Kind Hearts and Coronets

The wonderful thing about the Ealing Comedies was that they built on the music hall traditions, including many of its stars, and captured the mood of the postwar austerity years. they were positive, charming, but with a thick seam of darkness running through them.

The black and white (literally and metaphorically) morality of earlier years turns to shades of grey as the heroes/anti-heroes became loveable rogues, or maybe they were not loyal to one partner – whatever it was, they had foibles of some description.  There was also a streak of anti-officialdom about them, cheerleading the small man fighting the stern face of bureaucracy.  Maybe a touch B-movie these days, but with nostalgic charm.

My favourites over the years have included Whisky Galore and The Ladykillers, but everywhere you go there is a certain quaint charm about these cheap but decidedly cheerful movies.  Try Passport to Pimlico, The Titfield Thunderbolt, The Lavender Hill Mob, The Man in the White Suit and others – you’ll soon see what I mean.

Kind Hearts and Coronets was arguably the blackest of the comedies, laden with irony and cynicism, but also the wittiest and most erudite – to the extent that many of the jokes will have gone over the heads of audiences then and now.  A great example, lampooning Longfellow but fitting in brilliantly with the movie:

“I shot an arrow in the air, she fell to earth in Berkeley Square”

For a satire on the English aristocracy and class system,  KH&C has proved remarkably fresh and durable, to the extent that in 1999 it was voted the BFI’s 6th best movie of all time, with the following words:

A deliciously dark Ealing comedy that elegantly allows the audience to side with the killer as he sets about his task. Dennis Price plays the penniless young hero, ninth in line to inherit the D’Ascoyne dukedom, who systematically sets about murdering the eight in the way to his title. The brilliant casting twist was that Alec Guinness played all eight – a general, a snob, a photographer, a suffragette, an admiral, a clergyman, a banker and the duke – with enjoyable ease. Also cast is the wonderful Joan Greenwood as the charmingly evil Sybilla. Robert Hamer directed, based on the book Israel Rank by Roy Horniman.

The novel on which the movie is based has been described as anti-Semitic, explaining the change by which Louis Mazzini becomes half-Italian rather than half-Jewish.  The story of Mazzini’s revenge on behalf of his mother (who married for love and thereby lost her claim to the title, being forced as the black sheep to live in poverty and thereby to suffer the indignity of having to earn a living) by murdering the appalling D’Ascoynes, is handled with a deliciously deceptive breezy elegance by director Robert Hamer.

He does indeed manage to start at the bottom and work his way up the ranks under the wing of the elder D’Ascoyne, all the better to put an end to the D’Ascoyne line of succession.  That is, he plans a fitting demise to those that fail to find ways to cause their own downfall, but is ultimately condemned not for these murders  but ultimately by not being able to choose between two women, the virtuous Ethel (Valerie Hobson) and the vivacious Sybella (Joan Greenwood).  But right up to the last his insouciant air of superiority never leave him (it’s a class thing, symbolically inbred.)

This would be of nothing but for the fine acting.  Dennis Price could be playing in an Ivor Novello musical were it not for the business of murder he effects with breathtaking nonchalance, though he hints at the inner contempt for the family members he murders en route to the Dukedom with aplomb.  Best of all is his guise of Septimus Wilkinson, Bishop of Matabeleland, en route to murdering the rector, family bore and alcoholic, Henry D’Ascoyne.  Guinness’s face as he watches Mazzini attempt the Matabele language is truly a picture to behold!

The film’s brilliance undoubtedly comes from Guinness playing eight gloriously defined cameo roles, and in so doing creating very distinct characters, albeit some being very minor indeed in terms of screen time.  Having played up to four roles in one play, I know only too well this can be a very tricky thing to carry off, but here you could believe the characters were being played by different actors.  Not only that but a number of the D’Ascoynes are pictured together in one shot, a very early example of the masking principle that served the film industry so well for so many years!

Wthout credible D’Ascoyne windbags to be pricked, people who might by some perverse logic seem worthy of departing this world, the moral balance of the film would be swayed too heavily against Mazzini, the anti-hero.  As it is, the arrogance of some warrants them a swift departure, but others linger – especially Ascoyne D’Ascoyne, the banker to takes Louis under his wing and dies of a stroke before the agonising decision of how to dispose of him can arise.  Kindness creates virtue, so it is no surprise that Louis reserves the most lingering death to the 8th Duke, Ethelred, indicating some moral code to his assassinations.

Where I felt less convinced was the tussle between Sybella and Ethel.  While Louis wants to marry Sybella but is spurned in favour of Lionel, surely as Duke the obvious thing to do would be to stay with the perfect Ethel, whom he has married, and thereby remain respectable? Maybe Joan Greenwood’s charisma, much flaunted in the film, slightly passed me by but this is arguably the least convincing aspect of the movie.

But this is a minor detail in what is, taken as a whole, a perfectly delightful romp. In 2011 a remastered version was released, but I sincerely hope the same fate does not befall Kind Hearts as befell The Ladykillers.  The Tom Hanks Ladykillers remake was, as remakes often are, a sad travesty of a great and cherished original.  Kind Hearts & Coronets is so definitive that any attempt to recast and revoice it would surely be doomed to catastrophic failure.

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