This film is a satire on diehard class system in England and it goes like this: if you are next in line to a duke’s coronet your chance is only if the duke is dead. It is a time honoured custom. Much of its black humor stems from the way the lead character Louis Mazzini, he is half Italian and yet he attempts to crash into this diehard custom. Mazzini (Dennis Price) must do away with eight members of the D’Ascoyne family in order to achieve his goal.
The title is a quotation from Tennyson’s 1842 poem Lady Clara Vere de Vere, which proclaims that “Kind hearts are more than coronets, And simple faith than Norman blood.”
Kind Hearts and Coronets is a 1949 British black comedy film produced by Ealing Studios. It was directed by Robert Hamer, written by John Dighton and Hamer, and very loosely based on a book, Israel Rank, by Roy Horniman. The eponymous hero is refurbished for the film and Mazzini is more polished than Israel.
The film stars Alec Guinness in all eight (including one woman) roles. As if weren’t enough he is also depicted in a painting of a family ancestor. There are also notable performances from Valerie Hobson and Joan Greenwood as a femme fatale.
The film is generally regarded as the one of the best made by Ealing Studios and appears on the Time magazine top 100 list as well as on the BFI Top 100 British films list. In 2000, readers of Total Film magazine voted Kind Hearts and Coronets the 25th greatest comedy film of all time. In 2004 the same magazine named it the 7th greatest British film of all time.
The opening scene of “Kind Hearts and Coronets” shows Dennis Price as Louis Mazzini, a newly arrived Duke who has methodically tried to murder his way to the title. In the last night before he is to be hanged, Louis writes his memoirs, and as he reads them aloud we journey back through his life.
The story is set in the Edwardian period. Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price) is the son of a woman ostracised by her noble family for eloping with an Italian opera singer. Upon her death, the D’Ascoynes refuse to allow her to be buried in the family crypt. As a result, Louis plots revenge. Nothing should come between him and the Dukedom of Chalfont.
As I said there are eight relatives in his way and he sets out to murder them all, in various inventive and blackly humorous ways. He manages to dispatch six of them. The other two die without his “assistance”: his kindly banker employer dies of a stroke when he learns that he has inherited the dukedom, and Admiral D’Ascoyne in harness. He has steered his warship into a collision with another. ‘England expects every man to do his duty’ and the old sea dog, an admiral must set an example so he remains saluting on the bridge while it sinks beneath him (perhaps a historical allusion to the sinking of HMS Victoria in 1893). With so many despatched to their graves he becomes rather blasé and confesses his crime to the last of the D’Ascoynes. He then kills him and finally inherits the title.
Complications ensue when Louis is torn between two women, Sibella (Joan Greenwood), and the more refined Edith D’Ascoyne (Valerie Hobson), the widow of one of his victims. Louis marries Edith, and Sibella becomes jealous. When Sibella’s dull husband Lionel (John Penrose) kills himself, she hides the suicide note and, ironically, Louis ends up being tried and convicted of murdering one whom he didn’t kill.
In prison awaiting execution, he writes his memoirs, detailing his exploits. At the last moment, Sibella “finds” the suicide note, saving Louis. As Louis steps through the prison gate to freedom, he finds two carriages waiting for him: in one, Edith, and in the other, Sibella. As he hesitates, a publisher approaches him and asks for the publication rights to his memoirs, Louis suddenly remembers the manuscript he left behind in his cell.
Difference from the novel
Louis’ father in the novel was Jewish rather than Italian. Horniman had been accused of anti-Semitism, so the film-makers decided to play safe by changing his background.
In the novel, the protagonist is a vulgar and unpleasant character, named Israel. Israel’s mother is not the daughter of an aristocrat but a distant relative.
The film began a classic run of Ealing comedies, which continued with “The Lavender Hill Mob” and “The Man in the White Suit” (both 1951) and “The Ladykillers” (1955),
Chalfont, the family home of the d’Ascoynes, is Leeds Castle in Kent, England.
The film’s musical theme is ‘Il mio tesoro’ from Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni.
* Louis’s line on killing Lady Agatha – “I shot an arrow in the air, she fell to earth in Berkeley Square” – is a parody of “I shot an arrow in the air, it fell to earth I know not where” from HW Longfellow’s “The Arrow and The Song”.
* Early in the film, Louis quotes Samuel Johnson’s phrase that “When a man knows he is to be hanged the next morning, it concentrates the mind wonderfully.” (Louis adjusts the line from Johnson, who said “in a fortnight” rather than “the next morning.”)
* Louis’s quip that he sent “caviar to the general” is a quotation from Hamlet (Act 2, Scene 2).
* Louis quotes the following couplet from the The Beggar’s Opera at the end of the film – “How happy could I be with either, Were t’other dear charmer away!”
Roy Horniman (novel “Kind Hearts and Coronets”)
Robert Hamer (screenplay) &
John Dighton (screenplay)
Dennis Price … Louis
Valerie Hobson … Edith
Joan Greenwood … Sibella
Alec Guinness … The Duke / The Banker / The Parson / The General / The Admiral / Young Ascoyne / Young Henry / Lady Agatha
Audrey Fildes … Mama
Miles Malleson … The Hangman
Clive Morton … The Prison Governor
John Penrose … Lionel
Cecil Ramage … Crown Counsel
Hugh Griffith … Lord High Steward
John Salew … Mr. Perkins
Eric Messiter … Burgoyne
Lyn Evans … The Farmer
Barbara Leake … The Schoolmistress
Peggy Ann Clifford … Maud
Anne Valery … The Girl in the punt
[Louis Mazzini just murdered his relative, Lady Agatha D’Ascoyne, who was distributing suffragette literature from a balloon over London]
Louis Mazzini: I shot an arrow in the air; she fell to earth in Berkeley Square.
The Hangman: Even my lamented master, the great Mr. Benny himself, never had the privilege of hanging a duke. What a finale to a lifetime in the public service!
Prison Governor: Finale?
The Hangman: Yes, I intend to retire. After using the silken rope… never again be content with hemp.
Louis Mazzini: While I never admired Edith as much as when I was with Sibella, I never longed for Sibella as much as when I was with Edith.
The Hangman: A difficult client can make things most distressing. Some of them tend to be very hysterical – so inconsiderate.
Louis Mazzini: [after murdering his cousin along with his cousin’s mistress] I was sorry about the girl, but found some relief in the reflection that she had presumably during the weekend already undergone a fate worse than death.
Louis Mazzini: The Reverend Lord Henry was not one of those new-fangled parsons who carry the principles of their vocation uncomfortably into private life.
Louis Mazzini: The next morning I went out shooting with Ethelred – or rather, to watch Ethelred shooting; for my principles will not allow me to take a direct part in blood sports.
Louis Mazzini: It is so difficult to make a neat job of killing people with whom one is not on friendly terms.
[to a poacher caught in a mantrap]
The Duke: Hoskins is now going to thrash you; then he’ll let you go. Let this be a lesson to you not to poach on my land.
Sibella: [sobs] Oh Louis! I don’t want to marry Lionel!
Louis Mazzini: Why not?
Sibella: He’s so dull.
Louis Mazzini: I must admit he exhibits the most extraordinary capacity for middle age that I’ve ever encountered in a young man of twenty-four.
Sibella: What would you say if she asked you about me?
Louis Mazzini: I’d say that you were the perfect combination of imperfections. I’d say that your nose was just a little too short, your mouth just a little too wide. But yours was a face that a man could see in his dreams for the whole of his life. I’d say that you were vain, selfish, cruel, deceitful. I’d say that you were… Sibella.
Sibella: What a pretty speech.
Louis Mazzini: I mean it.
Sibella: [seductively] Come and say it to me again.
The Parson: The port is with you
Louis Mazzini: I had not forgotten or forgiven the boredom of the sermon of young Henry’s funeral, and I decided to promote the Reverend Lord Henry D’Ascoyne to next place on the list
[to be murdered]
Warder in Jail: Good evening, Mr. Elliot.
The Hangman: Good evening.
Tit Bits reporter.: Your grace. I represent the magazine “Tit Bits” by whom I’m commissioned to approach you for the publication rights of your memoirs.
Louis Mazzini: My memoirs? Oh, my memoirs. My memoirs. My memoirs!
[Mazzini suddenly realises that he has left his memoirs, in which he confesses to killing all his relatives, in the condemned cell after being released from prison]
Louis Mazzini: [to the Duke, before he executes him] From here, I think, the wound will be consistent with the story I shall tell.
The Parson: [Describing his country church] I always say my West window has all the *exuberance* of Chaucer without, happily, any of the concomitant crudities of his period.
Sibella: I’ve married the dullest man in London.
Louis Mazzini: In England!
Sibella: In Europe!
Louis Mazzini: I want to talk to you for a minute. If you make a noise, I shall blow your head off at once. By the time anyone has heard the shot I shall be running back toward the castle shouting for help. I shall say that you stepped on the trap and your gun went off as you fell. So be quiet.
Louis Mazzini: When I’ve finished I shall kill you. You will the the sixth D’Ascoyne that I’ve killed. You want to know why? In return for what the D’Acoyne’s did to my mother. Because she married for love instead of for rank or money or land. They condemed her to a life of poverty and slavery, in a world for which they had not equipped her to deal. You yourself refused to grant her dying wish, which was to be buried here, at Chalfont. When I saw her poor little coffin saw underground, saw her exiled in death as she had been in life, I swore to have revenge on your intolerable pride. That revenge I am just about to complete.
Sibella: He says he wants to go to Europe to expand his mind.
Louis Mazzini: He certainly has room to do so.
Louis Mazzini: I made an oath that I would revenge the wrongs her family had done her. It was no more than a piece of youthful bravado, but it was one of those acorns from which great oaks are destined to grow. Even then I went so far as to examine the family tree and prune it to just the living members. But what could I do to hurt them? What could I take from them, except, perhaps, their lives.
Louis Mazzini: I considered it both seemly and touching that my dear wife should visit me as she did this morning, to make her farewells. Your arrival on the other hand, appears to me unseemly and tasteless in the extreme.
Sibella: I couldn’t bear my last sight of you to be that look of hatred you gave me as you went out from the trial
Louis Mazzini: In view of the fact that your evidence had put the rope around my neck, you could hardly expect a glance of warm affection.
Louis Mazzini: I couldn’t help feeling that even Sibella’s capacity for lying was going to be taxed to the utmost. Time had brought me revenge on Lionel, and as the Italian proverb says, revenge is a dish which people of taste prefer to eat cold.
Prison Governor: If I may venture to say so, I am amazed at your calmness.
Louis Mazzini: Dr. Johnson was, as always, right when he observed, “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he’s going to be hanged in a few hours, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”
Louis Mazzini: It is so difficult to make a neat trump of killing people with whom one is not on friendly terms.
The Banker: All of your cousins seem to get killed. I really wouldn’t be the least surprised if you murdered them all.
Louis Mazzini: It was not a piece of news that I was looking forward to breaking to Sibella. She had no rights in the matter, but women have a disconcerting ability to make scenes out of nothing and approve themselves injured when they themselves are at fault.
Sibella: Oh, the Italian men are so handsome… but I could never get away from Lionel for a moment.
Sibella: But, I was forgetting… you’re Italian.
Louis Mazzini: Half.
* The right of peers to be tried in the House of Lords was abolished in 1949, the same year the film was released. The two were not connected, the right was abolished due to a combination of a Labour Government and reaction from a drunk driving case where the lordly defendant was tried in the House of Lords.
* The scene where six members of the D’Ascoynes family, all played by Alec Guinness, are seen together took two days to film. The camera was set on a specially built platform to minimize movement. In addition, the camera operator spent the night with the camera to ensure that nothing moved it by accident. A frame with six black matte painted optical flat glass windows was set in front of the camera and the windows opened one at a time so each of the characters could be filmed in turn. The film was then wound back for the next character. Most of the time was spent waiting for Guinness to be made up as the next character.
* Novelists Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh were hired independently to work on various drafts of the script, though apparently none of their contributions survived in the film as shot.
* Alec Guinness was only 35 when he played his eight roles.
* Initially Alec Guinness was only offered four of the roles; it was Guinness himself who insisted on playing all eight.
* Agatha’s death in the film caused some consternation for Alec Guinness. The scene in question – a hot air ballooning accident filmed in a field next door to Pinewood Studios – prompted him to ask the producers if he was well insured. They told him that he was, to the tune of £10,000, but Guinness didn’t think that was enough. He then declared that the balloon could not be raised any more than 15 feet unless they raised the insurance to £50,000. Ealing Studios was renowned for being very penny-pinching and it naturally refused Guinness’ demand, pointing out that he would be accompanied in the balloon by a well-qualified Belgian balloonist hidden in the basket with him. Guinness was undeterred in his refusal to perform the stunt, so the scene in the finished film is not him but the Belgian balloonist wearing Agatha’s dress and wig. Guinness had the last laugh, however, when a high wind pulled the balloon off course. The Belgian balloonist was found 50 miles away, having had to pitch into a river.
* Alec Guinness described director Robert Hamer as a man “who looked and sounded like an endearing but scornful frog”.
* In 2000, Mike Nichols was planning a remake with Robin Williams in the Alec Guinness roles and Will Smith in the role played by Dennis Price. Thankfully, it never came to fruition.
* Although tame by today’s standards, Dennis Price’s love scenes with the purring Joan Greenwood shocked Ealing Studios head Michael Balcon and almost led to a major re-edit of the finished film.
* Michael Balcon was known to have said to director Robert Hamer, “You are trying to sell that most unsaleable commodity to the British – irony. Good luck to you.” It worked, of course; the film was a considerable success upon release.
* Alec Guinness liked the screenplay so much that he asked and was allowed to play all eight members of the D’Ascoyne family. Of these, the Vicar D’Ascoyne was his personal favorite.
* Alec Guinness’ first film for Ealing Studios.
* The only Ealing comedy to be directed by Robert Hamer.
* Although Ealing boss Michael Balcon later professed that this was his favorite of the Ealing films he produced, at the time of production he was less favorably inclined towards it, to the extent that he refused director Robert Hamer the chance to follow it up with his long-cherished project set in the West Indies. Hamer ultimately only directed one more film for Ealing, His Excellency (1952).
* An alternate ending was required for the US, where distributors balked at the film’s ambiguous ending (The US Production Code at the time stipulated that crime could not be seen to pay). These extra ten seconds were not kept by Ealing but were unearthed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where they had been quietly filed away in a film storage facility.