Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

When it’s on: Wednesday, 31 December (11.00 pm)
Channel: BBC4
IMDb Link

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

1949 was a watershed year for Ealing Studios. After a fine early dip into the waters of comedy with the post-war Hue and Cry, the year heralded an explosion of great work with Whiskey Galore!, Passport to Pimlico and Kind Hearts and Coronets. All three work beautifully. Not only are they very funny films, they’re also consummately British and explore different aspects of life and manners, capturing to sublime effect the mood and spirit of Great Britain in the years following World War Two.

Each film deserves a gushing entry of its own, but my favourite of the golden trio is without doubt Kind Hearts and Coronets, a delicious black comedy about a series of murders. The subject matter is dark indeed; a disinherited young man seeks his fortune, his place as the Duke of Chalfont, by killing all the family members that stand between him and his prestigious position as head of the ennobled family. And yet it’s told with real charm, and the story has such an agreeable lead in the impeccably mannered Dennis Price, that it’s impossible not to fall in love with him, his objective and finding oneself cheering on his efforts, hoping he actually achieves his ghoulish dream.

Price, in reality raised in the kind of privileged upbringing that would no doubt have pleased his character, plays Louis Mancini, the son of a lady from the noble D’Ascoyne clan, who eloped with an itinerant opera singer and for her pains ended up in poverty. The family refuses to acknowledge his existence, so Louis has little choice but to take a humble shop assistant’s job. When his mother dies and the D’Ascoynes deny her a place in the family crypt, Louis’s thoughts on his heritage turn to those of vengeance, the germ of an idea to put himself high in the pecking order for the Dukedom. At the same time, he’s friends from childhood with Lionel (John Penrose) and Sibella (Joan Greenwood). It’s clear he adores the latter, and those feelings are returned, but the flighty Sibella does not see the young Louis with slim prospects as suitable for her, so she chooses to marry Lionel as our hero attempts to improve his outlook by removing the obstacles, one by one…

In a casting stroke of genius, the D’Ascoyne family are all played by the same actor – Alec Guinness. Aged 35 at the time of filming, Guinness’s reputation – gained mainly on the stage – was that of someone who looked anonymous and unmemorable, unlike many of his rather striking thespian peers, such as Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud, and this was played up to great effect with him donning various wigs and prosthetics to fit himself like a chameleon into the skin of each D’Ascoyne, young and old, male and female. A skilled and flexible performer, Guinness was more than capable of breathing life into all his characters, whether the vain and ignorant Young Ascoyne, the more likeable Young Henry, the doddering Parson, the blustering General. What none of his personae sees coming is the spirit of revenge in the shape of Louis, who finds increasingly imaginative ways of doing away with them. The General meets his demise after an encounter with exploding caviar. The Parson drinks poisoned port. An unfortunate drowning ‘accident’ sees off Young Ascoyne.

It could be grim fare, but it’s actually riotously funny thanks to the gregarious narration from Louis, as he recalls how he made it to the top of the family business. Charismatic and effortlessly pithy, there’s no doubt that what he’s doing is wrong and indeed he’s the first to acknowledge it, yet there’s something entirely winning about Louis’s anti-hero as he goes about his grisly work. Structurally, the story is told in flashback, Louis recounting the events that led to the prison where we first meet him, presumably (though not necessarily) having eventually been caught for the string of D’Ascoyne murders and awaiting the hangman’s noose. Even with death before him, however, there’s no crying or worry. He’s the picture of patrician calm, quoting Doctor Johnson to his gaoler with little sign that he has a care in the world.

Kind Hearts and Coronets was directed by Robert Hamer, already an Ealing veteran with the superior working class drama, It Always Rains on Sunday, and he was also responsible for the ‘Haunted Mirror’ segment from Dead of Night, the studio’s quite brilliant portmanteau horror film. Had it not been for the even scarier ‘The Ventriloquist’s Dummy’, Hamer’s deeply unsettling tale is the one you would remember, and perhaps it’s the complicated narrative framing Dead of Night that helped make the equally complex Kind Hearts and Coronets so easy to follow. Hamer’s last directorial effort was 1960’s School for Scoundrels, another saga about bad men turning out to be the film’s unlikely heroes though, much like Louis, Ian Carmichael’s morally mixed up Henry Palfrey would no doubt approve of the sympathetic treatment he receives.

Kind Hearts and Coronets: *****

Thanks to everyone who has visited and supported Films on the Box over the Christmas holiday period. Have a Happy New Year and a sensational 2015!

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11 Replies to “Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)”

  1. It’s impossible for me to say which film is the best of Ealing’s output but this is a definite contender. The cast is sublime all the way through and Hamer – one of the very best British directors ever – is on top form.

    Happy New Year, Mike. And I hope you’ll be active in 2015 too.

    1. Thanks Colin, I certainly fully intend to be back in 2015. Happy New Year to you too.

      This one holds a special place because it was the first Ealing comedy I saw. I absolutely loved it from the start. Of course since then I’ve ploughed through the rest and DVD has been good for rereleasing them. Of the rest, I have a lot of love for The Lavender Hill Mob, but The Ladykillers and Whiskey Galore must be well up there also.

      1. No arguments from me about the others mentioned. There were just so many fantastic movies produced by the company, and in a relatively short time too.

      2. Not to mention some very good dramatic films also – hard to appreciate, though, the impact of these movies on British audiences at the time, their social impact, perhaps less so this one but something like Passport to Pimlico telling a story of plucky post-war Brits at a time when people were coming to terms with life after the Blitz.

  2. After talking about “stuff we’ve not got round to” the other day, here’s another for me. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen an Ealing film. Criminal, I know. I have a few knocking around downloaded from iPlayer (this, Whiskey Galore, The Ladykillers… actually, that might be the remake), and several more are part of Film4’s regular rotation — as with so many things (for me, anyhow), the fact they’re on all the time means they slip into a “I’ll catch it next time” rut.

    Anyway, thanks for the informative review. I shan’t be watching it tonight, but I’ll try to make an extra effort to in the new year.

    1. Thanks Bob. Ealing comedies are an acquired taste in fairness, very whimsical by today’s standards and appealing principally to a country that has pretty much vanished. Still, they’re very classy affairs, and this is one of the very best. The two you mention are equally fine efforts, and I do believe the BBC are showing more in the upcoming days.

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