While I’ve seen more than a hundred American films from the 40s, none were so dark and so funny as the UK import Kind Hearts and Coronets. As Americans, and I’m speaking broadly here, we tend to be a very literal group; when we hear gallows humor we’re more likely to cry than laugh, or stand up in indignation. As a nation, America didn’t seem to accept black humor until a decade later, with Hitchcock’s little film The Trouble With Harry. The only instance I can think of displaying American dark humor in the 40s would be Capra’s underappreciated classic Arsenic and Old Lace. Other than that, America maintained an attitude that suffering and hardships were no laughing matter, something that has more or less permeated until this day. The British though seem to have cultivated a taste for ironic distance long before hipsters claimed it as their own. In the 40s, the British were mixing up all sorts of cocktails of dread and whimsy, coming up with wonderful films like The Third Man, Green for Danger, and Dead of Night. As much as I love each of those films, none were quite as amusing as Kind Hearts and Coronets.
Kind Hearts and Coronets is a clever and cunning send-up of the familiar tropes of the 19th century coming-of-age classic novel in all of its permutations. People of literary persuasion are bound to find its opening scenes to be very similar to Great Expectations, Vanity Fair, or Jane Eyre, stories where the hero (or heroine) starts at the bottom and rises up. The film begins with our hero Louis Mazzini (played flawlessly by Dennis Price) recounting the circumstances of his birth, and explaining how close he had come to being born into nobility. His mother was part of a proud lineage, the d’Ascoygnes, until she had a terrible falling out with her family, committing the ultimate impropriety: marrying for love. After she marries a poor but loving Italian man, she is disinherited, along with the child of their union, Louis. As he comes of age, he becomes fully aware that, had she not fallen from their graces, he’d now be the rightful Duke of Chalfont, and inherit a castle of his own. Adding insult to injury, the d’Ascoygnes wouldn’t allow Louis’ mother burial in the family plot.
At this point, the story might seem more tragic than it is funny, but it picks up considerably when Louis vows revenge. He’s going to get it by rising up in society to spite his cruel ancestors. Unlike 19th century coming-of-age novels, Louis doesn’t rise by aid of mysterious benefactors or through deceit or by falling in love. No, Louis decides to reassert his place in nobility by killing off the d’Ascoygnes until he’s the only one left, thus making him heir by default, despite how his mother was ousted. Again, based on the description alone, you wouldn’t think this was a comedy, but trust me, it’s very funny.
One of the things that makes it clear this is a comedy is that it stars one of the greatest actors from the 20th century, Alec Guinnes (whom you’ll recognize from Star Wars), in not one, not two, but eight roles. As if to ensure the d’Ascoygnes have a family resemblance, Alec Guinness goes ahead and plays every heir to the Chalfont Castle, all of whom Louis seeks to destroy. Guinness even portrays a proud lady. His performance shows the kind of gamesmanship and panache the world wouldn’t see matched until years later when Peter Sellers famously played numerous roles in films like Lolita and Doctor Strangelove.
As it’s a parody of classic novels, of course there’s an unrequited love. Sibella Hollad (played by Joan Greenwood) is essentially Louis’ Estella. He wants to wed her early in the film, but she protests because of his low station, which is in part what prompts him on his murderous quest. Along the way, he also takes a liking to Edith d’Ascoygne, widow of a man whom Louis himself had killed stealthily. It’s a twist right out of Richard the III. Interestingly, Edith is played by Valeria Hobson, who just happened to play Estella Havisham in David Lean’s masterful adaptation of Great Expectations, which came out a few years before and also featured Guinness. Much of Kind Hearts and Coronets resembles Richard III morphed into a comedy.
Apart from Guinness’ mercurial talent, what provides the film its humor is the script’s wit. The dialogue is devilishly funny. Dennis Price’ portrayal of Louis Mazzini seems right out of a Nabokov novel. He’s overly-civilized, urbane, witty, and entirely deceitful. Describing a day of hunting, Mazzini says “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.” So Mazzini can end human life but has reservations about killing animals.
While it might seem somewhat cruel and crude, you have to keep in mind that it’s poking fun at something infinitely more cruel and crude: aristocracy. The whole system of marrying for rank and deciding one’s fate by their breeding was so very cruel that the modern British filmmakers had every right to mock it so fully.
Kind Hearts and Coronets is one of the movies on this site that I’d recommend the most. We all need a good lesson in not being so fastidiously literal all the time. If you go into this reminding yourself it’s a fictional little film, you’ll enjoy it immensely. If you insist and being puritanically literal, you’ll be horrified.
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If you like Kind Hearts and Coronets, you might also enjoy The Lady Vanishes.