Ealing Comedy #5: Kind Hearts and Coronets (Robert Hamer, 1949)

Remember that Ealing comedies blog series I started a while ago (and then completely abandoned)? Well, surprise! I’m back! I hope your life’s been well since the last instalment of this series, my review of Whisky Galore!  What we have on the menu this time is the masterpiece Kind Hearts and Coronets. Directed by Robert Hamer and based on Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal by Roy Horniman, which Hamer and John Dighton adapted, that was the second comedy produced by Ealing Studios to feature Joan Greenwood and the first of many to star Alec Guinness. And there’s a lot of Alec Guinness, as he embodies no less than eight characters. Iconic! The often-overlooked Dennis Price plays the leading role (usually more associated with supporting parts). Are also part of the cast other essential names of the British film industry, such as Valerie Hobson and Hugh Griffith, in a small role.

In opposition to the previous Ealing comedies taking in their contemporary periods, Kind Hearts and Coronets transports us to England in the early 20th century during the Edwardian period. It’s night, and a gloomy atmosphere reveals to us a prison where enters a (not very menacing) hangman (Miles Malleson). In a cell, a fancy-looking man, Louis D’Ascoyne Mazzini (Dennis Price), the 10th Duke of Chalfont, awaits his imminent execution. He shows an incredible sense of calmness at the great admiration of the prison governor (Clive Morton). On his desk, a pile of papers and a bottle of ink indicate that he has occupied his remaining time by writing. On these papers, his memoirs are written. And those are revealed in that extended flashback that constitutes most of the film’s narrative line. We discover how and why a duke has found himself condemned to death

Louis Mazzini’s mother (Audrey Fildes) was the daughter of the 7th Duke of Chalfont. Still, her blue-blood family disowned her for getting married to a “simple Italian opera singer” (also played by Price). After the fatal death of Mazzini from a heart attack (which is honestly dark humour at his best. We’ll come back to it later), Mrs Mazzini, penniless, writes to Lord Ascoyne D’Ascoyne (Alec Guinness) for help, which he denies. She eventually has an accident and, on her deathbed, requires to be buried in the family vault, which is also refused by the snobbish D’Ascoynes. Now a young man, Louis works as an assistant in a draper’s shop (and takes no-nonsense from the demanding customers) despite his family’s noble heritage. He is also in love with one of his childhood friends, Sibella (Joan Greenwood), and proposes to her. She refuses due to his un-wealthy social status and marries another school friend, Lionel (John Penrose).

Enough is enough for Louis. The D’Ascoynes are spoiling his dreams and existence. Determined to get revenge, he decides to kill eight members of the D’Ascoyne family. That won’t only be a way to avenge his mother but also for him to access the status of Duke of Chalfont, being on the list after all those people. His first victim is Lord d’Ascoyne’s son (Guinness). His letter of condolences to Lord D’Ascoyne allows him to finally meet him, win his trust, and be employed as a clerk. But Louis doesn’t abandon that idea of revenge. Aside from the Young d’Ascoyne, his other victims (all played by Alec Guinness) are Ethelred, 8th Duke of Chalfont; The Reverend Lord Henry; General Lord Rufus; Admiral Lord Horatio; Lady Agatha D’Ascoyne; Henry, a photographer and, of course, his new employer Lord Ascoyne d’Ascoyne. I won’t go further in the plot details because the film has a lot of surprises, dark humour and irony that I’ll let you the pleasure of discovering by yourself.

So, Kind Hearts and Coronets is regarded as one of the best comedies produced by Ealing Studios and simply one of the best British films ever. There is something very British about it, a sophistication mixed with dark humour that perfectly represents this nation’s culture and cinematography. Of course, that’s only a hypothesis on my side as to why the film is considered one of the best. I’m not British, so it’s seen from an external point of view. And let’s admit it; Brits have always been good at period pieces (and dark humour). Coronets isn’t necessarily regarded as one, although it takes place in the early 20th century. It’s still a background to consider tho. Of course, some codes from that era add logic to the story and probably wouldn’t make sense in more recent periods. For example, the death penalty was abolished entirely in the UK in ’98 or ’99 (depending on the source). It’s pretty recent, but it gives the idea that if the film took place in 2010, it would have to play on different codes and contexts for it to work. Furthermore, the first Ealing comedies were anchored in their contemporary period, displaying situations, characters and places with whom common middle-class people could identify more easily than with the nobility of the D’Ascoynes. However, let’s remember that Dennis Price’s character, despite his blue blood, has lived most of his pre-prison life as a middle-class person. Middle-class here is a bit different than what middle-class is today, and it’s middle leaning on wealth. Let’s keep in mind that he remains a character with whom more “ordinary” people could have identified. Of course, his way of reaching his means is questionable. But let’s remember that this is all fiction.

Kind Hearts and Coronets is a dark comedy and how that relies mainly on the irony of the film. On several occasions, the course of events has this glimpse of surprise, but with an ironic twist which reverses the situation. However, there’s never too much farandole around it, and things move on because, if there’s something that we particularly learn from Louis Mazzini, it’s that the show must go on. Sometimes, these situations bring their ounces of misfortune. Sometimes, they happen for the best. One of the earliest examples is when Louis’s father dies of a heart attack as he sees his infant son for the first time. That’s it. Louis doesn’t make a case out of it in his narration. However, from that moment, his mother sinks into financial distress. A similar situation happens towards the end of the film. [SPOILER] After getting rid of most of the D’Ascoynes, the only one left to be eliminated is Louis’s employer, Lord Ascoyne D’Ascoyne. But when this one learns he’s to become the 9th Duke D’Ascoyne, he too dies of a heart attack out of shock, therefore allowing Louis to reach his goal finally. [ END OF SPOILER] There are constant turns of situations like that throughout the story, and in the end, Louis is never really left at peace. Well, you reap what you sow, and that goes for the eight remaining D’Ascoynes and Louis.

Robert Hamer’s picture is all about noblesse and the character’s connections to it (Louis, who wants to reach his right of being a Duke, Sibella who wants to marry a social status rather than someone she loves, Louis’s mother’s obsession with their place in the noble family, etc.). Therefore, although the characters are very distinguished, the film, to ensure its comedic aspect, often plays on a certain serious ridicule. You’ll never see the character act as buffoons. Their social rank forces them to act distinguished and somehow discreetly. However, some of them put themselves into laughable situations and seem unaware. The perfect example would be Sibella and the many extravagant hats she wears. Each time Joan Greenwood enters a room, she’s wearing a ridiculously-looking hat. The funny part is that she’s wearing those hats when a dramatic situation occurs and she faces a problem. When things go well, she wears more discreet head apparel. Her many ridiculous hats reminded me of the one worn by Gwendolen Fairfax (also played by Greenwood) in the 1952 film adaptation of The Importance of Being Earnest. Another example would be the way Louis is treated while in prison, with a lot of kindness and respect even though he’s to be hanged for murder. Of course, his new social status plays an essential role in that. Nonetheless, it’s amusing how everybody working at the prison seems to be at his mercy and inferior to him as if they were only here to do their job. The hangman addresses him as “your Grace”, or Louis orders a guard to stop snoring in the most distinguished and snobbish manner ever. It’s funny how everybody wants to keep up with the appearances.

Of course, we couldn’t discuss this film without mentioning Alec Guiness’s performanceS. You’ve seen Peter Sellers play multiple roles in Dr. Strangelove (Stanly Kubrick, 1964), but here, it’s next level. Of course, some of the eight characters’ appearances are brief (Lady Agatha or Admiral Lord Horatio, for example). However, those more focused on wonderfully showcase his versatility and his ability to transform himself into people, yes, from the same noble family, but who have distinguished attitudes and personalities. It goes from the condescending Ascoyne D’Ascoyne to the somewhat sympathetic Henry D’Ascoyne, a photographer, all the while passing by the naive Reverend Lord Henry. Originally, Guinness had been offered “only” four of the D’Ascoyne parts. Still, after reading the script and loving it, he non-hesitantly suggested playing all eight parts. Was this a breakthrough role for the English actor? Or rather roles. Most definitely. Although he previously had credited parts in two other films, Great Expectations (David Lean, 1946) and Oliver Twist (David Lean, 1948), The Ealing Comedies paved the way for a film career for Guinness. We often think of him in his more serious parts, such as Colonel Nicholson in The Bridge on the River Kwai (David Lean, 1957) or Obi-Wan Kenobi in the first Star Wars trilogy. However, Guinness also had a wonderful gift for comedy, which we sometimes forget.

Dennis Price had less of an international career, but he’s equally great in his way as Louis Mazzini. Of course, it was a challenge to take place among all Guinness’s performances and more eccentric jobs. He did so with admirable tact and offered an outstanding performance that was very effective for the type of part he had to play. Interestingly enough, he also plays more than one part: Louis’s father at the beginning of the film and the Anglican Bishop of Matabeleland. Ok, the latter really is Mazzini in a costume as a way to approach Reverend Lord Henry. Still, his transformation is so well done that he could fool anybody. Usually very distinguished, he doesn’t hesitate to play someone as ridicule, and maybe even more, than the Reverend, therefore quickly becoming part of his social circle.

Another marking performance in the film is the one by the well-spoken Joan Greenwood, whom we’ll also see in the Ealing comedies on more than one occasion. I love the very distinguished yet very direct nature of her character. She doesn’t beat around to bush to tell Louis that she won’t marry him. Just like him, she’s a cute little devil (in her own way), also finding the most twisted way to seek revenge when her relationship with him doesn’t go as planned.

Kind Hearts and Coronet has been rightfully ranked at the sixth position in the British Film Institute Top 100 Best British Films. Among all the Ealing comedies, it’s one that definitely became a cult classic. It was generally well-received on its release, despite facing a few cuts for the American audience, who then drowned in the Hays Code’s principles.

If you have yet to see Kind Hearts and Coronets, don’t wait too much, as you’ll be in for a real treat! On my side, my next film viewing for this blog series will be Charles Frend’s A Run for Your Money (1949).

Until then, see you!


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