Sometimes the Death Column Brought Good News:

For the Devilish Pleasures of Ealing's Kind Hearts and Coronets

Once stupidly dismissed by French film critic and director François Truffaut as a “contradiction of terms,” the British cinema was responsible for a great number of outstanding films throughout the 1940s and early 1950s, first with the poetical, wartime non-fiction of Humphrey Jennings (Listen to Britain) and the myth-focused collaborations of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (The Life and Death of Colonel BlimpThe Red Shoes), and later with the wonderfully acerbic output of Ealing studios, a small London outfit specializing in the comedy genre. Producer Michael Balcon took over the latter organization in 1938, shepherding it toward a more realistic, almost documentary-like style in the decade to follow. After one highly successful attempt at horror in 1945, last week’s pre-Halloween Museum Films feature, Dead of Night, Ealing turned its attention to comedy in the immediate postwar years, beginning with Charles Crichton’s Hue and Cry (1947), a comedy that embodies the Balcon aesthetic. Ealing, like Powell and Pressburger’s Archers before, torched Britain’s most cherished institutions and cultural assumptions, whether it was Passport to Pimlico’s (Henry Cornelius, 1949) move to secession from Britain to Burgundy, France in the aftermath of the successful Second World War or The Man in the White Suit’s (Alexander Mackendrick, 1951) discovery of an everlasting fabric that is opposed by capital and labor alike. Ealing, on some level, seemed to tap into the general discontent of a country that had won the war but was still suffering deprivation in the form of ongoing rationing; life wasn’t what it was supposed to be for the victors. 

Ealing’s postwar masterpiece and one of the better British films ever made, Robert Hamer’s Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), finds its critical object in the hereditary system of English peerage. Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price) is the son of an Italian opera singer and his English wife, the daughter of the the 7th Duke of Chalfont. The latter is stripped of her standing following her marriage for love, as will be her son at the moment of his birth five years later. Loosing his father likewise on his very inauspicious first day, Louis is raised in a condition of comparative modesty and resentment, a feeling that will grow exponentially when his mother is refused burial in the family cemetery at the time of her death. Louis thusly sets out to avenge his long-suffering mother via a plot to succeed to the position of duke by eliminating each of the twelve D’Ascoynes between he and the title that is, at least theoretically, his birthright. As he waits, studying his family tree, Louis observes in his polite, matter-of-fact voiceover that “Sometimes the deaths column brought good news. Sometimes the births column brought bad,” as when twins are born above him in the line of succession. Thankfully for Louis (and for we in the audience who instinctively support his plot), the latter children are just as soon dispatched thanks to the latest epidemic.

A chance encounter with one of the more personally objectionable D’Ascoynes (all eight of whom will be played by The Man in the White Suit and Star Wars’ Alec Guinness), will lead Louis to personally dispense with the first of his relatives by orchestrating a boating accident that will also bring about the death of his cousin’s girlfriend. Though he expresses his regret in voiceover to taking this second life, Louis does find some comfort in knowing that she’s already experienced a fate worse than death–by spending the night, as he intimates, with the Young Ascoyne. Louis’s polished voiced over and Hamer and cinematographer Douglas Slocombe’s soft classical camerawork lend a very English sense of decorum to Kind Hearts and Coronets’ breathtaking amorality, to the film’s gallows-humor set-pieces and to its sexual innuendo that foreshadows the infinitely broader “Carry On” franchise that would redefine the British lowbrow beginning in the late 1950s. Like Louis himself, Kind Hearts and Coronets feels like it exists at the end of some sort of line, its eyes open and its knives sharpened and raised to a world that soon would become the stuff of the stodgy heritage filmmaking that would take serious the institution that Hamer and company were burning to the ground. Kind Hearts and Coronets is much too great a comedic storytelling pleasure to ruin any other plot point, save to note that the film is told in flashback, in the form of the memoir that His Grace Louis is writing from death row in the film’s opening scene; and that Hamer’s picture contains one of the single greatest final plot twists in film history, one that it reveals itself in Kind Hearts and Coronets’ concluding sequence.

The ironically dubbed Kind Hearts and Coronets adopts the same dark perspective as the director’s previous forays into horror, Dead of Night’s “The Haunted Mirror” segment, and film noir, It Always Rains on Sunday (1947), albeit with a sense-of-humor and feature-length classical narrative structure that are new to both. In the decade to follow, Hamer went on to direct Father Brown (1954), a more light-hearted comic offering based on the G.K. Chesterton short stories, and the very funny School for Scoundrels (1959), before his alcoholism led to his premature passing in 1963. Other than Hamer’s work, what is most commendable about the film are its comedic performances, beginning of course with Guinness who sets the standard for the multi-character performance with which Peter Sellers would become more closely associated. Price, likewise, is the perfect incarnation of the murderous and perfectly well mannered Mazzini, while his equally cynical childhood sweetheart Sibella (Joan Greenwood) lingers most on the mind. Or rather it is the actress’s voice, especially when she forms her friend’s in the front of her mouth–pushing it out, breathily and in a lower octave, through her puckering lips. Kind Hearts and Coronets is a study of voices, of Guinness’s comedic vocal range, of Price’s refined accompaniment, and of Greenwood’s indelible “Louis.”

Kind Hearts and Coronets screens once in the Samuel Roberts Noble this Sunday, November 6 at 2:00 pm. Hamer’s film concludes Museum Films’ “Cult Classics from the Rialto Collection” program, as curated by Interim Assistant Curator of Film and Video Art, Dr. Lisa K. Broad.