Though, now over sixty years old, this sophisticatedly suave comedy is still keeping the pace handsomely, putting to shame some of today’s belated attempts at the genre. Set in the Edwardian era, one might worry this film’s slick and sharp approach may have become dated in more recent years. It hasn’t! It seems a perfect execution can be delivered just as successfully from an eloquent tweed suit, than a wise-cracking baggy t-shirt.
This is a tale of a young man, Louis Mancini (Dennis Price), disillusioned with his mothers exclusion from her aristocratic lineage after an unsatisfactory wedding. His whole life he had been told he had been destined for better things, but his own family failed to recognise him. Bent on revenge and recompense, he sets out to gain the title he rightly deserves, no matter what, or who, stands in his way. It sounds like the prologue for some fast music and a frenzied killing spree, but instead, you’ll find a vast array of crooked calculations and devious schemes, accompanied with a deadly arsenal of British wit, systematically ousting his competitors. Of course, every man has his weakness, in this case, the lovely Edith (Valerie Hobson) and the vacuous, yet beguiling Sibella (Joan Greenwood). To choose between them seems impossible, and they may just lead to his demise…
Of course, the most astounding performance is that of Alec Guinness, who plays all eight of the doomed family members, a priest, a banker, a suffragette, the lot. We look at actors today like Jonny Depp who seem to be able to slip into a huge range of parts, but just look back a few years at the likes of this man to see a true show of versatility. Of course some of the jaw lines are strangely familiar and the women slightly ungainly and masculine, but the truth is, who cares!
This film is possibly the most perfect of the renowned “Ealing Comedies” that were produced at the Ealing Studios in the ‘40’s and ‘50’s, which is some boast, considering its counterparts are the likes of “The Man in the White Suit” and “The Ladykillers”, both also featuring the esteemed Alec Guinness although “Kind Hearts and Coronets” was his first Ealing role. Like many films in this period, it is structured in a very different way from what you might expect now; you won’t laugh, you won’t cry, and you certainly won’t be on the edge of your seat. You see, it isn’t full of laugh out loud jokes, it is the constant attitude and well-timed narration of Dennis Price which provides more entertainment than any “one-liner“.
The calm and cool manner which the lead, Louis, maintains as he monitors and “knocks-off” his family is unswervingly pragmatic, cold-hearted and at some points absurd, but it is this occasional suspension of disbelief which is so enjoyable, and you can’t help liking him however malicious, despicable and ulterior, his motives may be; “I enjoyed Henry’s company, it was almost a shame that our acquaintanceship would be so short”. When the situation starts crumbling around him there is a genuine feeling of comical, yet agonising distress for Louis accumulated in a hugely satisfying ending.
When I watched the trailer, composed of fairly incongruous scenes from the film, and some generic classical music in the background, I realised just how long ago and unassuming the production of this film was. The only evidence of formatting is the occasional introduction of writing to the screen ,with character names etc., even the voice over’s formality is so much more “BBC” than a “West -Coast LA growl”, pumping up a “new release“. There’s no special effects, a fairly limited selection of scenes, and the credits only had about two dozen people, yet, somehow, through pure excellence of writing and superb acting, a production has been created that Hollywood could not rival for all the dollars in a movie mogul‘s moneybox.
However, behind the shroud of comical genius is a underlying satire regarding the separation of the gentry from the” urchins” of the lower classes. After all, the real reason Louis graves to have a coronet sit upon his head is not just for money or land, but to assert his place in society’s hierarchy. Even his mother, penniless to the point of taking on a lodger disapproved of him playing with the “common” children of the neighbourhood and implores him to take up a career rather than a “job“: “People of quite good families go into the professions nowadays”. It portrays the true naivety of the removed world of the “more fortunate” and emphasises the strong feelings that were felt between the classes, some of which are still very prominent today.
I can only strongly recommend that you and everyone you know must see this film. There may be groans at first; “Oh no, it’s black and white!” or “This is ancient, let’s watch something else”, but once you’ve nestled down, opened a bag of crisps, it won’t be long before resentment fades away and appreciation sets in. For me, this film is a classic in every sense of the word, so let’s make the most of it, before someone releases a terrible remake.