Kind Hearts and Coronets

kind_hearts_and_coronets_2_guinnessThis year marks the centenary of the supremely gifted Alec Guinness.

“Kind Hearts and Coronets,” directed by Robert Hamer, is considered to be by some critics the finest British comedy ever made.

It is also known as the film that catapulted Alec Guinness into an international star, released as it was after Great Expectations and Oliver Twist.

The plot is loosely based on the 1907 novel by Roy Horniman, “Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal.”

In this black comedy, Alec Guinness plays eight different characters.  He was originally offered to play only four of the D’Ascoyne family members, but in his memoiris, he recalls: “I read the screenplay on a beach in France, collapsed with laughter on the first page, and didn’t even bother to get to the end of the script. I went straight back to the hotel and sent a telegram saying, ‘Why four parts? Why not eight!?’

The title of the film, which was written by Robert Hamer and John Dighton and directed by Hamer, derives from Tennyson’s 1842 poem Lady Clara Vere de Vere: “Kind hearts are more than coronets, and simple faith than Norman blood.”

kind_hearts_and_coronets_3_guinnessThe tale is set circa 1900, when Lois Mazzini (Dennis Price) is about to become a duke, but he is treated as a pariah due to his mother’s bad marriage. Angry and ambitious, he decides to do everything and anything in his power to get the title, including killing his relatives.

This black comedy, replete with witty dialogue, sharp and quotable one-liners, such as “Revenge is the dish which people of taste prefer to eat cold”), and great performances, “Kind Hearts and Coronets” has withstood extremely well the test of time.

In the Edwardian era, Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price), tenth Duke of Chalfont, writes his memoirs while in prison awaiting his death. The film consists of a flashback in which Louis narrates the events that led to his imprisonment.

kind_hearts_and_coronets_4_guinnessAfter his mother elopes with an Italian opera singer (also played by Price), she is disowned by her aristocratic family, the D’Ascoynes. The father dies when he sees his newborn son for the first time. As a boy, Louis’s only friends are a local doctor’s children: Sibella (Joan Greenwood) and her brother. When Louis becomes a young man, his mother writes to Lord Ascoyne D’Ascoyne, a banker, for help, but he refuses to acknowledge her, and Louis is forced to work as a draper’s assistant. Before dying, Louis’s mother’s request, to be interred in the family vault, is denied and Louis vows to avenge her.

Louis attends Sibella’s wedding to Lionel (John Penrose), a former rich schoolmate. He then meets by chance Ascoyne D’Ascoyne (Guinness in the first of 8 roles). When Louis is dismissed from his job, he vows to eliminate those who stand between him and the dukedom.

After causing the deaths of Ascoyne and his mistress, Louis writes to his victim’s father, Lord Ascoyne D’Ascoyne, who employs him as a clerk in his banking firm. As a man of means, Louis discreetly begins dating Sibella. He next decides to murder Henry D’Ascoyne, a keen photographer, by setting up an explosion in his darkroom. Louis attends the funeral and views the D’Ascoynes for the first time.

kind_hearts_and_coronets_5_guinnessLouis poisons the Reverend Lord Henry D’Ascoyne, then meets with the now-bankrupt Lionel, who begs for an extension of his loan. Noting he would prefer that “someone else pay for Sibella’s extravagances”, Louis agrees. He then pierces the balloon from which suffragette Lady Agatha D’Ascoyne is dropping leaflets over London, remarking “I shot an arrow in the air, and she fell to earth in Berkeley Square,” alluding to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem ‘The Arrow and the Song.’  Boer Wars veteran General Lord Rufus D’Ascoyne falls victim to a bomb that Louis has concealed in a gift of caviar.

When Edith agrees to marry Louis, they notify Ethelred. Ethelred invites Louis to the family estate, where he informs Louis that he intends to marry to produce an heir. An anxious Louis quickly arranges a shooting “accident.”  Lord Ascoyne D’Ascoyne is spared Louis’ attentions as he dies from the shock of learning that he has acceded to the dukedom.  Louis becomes the tenth duke but his triumph is short-lived.

Lionel is found dead after Louis’s rejection of his drunken plea for help to avoid bankruptcy. Louis is charged with his murder and tried by his peers in the House of Lords. Ironically, he is convicted of the one death of which he is entirely innocent. Sibella tells Louis that she could exonerate him if he would dispose of Edith and marry her. Upon release, Louis ponders his dilemma by quoting from The Beggar’s Opera: “How happy could I be with either, “Were t’other dear charmer away!” When Tit-Bits magazine asks for publication rights to his memoirs, Louis realizes that he has left his incriminating manuscript in his cell.

American Censorship

kind_hearts_and_coronets_1_guinnessThe American version is six minutes shorter than the British.  To satisfy the Production Code, the film was censored. The new, more elaborate ending shows Louis’s memoirs being discovered before he can retrieve them, which is only implied in the original film.

The dialogue between Louis and Sibella was altered to downplay the adultery.  In the nursery rhyme “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe,” sailor replaced the word nigger.


Dennis Price as Louis D’Ascoyne Mazzini and his father

Alec Guinness as eight members of the D’Ascoyne family:

Ethelred “the Duke,” Lord Ascoyne “the Banker,” Reverend Lord Henry “the Parson, General Lord Rufus “the General,” Admiral Lord Horatio “the Admiral,” Young Ascoyne, Young Henry, and Lady Agatha D’Ascoyne. He also plays the seventh duke in brief flashback sequences.

Valerie Hobson as Edith

Joan Greenwood as Sibella

Audrey Fildes as Mama

Miles Malleson as the Hangman

Clive Morton as the Prison Governor

John Penrose as Lionel

Cecil Ramage as Crown Counsel

Hugh Griffith as the Lord High Steward, presiding over Louis’ trial

John Salew as Mr. Perkins

Eric Messiter as Inspector Burgoyne, of Scotland Yard

Lyn Evans as the Farmer

Barbara Leake as the Schoolmistress

Peggy Ann Clifford as Maud Redpole

Anne Valery as the Girl in the Punt, Ascoyne D’Ascoyne’s mistress

Arthur Lowe as the Tit-Bits Reporter