I have been having sort of a bad week. Bad weeks come and go as all things do, so after a while one simply has to take them in stride and attempt to locate the sparse rays of sunshine. Wednesday night, at 8:00 in the post meridiem, BBC4 decided, apparently for no particular reason, to take two hours out of their packed broadcasting schedule to air the 1949 comedy classic Kind Hearts and Coronets. This is one of those movies, if you know what I mean. One of those really famous movies that for some reason I had just never seen before. So, I decided to watch it, to afford myself that little ray of sunshine.
Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)
The Plot: Louis D’Ascoyne Mazzini (Dennis Price) grew up in poverty when his rich mother married below her station and was promptly disowned by her noble family. Louis was raised with an intimate knowledge of the family, even though they denied his existence, refusing to support his education or offer him employment. The last straw finally comes when his mother dies and her last wish—to be buried in the family crypt—is refused. Louis decides that the best—and indeed only—course of action to right the wrongs of the previous decades is to achieve the family dukedom himself, but first he’ll have to Richard-the-Third his way to the top, assassinating the eight D’Ascoynes who stand between him and his quarry: Ethelred the Duke (Alec Guinness), Lord Ascoyne the Banker (Alec Guinness), Reverend Lord Henry the Parson (Alec Guinness), General Lord Rufus (Alec Guinness), Admiral Lord Horatio (Alec Guinness), Young Ascoyne (Alec Guinness), Young Henry (Alec Guinness), and Lady Agatha D’Ascoyne (Alec Guinness).
Kind Hearts and Coronets is that wonderfully gentile sort of black comedy that they just don’t make anymore. The sharp, witty dialogue recalls the Victorian comedies of manners, although the story blends these with the most distinctly un-polite—one even might venture so far as to say rude—activity of murder. In fact, the script features such clever dialogue and charm that we can’t help but connect with Louis, despite his murders, lies, manipulation of people… at one point he decides to seduce his victim’s widow… like, he gets up to some pretty bad stuff, but Dennis Price is just so damn likable. It’s like trying to hate Peter Cushing or Carly Rae Jepsen. The human psyche is simply incapable of allowing such malice towards something so innately good.
Obviously, though, Alec Guinness, as in most films, here steals the show. As the story goes, the producers contacted him to play one of the D’Ascoynes, and somewhere along the line someone had a great and funny idea: “Wouldn’t it be great and funny if he played four of them?” Whoa, slow down, buddy. While on holiday in France, relaxing on the beach, Guinness decided it was high time he finally took a look at this script. He was unable to finish reading it because he was laughing too hard, and sent a telegram to the studio containing only one line, “Why four parts? Why not eight!?” In 1949, casting one actor in eight roles in a movie hadn’t really been done before, so was both a stroke of creative brilliance and a bit of a gamble. And indeed, general consensus maintains that if any other actor had attempted the same thing, the effect would have fallen utterly short. Today, Alec Guinness is best remembered for Star Wars and, if you actually watch movies, The Bridge on the River Kwai and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. In all of these roles, even Star Wars, which he reportedly did not like, his palpable charisma and penchant for drama distinguishes him from his fellow performers. What seems to be getting lost in the annals of cinematic history, however, is his incredible comedic timing. He could draw a laugh with the twitch of an eyebrow, the sideways glance of a narrowed eye. Guinness was truly that rare type of actor whom I would happily describe as in a league of his own.
I don’t know how many people took time out of their day to watch Kind Hearts and Coronets, but I’m really impressed with and grateful to the BBC for filling their mid-week primetime slot with a 1949 black comedy. We all need these pick-me-ups from time to time, and it certainly made my Wednesday. I would wholeheartedly recommend Kind Hearts and Coronets to anyone having an off week, interested in the glory of Alec Guinness, or just in need of a good chortle.