As far as crime comedies go, this certainly isn't one to miss, here's why Kind Hearts and Coronets is such a cult favourite
The British pride themselves on their sense of humour. Even with the country as divided as it presently is, all sides can agree that the ability to laugh at one's self is an integral part of the national character, quite possibly the most important of all.
It should be no surprise, then, that the Ealing Comedies are such a cornerstone of British cinema. It's unlikely they will need much of an introduction but just so's we're all starting from the same place, they were a cycle of comic films produced by Ealing studios in the immediate post-war years, all of them covering similar thematic territory.
Generally speaking, they concerned cheerful British eccentrics standing their ground against pompous authority—Passport to Pimlico, Whiskey Galore!, that sort of thing; the kind of film guaranteed to please a nation that likes to think it always roots for the underdog. Or at least that's how they are remembered in the popular imagination: the films themselves tell a different story, Kind Hearts and Coronets most of all.
"Ealing comedies were seldom as cosy as their reputation might suggest"
It's not entirely typical of the sequence; most of them were firmly contemporary while this one takes place in the early 20th century. But let's not split too many hairs—it's probably the most admired and besides, it’s celebrating an anniversary: it turns 70 this year (originally released in 1949) and, to celebrate, it's getting a re-release on Blu-Ray and DVD in a beautiful new restoration.
It's most famous as the film where Alec Guinness plays nine different characters but it's often forgotten that none of them are the main character, and that might be significant. Although Guinness went on to be Ealing's biggest star (The Lavender Hill Mob; The Man in the White Suit), the leading role here was taken by Dennis Price. That his performance is so easily overlooked in favour of Guinness's magnificent multitasking is symptomatic of how selective memories of the Ealing comedies are; they were seldom as cosy as their reputation might suggest, never more so than here.
Price plays a chap called Louis Mazzini. He is in prison, awaiting execution. Before he swings, though, he’s writing a memoir that explains how he arrived on death row, beginning with his early life. Although he grew up in modest circumstances, his mother was of aristocratic stock: a proud member of the ancient, noble and very, very wealthy D'Ascoyne family. Unfortunately, they disinherited her when she eloped with Signor Mazzini, an Italian opera singer.
"“Class” is a subject that has bedevilled Britain since time immemorial and continues to do so even in this supposedly more meritocratic age"
This has always rankled with Louis, who sets about claiming what he feels is his birth right by the simple expedient of killing every member of the D'Ascoyne family (each of them played by Guinness, even the lady folk) that stands between him and the House of Lords. Boating accident, exploded, shot... each meets a sticky end. But can Duke Louis get away with murder?
Then again, if the film shows anything, it's that rank has its privileges: here is a frontal assault on an aspect of British identity that the country is rather less proud of than its sense of humour—the class system. “Class” is a subject that has bedevilled Britain since time immemorial and continues to do so even in this supposedly more meritocratic age. Things were far worse 70 years ago, with “social mobility” a rarified dream for all but a handful.
Kind Hearts and Coronets takes aim at all that. It's not hard to have at least a little sympathy with Louis' cause—he may not be a hero but he's far from the worst person here. Not that he is any kind of revolutionary; he is a colossal snob (Price narrates the film with the most fabulous disdain) and means to enjoy the privileges he has so murderously won.
This is subversive stuff even now and we can only wonder how it went down with the blue bloods in 1949. Indeed, it's worth pondering how something so inflammatory came to be made at all. Well, we can blame screenwriter/ director Robert Hamer for that.
As might be expected of a man who gave his mission statement as, “I want to make films about people in darkened rooms being beastly to one another”, he didn't always find it easy to get projects into production. But Michael Balcon, big cheese at Ealing, supported him as best he could, especially—as with Kind Hearts and Coronets—he disguised his cynicism with genuine wit and invention.
In time, Hamer would destroy himself with alcohol, one of the greatest losses to British cinema. But rather than mourn the masterpieces he couldn't make, we should celebrate what he did achieve, Kind Hearts and Coronets most of all. Next time someone accuses the Ealing Comedies of being parochial and nostalgic, show 'em this and put them right: it sees Britain with a clarity that remains compelling.