Tuesday 29 July 2014

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

Syv Små Synder
I get the impression that from the late forties and a long way into the fifties the British Ealing Studios was a greenhouse for British comedy. Looking down the list I see a number of titles hailing from that studio so either that production company was really important or the Book has just fallen in love with it as has been known to do with some directors. “Kind Hearts and Coronets” is the first one of them and since I have bought myself an entire box set I suppose the next few month will tell me which way it is.

“Kind Hearts and Coronets” is very black comedy served with an extreme amount of style and class. Does that sound familiar? This is indeed a very British approach and some of their best comedies, be it movies or television series, use this formula. Selling something morbid or gruesome with almost deadpan elegance is a clash that is absurdly funny.

In this case however I cannot help thinking that this looks very much like Chaplin’s “Monsieur Verdoux”. They have that in common that our protagonist (or is it antagonist?) is a mass murder who is very casual and blasé about the lives he takes and instead of a lowlife thug he is an elegantier who has style and almost perfect manners. It is not entirely a rip-off, but close enough that I think it detracts from the movie.

In “Kind Hearts and Coronets” we follow the gentle Louis D'Ascoyne Mazzini (Dennis Prize), the outcast member of the landed D’Ascoyne family of higher nobility. His mother ran away with an Italian singer and was as a result cut off from the family. Her attempts at reconciliation were scuffed at and she ended up a bitter woman living in poverty. This bitterness was passed on to Louis who took it upon himself to get back at the D’Ascoyne family and since he was only number 10 or so down the list of succession he might himself become duke someday, if, you know, the others on that list should die.

This is the story of Louis life as he recounts it in his prison cell. We know he is convicted for murder and that he is to die at dawn, and now he writes down his life story to pass the time until the executioner arrives. We also know that at this point in life he has become a duke so somehow all those before him must have disappeared.

The story of how that happened is the main part of the film.

Every member of the D’Ascoyne family (except for Louis himself) is played by Alec Guinness, though I would not have guessed since each and every one of them looks and acts very different from the others. They do have that in common that they are a bit on the quirky side ranging from slightly odd to outright insane. Although arrogant beyond measure they are however not the types you would wish death on. Some of them are even quite likable. That does not deter young Louis Mazzini. He is entirely cool about his mission.

Some die directly by his hand. Some act so stupidly that that hand is hardly visible and some, like the admiral does not even need a hand and suddenly Louis is a duke.

Meanwhile Louis has made two female acquaintances. One is Sibella (Joan Greenwood) with whom Louis grew up, flirted with, but ultimately was dumped by in favor of a dull character of a much better position. Of course as Louis gradually increases in rank and gets closer and closer to the dukedom Sibella realizes her mistake and seeks him out. It is a cat and mouse game with the two of them and elegant and polite as they are they match each other very well in being underhanded and deceitful.

The other one is Edith (Valerie Hobson) the widow of Henry D’Ascoyne. She is prudish and elegant and in many ways the opposite of the sensual, but dangerous Sibella. In a sense Edith represents his target: Nobility and honour, while Sibella represents the means to get there: Deceit and crime. Predictably he uses Sibella and then dumps her for Edith. And all hell breaks loose.

So, what does all this mean? Is it an attack on nobility? Or the underhanded intrigues involved with nobility? In olden days the schemes of young Louis were standard fare? I do not really know. What I do know is that this film fits into the category of films where we follow a scoundrel who does hideous crimes, but with so much charm and some measure of justification that we actually like him and are uncertain if we really want to see him punished for his crimes. There are surprisingly many of those films and I am sure I will over time be reverting to that theme again. This is also where the similarities with “Monsieur Verdoux” becomes striking.

And what about that other test of comedies? Did it make me laugh? Hmmm… Surprisingly little. Do not get me wrong, I did like the film, this kind of humor appeals to me, but the jokes are barbed and there is this underlying tragedy that it only rarely becomes laughing out loud funny. I smile, a wry smile, but smile nonetheless, and that is about it.

Having to choose between this one and “Monsieur Verdoux” I would choose “Kind Hearts and Coronets”. It has no use of the self-righteous indignation that is so prevalent in Verdoux and the elegance is a lot better played out. But then, can you really like a cold blooded murderer who kills people whose only crime is the name they carry?


  1. I had about the same reaction as you did. I thought it was clever and I enjoyed Alec Guiness but I didn't really laugh. I can't get enough of Joan Greenwood no matter what she is in. That voice is wonderful.

    My favorite Ealing comedy is The Man in the White Suit in which Alec Guiness invents a material that is indestructible and doesn't stain. I will say no more.

    1. I just checked and that movie is included in the box set I got. That sounds like something to look forward to.
      Joan Greenwood was really good and I get the impression she was a recurring feature of the Ealing films.

  2. I saw Monsiuer Verdoux many years after Kind Hearts and Coronets so I didn't make the connection, but you are right that there are multiple parallels between them.

    I'll join the group and also say that this film didn't really make me laugh, but I liked the main character.

    1. There are indeed, but I think Kind Hearts is much better. Somehow Chaplin managed to screw up his film.

  3. I'm with Chip on this in the order I saw the movies. I enjoyed the hell out of this movie, although I'm not sure I laughed out loud a single time. I did smile a lot, though.

    Marie is right, as well--The Man in the White Suit is a great little film. It's not on the list, but it's very much worth your time.

    1. We all seem to be quite in alignment on this one. It is good and highly enjoyable.
      As I mentioned above I found The Man in the White Suit in the boxset, so I will be watching it one of these days.