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KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Dennis Price, Joan Greenwood, Alec Guinness, Valerie Hobson
Director: Robert Hamer
Audio: English monaural
Subtitles: English
Video: Black & white, full-frame 1.33:1 aspect ratio
Studio: Criterion
Features: Made in Ealing documentary, Alec Guinness interview, booklet
Length: 106 minutes
Release Date: February 28, 2006

"I'm not going to make a comedy about eight murders!"- Michael Balcon, ruffled creative head of Ealing Studios

Film ****

Comedy is already a difficult enough genre to master without the troublesome inconvenience of having to persuade audiences to sympathize with a homicidal hero.  The rare black comedy that succeeds, such as Monsieur Verdoux or Dr. Strangelove, merely accentuates the noticeably lackluster hodgepodge of otherwise spectacularly tedious disasters (Murder by Death, Clue, etc.).  One of the triumphant examples, thankfully, is Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), an atypical product from Britain's famous Ealing Studios.

The usual Ealing comedy, for which the studio was renowned, was an innocuous, wholesome, and good-natured affair.  These values represented the puritan family entertainment that served as the essential ingredients in the studio's time-tested formula for success.  Kind Hearts and Coronets was a horse of a different color altogether.  The film, directed by maverick filmmaker Robert Hamer, was ironic, casually amoral, and downright subversive.  It boasted a plethora of acrid witticisms and a coy disdain for conventionality that would have brought a smile to Oscar Wilde's splenetic countenance.  Running throughout the film were veins of passionate sensuality, implied mostly but suggestive enough to draw the consternation of society ladies everywhere.  As for family values, the film's very premise was the gleeful and most systematic extermination of the whole authoritative D'Ascoyne clan, and good riddance.

Kind Hearts and Coronets was adapted from the Edwardian novel Israel Rank by Roy Horniman.  The novel's protagonist was half-Jewish, but given the bleeding wounds still being nursed by a nervous postwar Europe, Ealing could hardly with consideration for its self-preservation endorse a film promoting a Jewish serial killer.  Michael Balcon, head of production at Ealing, suggested a change of the lead character into Louis Mazzini, a half-Italian, and Hamer, nonconformist director though he be, wisely acquiesced on this point.  We must assume that Italian audiences, having vocalized little in the way of indignant protest, were a tolerant lot to this alteration.

However, Hamer stoutly refused to yield on most any other areas of creative differences between the two men.  Consequently, Balcon and Hamer clashed continuously over perceptions about the film's artistic merits during its production.  Although Balcon privately abhorred the film, he eventually allowed it to be released as Hamer had envisioned.  When Kind Hearts and Coronets became a smashing success with critics and audiences alike, Balcon publicly attested to a great admiration for the film and its genius director.  Such is the hypocrisy of show business.

As the film opens, Louis D'Ascoyne Mazzini (Dennis Price), the Tenth Duke of Chalfont, lounges dispassionately in a jail cell awaiting his own execution.  To pass the time, he begins scribing his memoirs down upon paper, the revelations of which hereto form the basic story of Kind Hearts and Coronets.

For much of his life, Louis Mazzini has lived dispiritedly as a pauper, serving in menial travails far below the station of his rightful title.  His mother had been a D'Ascoyne, but having eloped with an Italian singer for love, had brought the odious weight of her family's convulsive anger upon her.  Louis Mazzini's mother was disinherited, and Louis, through his association with such a woman, was therefore persona non grata to the landed gentry.

By right of blood lineage, Louis nevertheless expected some eventual form of inheritance.  But the D'Ascoyne clan's contentions regarding the prevailing impropriety of past conduct had yet to exceed their subjective statute of limitations, and so the young man, whose only culpability in the matter laid with his own birth, found himself off-handedly slighted by his own family.

Louis Mazzini received nothing, not even the bestowal of a proper burial plot for his dearly departed mother.  Through such filial disregard are an acrimony of the spirit and a rancor of the mind born.  Louis determined that his just deserts would be forthcoming, and if the discreet and permanent retirements of various senior aspirants to the title proper of Duke of Chalfont were compulsory to the deed, then Louis was quite prepared to ensure that his name should assume its proper genealogical distinction as first in succession to the title of Duke and the family inheritance.

The surfeit of various physical impediments to Mazzini's intentions were eight in number and D'Ascoynes all - the indomitably boorish current Duke, the Lord Ascoyne D'Ascoyne a banker, his philandering son Ascoyne D'Ascoyne, the rambling Reverend Henry D'Ascoyne, the bombastic General Rufus D'Ascoyne, the sinkable Admiral Horatio D'Ascoyne, the flighty photographer Henry D'Ascoyne, and lastly the insufferable suffragist Lady Agatha, each and every one portrayed quite memorably by Alec Guinness.  Throughout his film career, Guinness had perfected the craft of ignominious demise, and in Kind Hearts and Coronets, he meets his end in rather spectacular fashions - blown up by exploding caviar or shot down from a hot air balloon by an arrow, for starters.

By comparison, a perfunctory puncture wound to the back with a sharp skewer would have seemed rather tedious.  Equally effective perhaps, but the personal affront to Mazzini's sense of honor demanded extraordinary statements which left little doubt of the importance Mazzini placed upon attaining the right and proper title of Duke.

Investigative procedurals being primitive at the time, Mazzini might well have succeeded completely beyond a reasonable fear of retribution were not his actions emboldened in part by the fickle demands of amorous desire.  Contrary to the impracticality that it presented him, Mazzini harbored a lifelong infatuation with the opportunistic Sibella (Joan Greenwood), a flammable lass whose passion was proportionate to the quantity of a man's worth in the bank.  As must inevitably occur, the incorrigibly insatiable woman who seeks the fruitions of monetary independence through adroit association with gentlemen of proper endowment should invariably find such prospective suitors.  In Sibella's case, once she suspects the true breadth of Mazzini's plot, henceforth she insinuates herself into Mazzini's life, meaning to divest him of his money (or his good health permanently, should he refuse to share said impending good fortune with her).

Mazzini's plight is further complicated by his concomitant relationship with the Lady Edith D'Ascoyne (Valerie Hobson), ironically the widow of one of Mazzini's victims yet also a woman whose quality matches her beauty.  The proprieties of Lady Edith's regarded position in the community do little to shield her from the libidinous half of Mazzini's nature, which excels at the ingratiating art of charm and flattery.

The film's open-ended conclusion is reminiscent of the Frank R. Stockton short story, "The Lady or the Tiger."  Mazzini, as we know, has already failed in his endeavors and faces execution at the beginning of Kind Hearts and Coronets.  Perhaps even the best-laid plans are flawed when an unpredictable variable such as romance is introduced into the equation.  Louis Mazzini's fate ultimately rests with one simple decision - concede to Sibella's demands and receive a miraculous eleventh-hour reprieve from certain death by the sudden revelation of "new" evidence in his favor, or adhere steadfastly to the remnants of his own muddled principles and die honorably for murder(s).

As a comedy of manners, Kind Hearts and Coronets is most deliciously impolite.  As a sample of the Ealing comedy, it is unmatched in its piquant wit.  Dennis Price is sublime as the would-be Duke who inherits the title after the myriad demises of Alec Guinness (himself in truly exceptional form).  While producer Michael Balcon and director Robert Hamer were never again to ascend quite to the dizzying comic heights attained by this Ealing classic, in all fairness to both men, hardly any subsequent comedy by anyone else has done so, either.

Video ***

Kind Hearts and Coronets is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio.  The transfer was created from a 35mm composite fine-grain master.  The video quality is quite good, with sharp contrast levels and fine details.  Aside from a few emulsion scuffs, the film otherwise looks to be in very good condition.

Audio **

The simple audio is monaural with optional English subtitles.  Dialogue is clear although background noises are sometimes muddled or distorted with occasional hiss.  Sound fidelity in older films such as Kind Hearts and Coronets understandably requires a forgiving ear.

Features ****

"Poor Edith, I'm afraid all this is going to take years off her life."

Kind Hearts and Coronets was originally released on DVD by Anchor Bay.  This special edition from Criterion offers a solid alternative to the earlier release and arrives as a two-disc set.  Disc One contains the film itself along with a trailer and a large art gallery (forty-nine photographs devoted to costumes and portraits and seventy to production and publicity).  Of quaint interest is an alternate American ending, flimsily modified to comply with our apparently delicate and fragile sensibilities.  Disc Two holds the remaining supplemental features.

The DVD case, however, is a bizarre one.  The discs are held firmly in place in an overlapping manner on the inside; getting to Disc Two requires first removing Disc One every time.  As a result, the case design is a little cumbersome.

There are two supplements on Disc Two.  The first is Made in Ealing (75 min.), a 1986 BBC documentary relating the rise and fall of Ealing Studios.  Numerous clips from the company's most famous films, including Kind Hearts and Coronets, are generously sprinkled throughout the proceedings.  This documentary recalls the early days of the company when the Ealing lots were used to create propaganda war-era films and the whimsical comedies of manners which were the staple of the company for so many years.  The documentary also focuses most intently upon Michael Balcon's influence over the studio and the conservative values he instilled in many of the Ealing films.  Ironically,  it is the unorthodox output of the studio's most brilliant directors, Alexander Mackendrick and Robert Hamer, for which Ealing is best remembered.  The studio lots still remain today, although they are used now by the BBC, which bought Ealing in the mid-1950's.

The other supplement on Disc Two is a rare 1977 television interview (68 min.) with Alec Guinness.  The knighted actor provides a casual and friendly trot down memory lane as he recalls his amusing early days as a struggling actor.  Clips from his various films are included, including peerless turns in David Copperfield and in The Lavender Hill Mob.  Naturally, Guinness mentions a few anecdotes about the current toast of the town, Star Wars.  Among the more intriguing bits are a spooky story about his encounter with James Dean just prior to the young actor's death, various animal impersonations (believe it or not), and as a finale, a wonderful recitation of a charming Kipling poem.

Finally, there is a short 14-page booklet with publicity photos of the film's principal characters and an essay on the film by film critic Philip Kemp.  The essay provides a brief history of the Ealing Studios and rather wry commentary on director Robert Hamer's life and career.

Summary:

Fiendishly sardonic, Kind Hearts and Coronets is a deliciously genius black comedy for people who appreciate dry wit laced with the most wickedly clever dialogue.  Alec Guinness is great, but the film truly belongs to Dennis Price, who is pitch-perfect as a self-made gentleman determined to get what's coming to him.

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