Wednesday 21 April 2010

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

Director: Robert Hamer
Stars: Dennis Price, Valerie Hobson, Joan Greenwood and Alec Guinness
I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

As an Englishman living in America, it's hard not to see that different countries have different staples. For instance, Christmas in England never seemed to have anything to do with It's a Wonderful Life or A Christmas Story, which has a traditional 24 hour marathon on US television. Instead it was The Sound of Music, The Great Escape and a Bond movie every year, along with the Queen's Speech, The World's Strongest Man and the Only Fools and Horses Christmas special. A lot of this is tradition, but some of it simply comes down to taste, and nowhere is that more obvious than in a national sense of humour. When it comes to comedy, I grew up on a diet of Carry On films, the St Trinians series of movies and a whole host of Ealing comedies, all of which are quintessentially English and thus unfortunately didn't export well to the new world. Nobody Stateside has the colonial heritage to understand Carry On Up the Khyber, for instance.

Kind Hearts and Coronets may well be the best of the Ealing comedies but it's certainly mixed with the most deliciously dry comedy and the blackest of black humour. It's also unmistakably English as the opening scenes with Mr Elliott amply demonstrate. Elliott is played by Miles Malleson, who specialised in playing elderly clergymen who talked about public service, cups of tea and noblesse oblige. This time out he's a hangman talking about precisely the same things, as he'll execute Louis D'Ascoyne Mazzini, 10th Duke of Chalfont, at eight in the morning with the silken rope due his rank. Even in his consideration of that event Elliott stays entirely English. He seeks the correct form of address to use on such an occasion ('Your Grace'); he praises the duke for his composure, given that hysterical prisoners are so inconsiderate; and he's intent on avoiding the bungling that went on last time a duke was executed, back in the days of the axe.

The 10th Duke is played by Dennis Price, before he turned to the bottle in the fifties and ended up in low rate European exploitation flicks. Price, or to give his full name, Dennistoun Franklyn John Rose-Price, knew about privilege from personal experience, being the son of Brigadier-General Thomas Rose Caradoc Price, and he was expected to follow family tradition by going into the army himself. However he chose the stage instead, after a few years serving in the Royal Artillery during the Second World War, and once seen by Michael Powell soon found himself on the big screen in A Canterbury Tale. This performance, the pinnacle of his career, is note perfect and all the more astounding for the fact that it's underacted in the extreme, a masterpiece of subtlety. He's not just the main star, he also narrates his story in flashback as he spends the night before his execution in his cell writing his salacious and murderous memoirs.

These are far from your usual memoirs, because he has a tale of revenge to unfold. It begins with his mother, the daughter of the 7th Duke, who is shunned by her family for falling so low as to marry for love instead of position, so with her penniless Italian opera singer of a husband she's forced to leave the luxury of Chalfont Castle (really Leeds Castle in Kent) for poverty in Clapham. When his father drops dead of a heart attack upon first seeing him, the young Louis Mazzini grows up hearing about his illustrious family history. He's even still in the running to be the Duke as a special dispensation allows the title to be inherited through the female line. The only catch is that there are twelve people ahead of him. To illustrate how far out that is, the thirteenth in line to the British throne is currently Viscount Linley and the first seven haven't changed for twenty years. He has about as much chance of being king as I have.

What Viscount Linley and I have in common is that neither of us plan to do anything about it. Louis Mazzini has no such reticence. It's when his mother writes to Lord Ascoyne D'Ascoyne to see if the family would see fit to employ him in their respectable banking business that it really begins, because his Lordship refuses to even acknowledge his existence, so forcing him into the trades. Mr Perkins, the Mazzini's lodger of fifteen years, gets him a job as a general assistant in a drapery store, but that's hardly a fitting occupation for a gentleman. Sparked by such effrontery and his mother's insistence that miracles can happen, thoughts of bumping off his relatives take root, but they're still just thoughts. It's when his beloved Sibella, in the tiny but exquisite form of Joan Greenwood, turns down his proposal of marriage because he isn't ever likely to amount to anything, that it becomes serious and he decides he has to slaughter his way to the Dukedom.
This film is utterly irresistible to anyone with a wicked sense of humour, because it's impossible not to identify with young Louis even when it's so wrong. 'Every lunch time I went to see how my inheritance was proceeding,' he narrates, while perusing the papers. 'Sometimes the deaths 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 a bonus in the shape of the duchess.' I don't know another film in which we can split our sides over the sad death of a pair of infants from an infectious disease, let alone laugh so hard, or another actor who could reach our sympathy with such dangerously dry wit. Yet by the time we hear the unmistakable honey in Joan Greenwood's voice, even when saying 'pigs might fly,' we know we're behind him a hundred per cent.

Greenwood's obituary in The Times described her as 'the voice that intrigued generations,' and that's a fair description because once heard, she's never forgotten. Her voice does things to the air that make all red blooded men melt. She'd been making films since the beginning of the decade but in 1948 remarked, 'My films have all been unhappy ones, and I'm longing to do a comedy for a change.' She promptly played Caroline Lamb opposite Dennis Price in The Bad Lord Byron which meant unhappy to the degree of wrist slashing, but then followed up with Whisky Galore! and Kind Hearts and Coronets, which is a pretty amazing double bill of Ealing comedies. A couple of years later she'd also appear in The Man in the White Suit before finding possibly her most famous role as Gwendolen in The Importance of Being Earnest. She's a lady of loose virtues here, to be brutally frank, but causing young Louis palpitations is utterly believable.

It's testament to her presence as an actress that she can continually shine while Dennis Price is layering dark witticism upon dark witticism in an endless flow, but there's another major name here we can't ignore and he gets plenty of opportunity to attempt to steal the show. By the time Mazzini takes a sixpenny tour of Chalfont Castle to acquaint himself with the lay of the land, there are eight members of the D'Ascoyne family remaining between him and the dukedom. Amazingly, all of them are played by Alec Guinness, though he was initially only offered four of the parts. 'I collapsed with laughter on the first page,' he said, 'and didn't even bother to get to the end of the script. I went straight back to the hotel and sent a telegram saying, 'Why four parts? Why not eight?'' Highly varied, these roles include D'Ascoynes of three generations and both sexes. There's even a ninth if you count the painting of a family ancestor hanging in Chalfont Castle, given that Guinness posed for it.

And all eight of them die, though to be fair Louis Mazzini only has to kill six of them. Fortunately Price gets biting witticisms regardless, most often about death. 'It is so difficult to make a neat job of killing people with whom one is not on friendly terms,' he points out after committing himself to his murderous goal, so he does something about that. He introduces himself to young Ascoyne D'Ascoyne at the Cruikshanks Hotel, then despatches him and his paramour in the river. 'It was beautifully timed,' he says simply, and crosses off the first of eight names from the family tree taped to the back of his mother's watercolour of Chalfont Castle. He entices enthusiastic young photographer Henry D'Ascoyne with a new camera, then sets him up for a fiery death in his darkroom. 'Needless to say I was too late,' he comments as he rushes to his aid, though, 'He seemed a very pleasant fellow and I regretted that our acquaintanceship must be so short.'

Two down, six to go and they all appear on screen together in a wonderful shot during Henry D'Ascoyne's funeral service, not uncoincidentally the first time Mazzini sees them all too. While only a couple of seconds long, this scene took two days to film, most of the time taken up by Guinness being made up for the parts. The technique involved setting a frame containing six flat glass windows painted matte black in front of the camera, which was kept very still. To shoot each character one window was opened, then the film was rewound to shoot the next. A camera operator even spent the night with the camera to ensure that it wasn't moved even by accident. The result is legendary, though it's backed up by the subsequent characterisations of Alec Guinness, only 35 years old at the time and making himself very obvious after parts in two prominent Dickens adaptations by David Lean: Great Expectations and Oliver Twist.
Guinness is simply a joy to watch. He preferred full length shots rather than close ups because he believed that the body could act better than the face and Kind Hearts and Coronets is the proof of that. His eight roles are thoroughly distinct, not just vocally or with regards to make up but through body language too. While all look slightly like Alec Guinness, including Lady Agatha, it's hard to really believe that they're all him. For one actor to keep all their idiosyncrasies distinct, down to head and hand movements, style of walk and tone of voice, is simply amazing and, watching him here, it's easy to see just why Peter Sellers idolised him. Sellers probably learned a huge amount working alongside his hero in The Ladykillers, and he went on to be another cinematic chameleon. Sellers memorably played three distinct characters in both Dr Strangelove and The Mouse That Roared. Alec Guinness also played seven roles in All at Sea.

His favourite of the eight parts here was the doddering old Reverend Lord Henry D'Ascoyne. 'He's a boring old ass,' says the Duke, 'but it keeps it in the family.' He's so interminably boring that Louis promotes him to be the next victim, posing as a foreign bishop cycling around the country churches taking brass rubbings, all so he can be invited to dinner and poison the man's port. Lady Agatha D'Ascoyne is a suffragette, who spends plenty of time in jail, which makes her hard to get at. When she takes to the skies in a hot air balloon to drop leaflets over London he takes up his bow. 'I shot an arrow in the air, she fell to earth in Berkeley Square,' he paraphrases from Longfellow. Admiral Lord Horatio D'Ascoyne dies without aid, through the idiocy of mixing up port and starboard in an order. Obstinate to the last, he insists on going down with his ship. Ever inventive, he explodes General Lord Rufus D'Ascoyne with a bomb concealed in a jar of caviar.

Lord Ascoyne D'Ascoyne, the young Ascoyne's father, turns out to be a decent chap. He even takes on Mazzini at the bank after Louis exploits the opportunity of his son's death to present himself and his commiserations. It's fair game though, given that it was Ascoyne the younger who lost him his job at the draper's. He progresses quickly, ending up as private secretary, a role Lord D'Ascoyne had hoped for his son. £500 a year means he can take a bachelor apartment in St James's Park and spend even more adulterous time with Sibella, who has married Lionel Holland, a man Louis describes as exhibiting 'the most extraordinary capacity for middle age I have ever encountered in a man of twenty four.' Many of these scenes were cut for the American release because the Production Code was in force and if nobody could resist Joan Greenwood's voice in England, what chance would America have where English accents are inherently sexy to begin with?

There's another delightful young lady involved too, Valerie Hobson playing Edith D'Ascoyne, the widow of Henry, the unfortunate photographer. Hobson was the personification of English class, even though she was actually Irish. She was known for horror in the thirties, including a turn as the Baron's fiancée in Bride of Frankenstein, but it was here and in Great Expectations that she made herself most obvious, even though she had married a film producer, Anthony Havelock-Allan. It was her second husband who would prove most memorable though. She retired from the screen to marry John Profumo, the English politician whose affair with Christine Keeler, a model also involved with the senior naval attaché at the Soviet Embassy, effectively brought down the government. The story was dramatised as the film Scandal. With typical class, Hobson stood by her husband and they dedicated their lives to charity from that point on.

Such irony would not be out of place in this film, which is truly drenched in successive layers of it. It's hilarious to watch Mazzini go hunting with Ethelred D'Ascoyne, the 8th Duke, only to notably cringe at the duke's valet thrashing a poacher caught in a mantrap. He doesn't believe in bloodsports but he's already killed five of the Duke's family. He succeeds in his quest for revenge, only to be sentenced to death through Sibella's own quest for revenge, spited after he becomes engaged to Edith D'Ascoyne. He chooses to be tried in the House of Lords where a number of peers could have spoken for him if only he hadn't killed them already. After killing six in cold blood, he's set to hang for a murder he didn't commit. There's a further blistering irony in the finale, which I don't want to spoil but can't resist pointing out that additional footage had to be shot for the American release because the Production Code prohibited a criminal from getting away with his crime, however much insinuation there was that he really hadn't.

Ealing Studios have a good claim to being the oldest working film studios in the world, dating back to 1896 when they were Will Barker Studios. Over a century later, the name has been resurrected and after decades of being a studio where films were made rather than a studio that made films, they're happily finding their feet again in the marketplace with new releases like Shaun of the Dead and The Descent. They've even revived the St Trinian's series for two further entries. Back in their heyday though, in the forties and fifties, they churned out a whole host of classic comedies, six of which became the launch to film stardom for Alec Guinness. The Coen Brothers remade The Ladykillers with Tom Hanks in 2004 but it wasn't a patch on the original, perhaps explaining why it didn't spearhead a revival of the old Ealing comedies, which are among the cleverest and funniest films ever made. I miss films like those and I wish Ealing well.

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