Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) Special Edition
Starring: Dennis Price, Alec Guinness, Valerie Hobson
Studio: Ealing Studios/Criterion Collection 325 (2 discs)
Video: 1/33:1, 4:3, B&W (Guinness interview color)
Audio: Dolby Digital mono
Extras: Feature-length BBC documentary on Ealing Studios, 70-minute talk show appearance by Alec Guinness in 1977, Theatrical trailer, Gallery of archival production and publicity photos, “American” ending, New essay by Philip Kemp in booklet
Length: 106 minutes for feature
This hilarious black comedy from director Robert Hamer was one of the greatest films to come out of the veddy British Ealing Studios – right alongside The Ladykillers and Man In the White Suit. However, much of it was shot outside of the studio proper, and its wickedly witty story in the style of Oscar Wilde was worlds different from the standard Ealing fare – which was wholesome, amiable and even a bit on the prudish side. The director – the studio’s maverick – clashed with studio production head Michael Balcon, who was something of an autocrat. When the idea of the film was proposed to him, Balcon said “Now let me get this straight: the story involves a man who kills eight people in order to ascend to a dukedom, and you call it a comedy?”
Hamer was able to push the production ahead in spite of Balcon’s reservations, and one of the prime elements in upping the comedy aspects of the story was the decision to have Guinness play all eight of the relatives which had to be done away with in order for young Louis to avenge the unjust disinheritance of his mother when she had married his late Italian singer commoner father. Guinness here even outshines Peter Sellers in the multiple-roles department. Some of the other family in Louis’ way are disposed of naturally, via heart attack etc., and each of the murders is carried out in a different, very British and ingenious manner. A military man who likes to brag about his war exploits is dispatched with a homemade bomb in his caviar, and the one female family member played by Guinness – Lady Agatha – meets her maker after Louis punctures with a well-placed arrow her hot air balloon over London – from which she is dropping female suffrage broadsides. Some of the family members are portrayed as doing despicable things which make the viewer less sympathetic for them as they get disposed of: one who hunts quail (how timely!) has his servant put out “man traps” to catch poachers on his estate (Louis directs him into one of his own traps); another in the line of succession makes disparaging comments about Louis’ mother getting hitched to the Italian commoner, prior to Louis unhitching him.
The courtroom scenes at the end of the film are precipitated by the arrest of the newly-ordained Duke Louis on a charge of a murder which he didn’t commit – that of the husband of Louis’ attractive childhood friend and lover Sibella. Louis is found guilty and writes his memoirs during the night before he is to be hanged. Sibella’s machinations seemingly save him, but do they? The notes in the extras indicate that the American release wanted to make the message clearer that Crime Does Not Pay, and required a different final shot. I didn’t find any real difference between the two versions – both of which suggest that although Louis has just been released he will get his comeuppance. The British version is just a bit more subtle, as expected.
This was the crowning role of the actor described as “sourly handsome” – Dennis Price. He went downhill from here due to alcoholism and other problems, appearing finally in a series of terrible horror movies directed by the British equivalent of Ed Wood Jr. The extras provided are typical of the good work that goes into these Criterion Special Editions. The BBC documentary is terrific and made me list several of the Ealing films I either wanted to see for the first time or see again. The short collage of clips from various Ealing films in which characters took a tea break no matter how serious the situation was at the time was a kick. Guinness evidently was a rather reclusive person, and the long interview with him seemed filled with great stories; perhaps one day I’ll have the time to view it all. Film critic Philip Kemp’s essay in the provided booklet is also a fine addition to the materials on the film and on Ealing in general.
– John Sunier