Kind Hearts and Coronets
Kind Hearts and Coronets – 1949 | 106 mins | Comedy | B&W
Kind Hearts and Coronets is a black comedy, presented in a coolly elegant style with the most articulate and literate of all Ealing screenplays. The title was taken from a Tennysonian couplet quoted by one of the characters: ‘Kind hearts are more than coronets, And simple faith than Norman blood’; in France the film was called Noblesse Oblige.
It was based on a novel by Roy Horniman published early in the century called Israel Rank, but the film credits do not betray the title, merely the author’s name, perhaps as an instance of delicacy, for another Rank had provided the major part of the film’s finance as well as its British distribution. ‘You are trying to sell that most unsaleable commodity to the British – irony. Good luck to you,’ said Balcon to its director Robert Hamer, who also wrote the screenplay with John Dighton. Louis Mazzini, a young man, the son of a duke’s daughter and a penniless Italian singer who died at his birth, vows to eliminate the ten people who stand between him and the dukedom, a desire for vengeance that becomes intensified when his mother, on her own death, is refused admission to the family vault. He works his way through the list, drowning, exploding and poisoning his rivals and finally shooting the Duke of Chalfont himself, aided on his way by departures through natural causes or self-imposed stupidity. There are two romantic attachments, one to a headstrong girl called Sibella (Joan Greenwood) whom he has known since childhood, who marries a dull man in a fit of pique, and the other to Edith (Valerie Hobson), the gracious, beautiful widow of one of his victims, whom he intends to make his duchess. At the moment of triumph, as he is occupying the ducal stately home, he is arrested for the murder, not of any of his genuine victims, but of Sibella’s husband who has really committed suicide. The story is narrated by the hero, who is spending the eve of his execution finishing his memoirs. At dawn he is saved by the ‘discovery’ of a suicide note, and as he leaves the prison he is confronted by the need to make a choice between the two ladies – that is until a reporter’s question reminds him that he has left his full confession back in the cell.
Alec Guinness played no less than eight of the D’Ascoynes who stand between Louis and the dukedom. Yet the film is possessed and dominated by Dennis Price whose performance as Louis Mazzini is a tour-de-force, and his only film part of real distinction. He too appears in several disguises, such as that of a colonial bishop, in order to carry out his lethal work, besides adopting a new demeanour with each advance up the social scale; yet he never alters the cool, calm and contained manner that is the essence of the character, even when he is a lowly draper’s assistant. Price also plays Louis’s father in the brief prologue.
The ending, like the film as a whole, is ironic, leaving a train of ambiguities. When told by an obsequious prison governor (Clive Morton) that the two women await him outside the gates, Mazzini quotes John Gay’s lines, ‘How happy could I be with either, Were t’other dear charmer away!’, before passing through the gate uncertain what to do because since he has made Edith his wife in a hasty prison ceremony, Sibella has produced her husband’s suicide note and is expecting him to honour an agreement to rid himself of his duchess. We never know how he will escape, as he glances first at Edith’s carriage and then at Sibella’s, for the man from Tit-Bits (a walk-on part for Arthur Lowe, who would have to wait twenty years before achieving fame as Captain Mainwaring in Dad’s Army on television) intervenes to ask about the memoirs. ‘My memoirs?’ says Louis, repeating the words three times as he realises he has forgotten them. In the British version of the film the last shot is a track-in on the manuscript resting where it had been left on the desk in the cell, leaving it open for the audience to suppose that he would turn, ring the prison doorbell, and ask the servile governor to hand over his forgotten property. Such a possibility offended the Johnston Office in America which administered the production code, one of the strictest rules of which was that crime must not be seen to pay. So an additional and aesthetically displeasing scene was appended to the American print in which the autobiographical manuscript is seen in the hands of the authorities.
Extract© George Perry: Forever Ealing.
Robert Hamer: Director
William Kellner: Art Direction
Michael Relph: Associate Producer
Norman Priggen: Asst Director
Douglas Slocombe: Cinematography
Ernest Irving: Conductor
Anthony Mendleson: Costume Design
Peter Tanner: Editing
Ernest Taylor: Make-Up Artist
Harry Frampton: Make-Up Artist
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Music
Michael Balcon: Producer
John Dighton: Script
Robert Hamer: Script
Syd Pearson: Special Effects
Geoffrey Dickinson: Special Effects
Alec Guinness: Ascoyne d\’Ascoyne, Henry d\’Ascoyne, Canon d\’Ascoyne, Admiral d\’Ascoyne, General d\’Ascoyne, Lady Agatha d\’Ascoyne, Lord d\’Ascoyne and Duke of Chalfont
Dennis Price: Louis Mazzini
Joan Greenwood: Sibella
Valerie Hobson: Edith
Audrey Fildes: Mrs Mazzini
John Penrose: Lionel
John Salew: Mr Perkins
Peggy Ann Clifford: Maud
Cecil Rampage: Counsel
Hugh Griffith: Lord High Steward
Clive Morton: Governor
Miles Malleson: Hangman
Arthur Lowe: Reporter