shop while his own stupefied attention has shifted to Moonrakers, the local pub. Tired of the inequity of it all, Maggie appropriates the firm’s timid master workman, John Mills as the lovably overwhelmed Willie Mossop, as both husband and business partner. Soon their rival shop has eclipsed the Hobson establishment. Dad can fume and rant, but self-interest obliges him to cave in to the enterprising renegades.

Mr. Lean made a number of films that were far more ambitious and imposing, but “Hobson’s Choice” remains his most enjoyable picture. Its exuberance and deftness reveal an assurance that were missing in his first attempt at theatrical farce, the movie version of Noel Coward’s “Blithe Spirit” in 1945. Having acquired the humorous finesse to do right by “Hobson’s Choice,” Mr. Lean then lost interest in comedic source material for the rest of his career. A pity.

The son of devout Quakers who regarded movies as a dubious influence, Mr. Lean evidently was a young man who needed film to find a calling. He began as a studio errand boy at the age of 19 and gradually made a place for himself in the editing room. By the late 1930s, when entrusted with major films directed by Paul Czinner, Anthony Asquith and Michael Powell, Mr. Lean was regarded as the ace cutter of the British film industry.

Carol Reed seems to have been the first colleague who suggested him to Mr. Coward as a director, or co-director, for “In Which We Serve,” a fond portrait of the Royal Navy, specifically the crew of a destroyer in the early years of World War II. In addition to playing the captain, Mr. Coward was writing, producing and composing the score. It could have been argued that he trumped Orson Welles’ multiple roles on “Citizen Kane” a year earlier.

As a practical matter, Mr. Lean assumed responsibility for the pictorial side, while Mr. Coward supervised the actors. Mr. Lean became the director in both respects when Mr. Coward was a camera subject. Eventually, the collaboration went so smoothly that entire sequences were left to Mr. Lean. The wartime popularity of “In Which We Serve” encouraged a sustained partnership. Mr. Lean became the directing instrument for Mr. Coward on three subsequent movies: “This Happy Breed,” “Blithe Spirit” and “Brief Encounter.”

The director achieved some creative autonomy by rediscovering an even more popular English writer who had been a virtuoso performer: Charles Dickens. His film versions of “Great Expectations” and “Oliver Twist” in the late 1940s remain peerlessly vivid and evocative. They also began an important, renewable collaboration with Alec Guinness.

The latter part of Mr. Lean’s career was transformed by scenically exceptional locales: Venice in “Summertime,” essentially a reprise of “Brief Encounter,” revitalized by Katharine Hepburn and an exotic setting; the jungles of Ceylon in “The Bridge on the River Kwai”; the deserts of Jordan in “Lawrence of Arabia”; Spain doubling for Russia in “Doctor Zhivago”; the storm-swept Irish coast in “Ryan’s Daughter,” essentially “Brief Encounter” gone haywire; and, of course, India in “A Passage to India.”

Once married to actresses Kay Walsh and Ann Todd, who also were leading ladies in his movies, Mr. Lean had ongoing credibility as a “woman’s director.”

This aspect of his talent was placed on hold during “Kwai” and “Lawrence.” Ultimately, the rapport he achieved with Miss Walsh, Miss De Banzie, Miss Hepburn, Celia Johnson and Margaret Rutherford was echoed in his direction of Julie Christie and Judy Davis.

In evaluating his own role, Mr. Lean seems to have come close to saying it all during a 1955 interview while promoting “Summertime.” “The director is an interpreter,” he reflected. “I do not mean to minimize this process of translation. It is a highly complicated process … involving far too many people. It calls for the patience of a saint, the ruthlessness of a general and an unswerving determination to get what you want.”

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