Special Features:

Cast

Alec Guinness

Dennis Price

Joan Greenwood

Valerie Hobson

Miles Malleson

John Penrose

Arthur Lowe

Release Date:
05/09/2011
RRP:
£19.99
Distributor:
Optimum Classics

Trailer

All reviews, articles and opinions © David Beckett & Film365. Various images © their respective copyright holders. All Rights Reserved.

Film 365 website designed and created by Richard Beckett

Choosing your favourite Ealing comedy is a bit like choosing your favourite colour – there is no wrong answer as there are good arguments for each one as they are all deservedly considered some of the finest British films ever made. Some will choose The Lavender Hill Mob, others will go for The Man in the White Suit, Whisky Galore!, Passport to Pimlico, The Ladykillers The Titfield Thunderbolt or, my personal favourite, Kind Hearts and Coronets.

 

Based on the novel of the same name by Roy Horniman and written for the screen by John Dighton and Robert Hamer, who also directed, Kind Hearts and Coronets was released in 1949, the same year as Whisky Galore! and Passport to Pimlico – a particularly good year for British comedy. Such celluloid escapism was welcome in the late-1940s and early-1950s as rationing was still in force, the British economy was not exactly in bullish form and large cities such as London, Plymouth and Coventry were bomb sites undergoing huge restoration.

 

The film is told entirely in flashback by Louis Mazzini, who is to be executed for murder. Now the 10th Duke of Chalfont, he has been afforded certain luxuries for his last night and, dressed in a smoking jacket and with some refreshments and very deferential guards, he decides to while away the hours proofreading and finishing his memoirs whilst the hours tick by.

 

His story begins before he was born when his mother, a member of the prestigious D'Ascoyne family, fell in love with an Italian opera singer, married, had a son and was then widowed when her husband suffered a heart attack the first time he set eyes on his new child. As Louis explains, the title Duke of Chalfont was bestowed on an ancestor for helping Charles II in his exile and the King's wife gave it a special privilege of being able to be passed down through female members of the family. Disowned by her family, her young son, Louis, spends most of his childhood studying the family tree and wondering how he could become the Duke but, as he has 12 relatives (including his mother) in the way, inheriting the title was unlikely to come naturally.

 

Working extremely hard to send Louis to the best school possible by repairing clothes, washing and ironing and even polishing shoes, Louis cares a great deal for his mother, so is understandably devastated when, unable to afford a new pair of glasses, she is hit by a tram and later dies of her injuries. As if disowning her wasn't enough, the D'Ascoyne family rubs salt in the wound by refusing her dying request to be buried in the family vault. From that moment, Louis swears to avenge the insult by murdering those who wronged his mother and, in the process, becoming the Duke of Chalfont.

 

Whilst working as a clerk in a drapery, Louis studies the papers every lunchtime to check on the fortunes of the D'Ascoyne family and how close he is to his dream, saying "Sometimes the death column brought good news. Sometimes the births column brought bad. The advent of twin sons to the Duke was a terrible blow. Fortunately, an epidemic of diphtheria restored the status quo almost immediately and even brought me about this in the shape of the Duchess", all the while modifying the family tree he keeps on the back of the painting by adding new family members and crossing out the deceased. Eventually, there are eight members of the D'Ascoyne family between Louis and the dukedom.

 

Pledging to murder every one of them when an unfortunate encounter with the young Ascoyne D'Ascoyne in the drapery shop in which he works results in his dismissal, Louis sets about studying the family members of both him in the lineage and working out the best ways to remove them from the equation. A side story emerges when his childhood sweetheart, Sibella, decides to marry a dull banker called Lionel instead of Louis, yet she is in love with them both. Having paid sixpence to take a tour around the family home, Louis learnt a great deal about the family heritage and the living relatives and sets about studying their behaviour and, putting his swimming prowess to good use, sends the young Ascoyne D'Ascoyne (and his lover) over a closed weir.

 

Learning that Young Henry D'Ascoyne is a keen photographer, Louis takes up photography and 'accidentally' meets Henry and gets to know him and his wife quite well before substituting the paraffin in Henry's darkroom with petrol and, whilst he's talking to Henry's wife, XYZ, a small explosion in the potting shed darkroom kills Henry. At the funeral, which is conducted by the Reverend Lord Henry D'Ascoyne, Louis is able to see the remaining six members of the family: Admiral Lord Horatio D'Ascoyne, General Lord Rufus D'Ascoyne, Lady Agatha D'Ascoyne, Ethelred D'Ascoyne, 8th Duke of Chalfont and Lord Ascoyne D'Ascoyne, plus the Reverend, in the flesh.

 

Now employed by Lord Ascoyne D'Ascoyne in his private bank, Louis has a steady income, yet still lived in Clapham but now has enough money to move into a plush apartment in the city to 'entertain' Sibella, who he first 'entertained' on her wedding day, thus gaining revenge on Lionel. One by one, he kills the more elderly members of the D'Ascoyne family in extremely strange and darkly comedic ways, apart from the Admiral who, in time-honoured tradition, went down with his ship, and Lord Ascoyne D'Ascoyne, who dies of shock, after learning of Ethelred's death. Now the Duke of Chalfont, Louis is forced to choose between Sibella and the widowed Edith D'Ascoyne, which is very much a Catch-22 situation.

 

Eventually, and in extremely strained circumstances, the law catches up with him and Louis chooses the right to be tried by his peers, literally, as his case will be heard in the House of Lords. In jail and awaiting the morning, he receives an unexpected visit from Sibella, who has an interesting proposition for him.

 

Kind Hearts and Coronets is almost the definition of a black comedy, due to the ways in which members of the D'Ascoyne family die and Louis' wonderfully deadpan narration. Paul Schrader famously used the 'confessional' narration in Pickpocket as the inspiration for Taxi Driver, but the narration here predates Pickpocket and is probably the first film in which such a device was used so heavily and so well. It is a superbly scripted film and Alec Guinness says he didn't even finish the first page of the script without collapsing with laughter and accepting the parts offered to him, but asking why there whether there was a reason he should only play four members of the D'Ascoyne family and not all eight.

 

Understandably, Guinness receives most of the plaudits for his superb performance as the various members of the family, using his wonderful vocal range and no shortage of make-up to play members of the family of many different ages and both genders. However, Guinness is almost in a supporting role as the main character is Louis Mazzini and Dennis Price is absolutely brilliant – the scene with him and Guinness (as Ethelred D'Ascoyne) is a display of acting genius by both men, but it's Price's wonderful narration which gives the film its darkly comedic tone and really drives the story. I don't know how he delivered some of the lines without cracking up and bursting into fits of laughter every time.

 

This is one of my all-time favourite films and, when it compiled my list of the Top 10 Greatest British films, was at number four behind Don't Look Now, Dr Strangelove and The Red Shoes. It is a superb example of a subversive film, a flawless black comedy with brilliant acting by Alec Guinness, Dennis Price and Joan Greenwood as Sibella, an elegantly written and incredibly funny screenplay and quite brilliant direction by Robert Hamer. Some of it may seem a little dated, particularly the use of the word 'nigger' when Louis does the rhyme 'Eeny, meany, miny, more', but the film is set in Edwardian Britain when the word may have been used and, in 1949, certainly wasn't as controversial as it is now.

 

That being said, as a rather scathing critique of the class system, a cynical, subversive and almost anarchic piece of black comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets is a great movie, the very best which came from Ealing Studios and one of the very best British films ever made.

 

The Disc —>

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)
Video:
1080p Full Frame 1.33:1
Audio:
LPCM 2.0 Mono English
Subtitles:
English HoH

Crew

 

Director:

Robert Hamer

Writers:

Robert Hamer

John Deighton

Roy Horniman

Music:

Ernest Irving

Editors:

Peter Tanner

Director of Photography:

Douglas Slocombe