Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)
Written by Robert Hamer and John Dighton
Directed by Robert Hamer
“Ealing comedies” was an informal name for the comedy films released by Ealing Studios in the United Kingdom from 1947 to 1957. They were often associated with the post-War spirit of Britain, cheery & upbeat movies about simple misunderstandings without cynicism. Of course, that type of movie sounds dreadfully dull, but woven into the catalog was some darker fare. These comedies fit right in with the rest of the company’s work. The best of these films was Kind Hearts and Coronets, based on the novel Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal and centered on the story of an affable & witty serial killer.
Set in Edwardian England (1901-1910), we find Louis D’Ascoyne Mazzini (Dennis Price) in prison, awaiting his hanging the following day and passing the time by writing his memoirs. His mother had been the youngest daughter of the Duke of Chalfont, but she eloped with an Italian opera singer and was disowned. Louis’s father died shortly after his birth, and his mother raised Louis with stories about the history of the Chalfont family. Unlike most dukedoms, this differed because heirs could descend through the female members. She dies, and her last request is to be buried in the family vault, which is impossible now. As an adult, Louis’s mother reaches out to her cousins to secure her son a good job but is rebuffed. Louis does some genealogical research and discovers seven people ahead of him in the line of succession and gets about to murder them.
Despite the veneer of witty repartee, Kind Hearts and Coronets is a pitch-black comedy where the audience will quickly end up on the side of the serial killer. Each member of the Chalfont lineage, male and female, is played by Alec Guinness, the central aspect you often see advertised as the hook for the picture. There’s a lot more going on here, though, a very subtle erotic tension from start to finish which was apparently not the trend for most Ealing comedies, which were often sexless affairs. This is likely due to Robert Hamer being in the director’s chair, who was known for never really conforming to the popular style of the studio. In addition, Hamer was a homosexual at a time when being out was the death knell of your career, despite so much of Western entertainment being an almost exclusive industry for LGBTQ creators. I think this outside perspective fuels a lot of the darkness in Kind Hearts, with a protagonist destroying the establishment to provide his late mother with a shred of dignity.
Beneath Louis’s crusade against the Chalfont line is a condemnation of a system that excludes many people. The film pokes fun at the performative morality of the aristocracy and the hollowness of the institution of the family. Louis’s mother sees how conditional her father’s love is when she follows her heart and marries a man she deeply cares about. Because that doesn’t comply with convention, she is cast aside and forgotten as if she never existed in the first place. It’s also notable that casting Guinness in so many prominent supporting roles in Kind Hearts also speaks to sexuality & gender. The man, whom most people know as Obi-Wan Kenobi, was never out of the closet but was, at the very least, bisexual, if not a repressed gay man. At the time, this would not have been known to the audience, but in retrospect, it adds an even more transgressive air to the picture.
The film is dripping with comedy in the style of Oscar Wilde, which isn’t a surprise as the source material was written by one of Wilde’s contemporaries. There is a persistent air of amusement on the part of Louis about these idiotic wealthy twits who can’t figure out why they keep getting killed off. The presence of mixed ethnicity, with Louis being half-Italian, is also a post-War commentary on the concept of racial purity that was not limited to the borders of Germany and was an ideology championed by the British. In the original novel, the protagonist is half-Jewish. No wonder why Ealing likely wouldn’t let that be the case in the film, and you begin to understand just how insidious racism and prejudice were even after the Nazis had been “defeated.”
When Ealing Studios head Michael Balcon first heard the film’s premise, he’d been horrified that the company would even make it. However, after its release and subsequent surprise success, he couldn’t have been more of a champion. In reality, when Balcon first saw Kind Hearts, he had been horrified not by the murders but by the sexual overtones of the picture; the producer was a prude in matters of sex. To his credit, though, Balcon was part of a plot by creative types in the U.K. to aggressively work to install a pro-Labour government in the wake of World War II. He was considered left-liberal, though not socialist or communist.
Kind Hearts and Coronets is a very particular type of comedy. I wouldn’t be surprised if most contemporary audiences don’t enjoy it or fail to see the humor. It is old-fashioned in a way, mainly in that the sharpest knives it wields had to be slyly concealed. It is not overt in its sexuality or commentaries on gender, and so the audience must pay close attention and see what isn’t being said to get the complete picture. It’s a film that feels very relevant to our times, seething with anger about a society that, despite proclaiming openness, is making life a living hell for those that live on the margins.