Kind Hearts and Coronets
|Kind Hearts and Coronets|
Original British film poster by James Fitton
|Directed by||Robert Hamer|
|Based on||Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal
by Roy Horniman
|Music by||Ernest Irving|
|Edited by||Peter Tanner|
|Distributed by||General Film Distributors (UK)|
Kind Hearts and Coronets is a British black comedy film of 1949 starring Dennis Price, Joan Greenwood, Valerie Hobson and Alec Guinness; Guinness plays nine characters. The plot is loosely based on the novel Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal (1907) by Roy Horniman, 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."
In Edwardian England, Louis D'Ascoyne Mazzini, 10th Duke of Chalfont, is in prison, awaiting his hanging for murder the following morning. As he writes his memoirs, the events of his life are shown in flashback.
His mother, the youngest daughter of the 7th Duke of Chalfont, eloped with an Italian opera singer named Mazzini and was disowned by her family for marrying beneath her station. The Mazzinis were poor but happy until Mazzini died upon seeing Louis, his newborn son, for the first time. In the aftermath, Louis's widowed mother raises him on the history of her family and tells him how, unlike other aristocratic titles, the dukedom of Chalfont can descend through female heirs. Louis's only childhood friends are Sibella and her brother, the children of a local doctor.
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 is rebuffed. Louis is forced to work as an assistant in a draper's shop. When his mother dies, her last request, to be interred in the family vault at Chalfont Castle, is denied. Then Sibella ridicules Louis's marriage proposal. Instead, she marries Lionel Holland, a former schoolmate with a rich father. Soon after, Louis quarrels with customer Ascoyne D'Ascoyne, the banker's only child, who has him dismissed from his job.
Louis resolves to kill Ascoyne D'Ascoyne and the other seven people ahead of him in succession to the dukedom. After arranging a fatal boating accident for Ascoyne D'Ascoyne and his mistress, Louis writes a letter of condolence to his victim's father, Lord Ascoyne D'Ascoyne, who employs him as a clerk. Upon his later promotion, Louis takes a bachelor flat in St James's, London, for assignations with Sibella.
Louis then targets Henry D'Ascoyne, a keen amateur photographer. He meets and is charmed by Henry's wife, Edith. He substitutes petrol for paraffin in the lamp of Henry's darkroom, with fatal results. Louis decides the widow is fit to be his duchess. The Reverend Lord Henry D'Ascoyne is the next victim. Posing as the Anglican Bishop of Matabeleland, Louis poisons his port. From the window of his flat, Louis then uses a bow to shoot down the balloon from which the suffragette Lady Agatha D'Ascoyne is dropping leaflets over London.
Louis next sends General Lord Rufus D'Ascoyne a jar of caviar which contains a bomb. Admiral Lord Horatio D'Ascoyne presents a challenge, as he rarely sets foot on land. However, he insists on going down with his ship after causing a collision at sea. Edith agrees to marry Louis. They notify Ethelred, the childless, widowed 8th Duke, who invites them to spend a few days at Chalfont Castle. When Ethelred casually informs Louis that he intends to remarry in order to produce an heir, Louis arranges a hunting "accident". Before murdering the Duke, he reveals his motive. Lord Ascoyne D'Ascoyne dies from the shock of learning that he has become the ninth duke, sparing Louis from murdering his kindly employer. Louis inherits the title, but his triumph proves short-lived. A Scotland Yard detective arrests him for murder.
Lionel was found dead following Louis's rejection of his drunken plea for help to avoid bankruptcy. Louis elects to be tried by his peers in the House of Lords. During the trial, Louis and Edith are married. Sibella falsely testifies that Lionel was about to seek a divorce and name Louis as co-respondent. Ironically, Louis is convicted for a murder he had never even contemplated.
Louis is visited by Sibella, who observes that the discovery of Lionel's suicide note and Edith's death would free Louis and enable them to marry, a proposal to which he agrees. Moments before his hanging, the discovery of the suicide note saves him. Louis finds both Edith and Sibella waiting for him outside the prison. When a reporter tells him that Tit-Bits magazine wishes to publish his memoirs, Louis suddenly remembers that he left his detailed confession in his cell.
- 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!?'"; he eventually played nine parts.
In one of the most technically acclaimed shots in the film, Guinness appears as all his characters at once in a single frame. This was accomplished by masking the lens. The film was re-exposed several times with Guinness in different positions over several days. Douglas Slocombe, the cinematographer in charge of the effect, recalled sleeping in the studio to make sure nobody touched the camera.
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."
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." The Victoria was sunk, losing over 300 men (including the admiral).
Release and reception
When the film was released in the US, it was edited to satisfy the Hays Office Production Code. 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. The American version is six minutes shorter than the British original.
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." 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").
Roger Ebert lists Kind Hearts and Coronets among his "Great Movies", 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".
The film has been adapted for radio. In March 1965 the BBC Home Service broadcast an adaptation by Gilbert Travers-Thomas, with Dennis Price reprising his role as Louis D'Ascoyne Mazzini. in 1990, BBC Radio 4 produced a new adaptation featuring Robert Powell as the entire D'Ascoyne clan, including Louis, and Timothy Bateson as the hangman, 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.
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 becomes 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.
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. UK distributor Optimum Releasing released a digitally restored version for both DVD and Blu-ray on 5 September 2011.
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