British Classic ‘Kind Hearts and Coronets’ Is Gentlemanly Comedy

If you’re a fan of Alec Guinness and black and white movies, then take a look at the 1949 “King Hearts and Coronets” on Before Alec Guinness was Obiwan Kenobi, he made a hit on the silver screen portraying eight members of the same illustrious family and in a pre-CGI era, the appearance of all eight together in one scene was a technical marvel.

The movie is based on an Edwardian 1907 book, “Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal” by Roy Horniman. A few changes have been made, the most notable being the main character in the book is half Jewish. In the movie, our protagonist is half-Italian. The title of the movie refers to  a line in an Alfred Tennyson poem: “Kind hearts are more than coronets, and simple faith than Norman blood.” Robert Hamer directs; Hamer and John Dighton (“The Happiest Days of Your Life” and “The Barretts of Wimpole Street”) also wrote the script.

The movie begins with a man approaching a prison. He is the hangman (Miles Malleson). He’s getting ready to hang a duke.  The man plans to retire after this undertaking which will be the highlight of his career. He’ll be using silk instead of coarse hemp for that aristocratic neck. He worries about the proper manner of addressing the duke (“Your Grace,” he’s informed).

The man destined for the noose, is the Tenth Duke of Chalfont, Louis D’Ascoyne Mazzini (Dennis Price). Mazzini wasn’t to the manor born; his mother was disowned when she married an Italian opera singer. Her husband (also Price) died on the day of his son’s birth. The mother (Audrey Fildes) schools her son on his pedigree and the bitter milk of rejection. Even the death of her husband, at a time when few women worked, didn’t soften the hearts of her aristocratic relations.

Perhaps it was ambition that cooled  any sympathetic impulses.  His mother was the seventh in line to be duke. Due to a very specific quirk in the title,  the dukedom had the unique privilege of passing from both the female and the male line. No Downton Abbey Lady Mary malady of inheritance here.

Growing up the boy Louis was lonely. His mother only deemed the children of a local doctor as worthy enough despite their gentile poverty. This is how Louis meets and falls in love with the ambitious Sibella. Once out of school, Louis’ mother again writes to her relatives, asking Lord Ascoyne D’Ascoyne, a private banker if he might give a position to her son. Louis goes to work s a draper. When the mother finally dies, she requests to be buried with her family. That request goes unanswered.

Meanwhile, Sibella might love Louis, but she need to marry well. The wealthy, but boring Lionel Holland (John Penrose) proposes and Sibella accepts. Louis meets Lord Ascoyne D’Ascoyne’s only child,  Ascoyne D’Ascoyne Junior, at his store, but quarrels with him. Louis is dismissed and then vows to dispose of each and every one of the people standing in between him and the title, beginning with the haughty Ascoyne D’Ascoyne, how has a boating mishap while with his mistress.

After writing a letter of condolence to Lord Ascoyne D’Ascoyne, Louis meets Lord Ascoyne D’Ascoyne who gives him a position in his bank. Lord Ascoyne D’Ascoyne is the kindness referred to in the title. On his climb up to the dukedom, Louis will become engaged to Edith, whom had been married to Henry D’Ascoyne whom Louis murdered. Sibella also becomes interested in Louis, having found Lionel Holland one of the most boring men in the world. Lionel actually comes to beg the duke for a loan to save him from bankruptcy and it is Holland’s death that the duke is going to be executed for.  Sibella has other ideas, one that might save, if the duke with make a deal with her.

Dennis Price would have success later in the BBC TV series “The World of Wooster” between 1965-1967, playing Jeeves with Ian Carmichael as Bertie Wooster. Alec Guinness would go on to other distinctions in acting.

Besides the reference to the Tennyson poem below, the movie also has a line that parodies Henry Wadsworth Longfellow‘s poem “The Arrow and the Song” and  a line from   the 1728 “The Beggar’s Opera.” The original movie was changed for the American market: The adultery between Sibella and Louis is downplayed, the N-word is deleted and someone discovers Louis’ memoirs before he can retrieve them. The version available on is the original British version.

“Kind Hears and Coronets” was listed in the top 100 films in Time magazine and the BFI top 100 movies. The humor is gentler and the dialogue less funny than the Broadway musical. In both, there is a suggestion of a murder yet to come.

Lady Clara Vere de Vere

By Alfred Tennyson (1809-1892)
Of me you shall not win renown:
You thought to break a country heart
For pastime, ere you went to town.
At me you smiled, but unbeguiled
I saw the snare, and I retired;
The daughter of a hundred earls,
You are not one to be desired.

Lady Clara Vere de Vere,
I know you proud to bear your name;
Your pride is yet no mate for mine,
Too proud to care from whence I came.
Nor would I break for your sweet sake
A heart that dotes on truer charms.
A simple maiden in her flower
Is worth a hundred coats-of-arms.

Lady Clara Vere de Vere,
Some meeker pupil you must find,
For, were you queen of all that is,
I could not stoop to such a mind.
You sought to prove how I could love,
And my disdain is my reply.
The lion on your old stone gates
Is not more cold to you than I.

Lady Clara Vere de Vere,
You put strange memories in my head.
Not thrice your branching limes have blown
Since I beheld young Laurence dead.
O, your sweet eyes, your low replies!
A great enchantress you may be;
But there was that across his throat
Which you had hardly cared to see.

Lady Clara Vere de Vere,
When thus he met his mother’s view,
She had the passion of her kind,
She spake some certain truths of you.
Indeed I heard one bitter word
That scarce is fit for you to hear;
Her manners had not that repose
Which stamps the caste of Vere de Vere.

Lady Clara Vere de Vere,
There stands a spectre in your hall;
The guilt of blood is at your door;
You changed a wholesome heart to gall.
You held your course without remorse,
To make him trust his modest worth,
And, last, you fix’d a vacant stare,
And slew him with your noble birth.

Trust me, Clara Vere de Vere,
From yon blue heavens above us bent
The gardener Adam [1] and his wife
Smile at the claims of long descent.
Howe’er it be, it seems to me,
’Tis only noble to be good.
Kind hearts are more than coronets,
And simple faith than Norman blood.

I know you, Clara Vere de Vere,
You pine among your halls and towers;
The languid light of your proud eyes
Is wearied of the rolling hours.
In glowing health, with boundless wealth,
But sickening of a vague disease,
You know so ill to deal with time,
You needs must play such pranks as these.

Clara, Clara Vere de Vere,
If time be heavy on your hands,
Are there no beggars at your gate,
Nor any poor about your lands?
O, teach the orphan-boy to read,
Or teach the orphan-girl to sew;
Pray Heaven for a human heart,
And let the foolish yeoman go.

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