Kind Hearts and Coronets

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Kind Hearts and Coronets
Kind Hearts and Coronets.jpg
Original British film poster
Directed by Robert Hamer
Produced by Michael Balcon
Michael Relph
Screenplay by Robert Hamer
John Dighton
Based on Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal 
by Roy Horniman
Starring Dennis Price
Valerie Hobson
Joan Greenwood
Alec Guinness
Music by Ernest Irving
Cinematography Douglas Slocombe
Edited by Peter Tanner
Distributed by GFD (UK)
Eagle-Lion Films (US)
Release dates
  • 21 June 1949 (1949-06-21) (UK)
Running time
106 minutes
Country United Kingdom
Language English

Kind Hearts and Coronets is a British black comedy film of 1949 starring Dennis Price, Joan Greenwood, Valerie Hobson, and Alec Guinness, who famously plays eight distinct characters. The plot is loosely based on the novel Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal (1907) by Roy Horniman,[1] with the screenplay written by Robert Hamer and John Dighton and the film directed by Hamer. The title refers to a line in Tennyson's poem Lady Clara Vere de Vere: "Kind hearts are more than coronets, and simple faith than Norman blood."[2]

Kind Hearts and Coronets is listed in Time magazine's top 100[3] and also in the BFI Top 100 British films.[4] In 2011 the film was digitally restored and re-released in selected British cinemas.[5]


In Edwardian England, Louis D'Ascoyne Mazzini (Dennis Price) awaits his hanging the next morning. A flashback of the events leading to his sentence ensues, narrated by Louis as he writes his memoirs.

After his mother, a daughter of the seventh Duke of Chalfont, elopes with an Italian opera singer named Mazzini (also played by Price), she is disowned by the aristocratic D'Ascoyne family for marrying beneath her station. The couple are poor but happy, until Mazzini dies upon seeing Louis, his newborn son, for the first time. Louis' mother teaches him her family's pedigree. Louis's only childhood friends are Sibella (Joan Greenwood) and her brother, a local doctor's children.

When Louis leaves school, his mother writes to her kinsman Lord Ascoyne D'Ascoyne, a private banker, for assistance in launching her son's career, but receives only another snub. Louis is forced to work as an assistant in a draper's shop. When Louis's mother dies, her last request, to be interred in the family vault, also goes unanswered.

Sibella ridicules Louis's proposal and instead marries Lionel Holland (John Penrose), a former schoolmate with a rich father. After Louis quarrels with customer Ascoyne D'Ascoyne, the banker's only child, Ascoyne has Louis dismissed from his job. Louis then resolves to kill him and the other seven people (all played by Alec Guinness) ahead of him in succession to the dukedom.[Note 1]

After arranging a fatal boating accident for Ascoyne D'Ascoyne, Louis writes a letter of condolence to his victim's father, Lord Ascoyne D'Ascoyne, who relents and employs him as a clerk. Gradually becoming a man of means, Louis rents a bachelor flat in St James's and commences an affair with Sibella.

He next targets Henry D'Ascoyne, a keen amateur photographer. He is also charmed by Henry's wife, Edith (Valerie Hobson). After fatally substituting petrol for paraffin in the lamp of Henry's darkroom, Louis attends the funeral and views for the first time the remaining D'Ascoynes.

He later approaches the Reverend Lord Henry D'Ascoyne, posing as a retired colonial bishop, and poisons his port.

From the window of his flat, he shoots down the balloon from which the suffragette Lady Agatha D'Ascoyne is dropping leaflets over London, remarking: "I shot an arrow in the air. She fell to earth in Berkeley Square" (parodying Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem The Arrow and the Song).

General Lord Rufus D'Ascoyne receives a jar of caviar, which explodes when he opens it.

Admiral Lord Horatio D'Ascoyne presents a difficulty, as he rarely sets foot on land, but he conveniently insists on going down with his ship after causing a collision at sea. This episode is loosely based on the death of Vice-Admiral Sir George Tryon in 1893.

Edith agrees to marry Louis. They notify Ethelred, the childless, widowed eighth duke, who invites them to spend a few days at the family seat, Chalfont Castle. Ethelred casually informs Louis that he intends to marry again to produce an heir. To forestall this, Louis stages a shooting "accident", but before murdering the duke he reveals his motive.

Lord Ascoyne D'Ascoyne dies from the shock of learning that he has acceded to the dukedom, thus sparing Louis a murder he would have been reluctant to commit. Louis becomes the tenth duke and is welcomed by his new tenants, but his triumph is short-lived: a Scotland Yard detective arrests him for murder.

Lionel had been found dead following Louis's rejection of his drunken plea for help to avoid bankruptcy. When Louis is charged with his murder, he elects to be tried by his peers in the House of Lords. During the trial, Louis and Edith are married. Sibella, in love with him and having an inkling of Louis' crimes, falsely testifies that Lionel was about to seek a divorce, naming Louis as co-respondent. Ironically, Louis is convicted of a death that he had not even contemplated.

Louis is visited in prison by Sibella, who observes that the discovery of Lionel's suicide note and the sudden death of Edith would free Louis and enable them to marry, a tacit proposal to which he agrees. Moments before the hanging, news of the discovery of the suicide note reaches the prison governor.

Outside the prison, Louis finds both Edith and Sibella waiting for him. Pondering his dilemma, he quotes from The Beggar's Opera: "How happy could I be with either, Were t'other dear charmer away!" When a reporter approaches to tell him that Tit-Bits magazine wishes to publish his memoirs, Louis suddenly remembers the detailed written confession he left in his cell.

American version[edit]

To satisfy the Hays Office Production Code, the film was censored for the American market.[6] Ten seconds were added to the ending, showing Louis's memoirs being discovered before he can retrieve them. The dialogue between Louis and Sibella was altered to play down their adultery; derogatory lines aimed at the Reverend Henry D'Ascoyne were deleted; and in the nursery rhyme "Eeny, meeny, miny, moe", sailor replaced the word nigger (restored to the original dialogue, in the 2011 Criterion Collection DVD set). The American version is six minutes shorter than the British original.


  • Dennis Price as Louis Mazzini and his father
  • Alec Guinness as eight members of the D'Ascoyne family: Ethelred "the Duke", Lord Ascoyne "the Banker", Reverend Lord Henry "the Parson", General Lord Rufus "the General", Admiral Lord Horatio "the Admiral", Young Ascoyne, Young Henry and Lady Agatha D'Ascoyne. He also plays the seventh duke in brief flashback sequences to Mama's youth.
  • Valerie Hobson as Edith
  • Joan Greenwood as Sibella
  • Audrey Fildes as Mama
  • Miles Malleson as the Hangman
  • Clive Morton as the Prison Governor
  • John Penrose as Lionel
  • Cecil Ramage as Crown Counsel
  • Hugh Griffith as the Lord High Steward, who presides over Louis's trial
  • John Salew as Mr Perkins
  • Eric Messiter as Inspector Burgoyne, of Scotland Yard
  • Lyn Evans as the Farmer
  • Barbara Leake as the Schoolmistress
  • Peggy Ann Clifford as Maud Redpole
  • Anne Valery as the Girl in the Punt, Ascoyne D'Ascoyne's mistress
  • Arthur Lowe as the Tit-Bits Reporter


Guinness was originally offered only four D'Ascoyne parts, recollecting: "I read [the screenplay] on a beach in France, collapsed with laughter on the first page, 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!?'"[7]

The exterior location used for Chalfont, the family home of the D'Ascoynes, is Leeds Castle in Kent.[8] The interior was filmed at Ealing Studios.

The village scenes were filmed in the Kent village of Harrietsham.[9]


Bosley Crowther, critic for the New York Times, calls it a "delicious little satire on Edwardian manners and morals" in which "the sly and adroit Mr. Guinness plays eight Edwardian fuddy-duds with such devastating wit and variety that he naturally dominates the film."[10] Praise is also given to Price ("as able as Mr. Guinness in his single but most demanding role"), as well as Greenwood and Hobson ("provocative as women in his life").[10]

Roger Ebert lists Kind Hearts and Coronets among his "Great Movies",[11] stating "Price is impeccable as the murderer: Elegant, well-spoken, a student of demeanor", and notes that "murder, Louis demonstrates, ... can be most agreeably entertaining".[12]


Reviewer Simon Heffer notes the plot of the original Roy Horniman novel was darker (e.g., the murder of a child) and differed in several respects. A major difference was that the main character was the half-Jewish (as opposed to half-Italian) Israel Rank, and Heffer noted that "...his ruthless using of people (notably women) and his greedy pursuit of position all seem to conform to the stereotype that the anti-semite has of the Jew."[1]

Historical source[edit]

The death of Admiral Horatio D'Ascoyne was inspired by a true event: the collision between HMS Victoria and HMS Camperdown off Tripoli in 1893 because of an order given by Vice-Admiral Sir George Tryon. Sir George chose to go down with his ship, saying "It was all my fault."[13] The Victoria was sunk, losing over 300 men (including the admiral).

Radio adaptations[edit]

The film has been adapted for radio, including a version produced on BBC Radio 4 featuring Robert Powell as the entire D'Ascoyne clan, including Louis, and Timothy Bateson as the hangman (first broadcast in 1990),[14] and another for BBC7 featuring Michael Kitchen as Mazzini and Harry Enfield as the D'Ascoyne family.

On 19 May 2012, BBC Radio 4 broadcast a sequel to the film called Kind Hearts and Coronets – Like Father, Like Daughter. In it, Unity Holland (played by Natalie Walter), the daughter of Louis and Sibella, is written out of the title by Lady Edith D'Ascoyne. Unity then murders the entire D'Ascoyne family, with all seven members played by Alistair McGowan.[15]

Broadway musical[edit]

In 2013, a musical version entitled A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder opened at the Walter Kerr Theater on Broadway to critical acclaim. The show has all the victims played by the same actor, in the original company Jefferson Mays. Though the plot remains essentially the same, most of the names are changed - half-Italian Louis Mazzini becomes half-Castilian Montague Navarro, the D'Ascoynes become the D'Ysquiths, and Henry's wife Edith beomes Henry's sister Phoebe. Although the musical was developed as a faithful adaptation of the film, a rights issue prompted the removal of any material originating in the film, and the musical is officially based on the same Roy Horniman novel the film takes its basis from.. The musical won four Tony Awards, including Best Musical.

Digital restoration[edit]

The Criterion Collection released a two DVD disc set (Disc One: The Film, and Disc Two: The Supplements); Disc One featured the standard 'UK' version of the film, and as a bonus feature Disc One also included the final scene with the American ending. Disc Two includes a 75-minutes BBC TV Omnibus documentary "Made in Ealing", plus a 68-minute talk-show appearance with Alec Guinness on the BBC TV Parkinson Show.[16] UK distributor Optimum Releasing released a digitally restored version for both DVD and Blu-ray on 5 September 2011.[17]


  1. ^ It is mentioned that the Chalfont dukedom, unlike most, can descend to and through female heirs.


  1. ^ a b Simon Heffer (December 2008). "Israel Rank Reviewed". UK: Faber. 
  2. ^ "The early poems", Tennyson, Online Literature .
  3. ^ Time, 12 February 2005 .
  4. ^ BFI, UK .
  5. ^ Words from the wise, Empire online .
  6. ^ Slide, Anthony (1998). Banned in the USA: British Films in the United States and Their Censorship, 1933–1966. IB Tauris. p. 90. ISBN 1-86064-254-3. Retrieved 2 October 2008. 
  7. ^ Raoul Hernandez (24 February 2006). "Kind Hearts and Coronets". The Austin Chronicle. 
  8. ^ "Kind Hearts and Coronets". Movie locations. 
  9. ^ Kent Film Office. "Kent Film Office Kind Hearts and Coronets Film Focus". 
  10. ^ a b Bosley Crowther (15 June 1950). "Alec Guinness Plays 8 Roles in 'Kind Hearts and Coronets,' at Trans-Lux 60th Street at the Cinemet". The New York Times. Retrieved 23 February 2013. 
  11. ^ Roger Ebert. "great movies". Retrieved 19 May 2012. 
  12. ^ Roger Ebert (15 September 2002). "Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved 19 May 2012. 
  13. ^ Jasper Copping (12 January 2012). "Explorers raise hope of Nelson 'treasure trove' on Victorian shipwreck". The Telegraph. Retrieved 14 May 2012. 
  14. ^ Programmes, UK: BBC .
  15. ^ "Saturday Drama: Kind Hearts and Coronets – Like Father, Like Daughter". BBC. Retrieved 20 May 2012. 
  16. ^ Kind Hearts & Coronets, Criterion .
  17. ^ "Kind Hearts and Coronets DVD and Blu-ray releases". My Reviewer. 


External links[edit]