Kind Hearts and Coronets: one of the greatest comedies ever made

The 1949 Ealing classic starring nine Alec Guinnesses is getting a welcome reissue

Kind Hearts and Coronets
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Director: Robert Hamer
Cert: G
Genre: Comedy
Starring: Alec Guinness, Valerie Hobson, Joan Greenwood, Dennis Price
Running Time: 1 hr 46 mins

Recent burrowing by Dr Matthew Sweet, one of the UK's most dogged cultural historians, has revealed that the original plot of Robert Hamer's Kind Hearts and Coronets was gorier than hitherto suspected. Students of the Ealing comedy, celebrating its 70th birthday, will know already that it was based upon a notably anti-Semitic novel called Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal. The original script ditched that unlovely aspect (references to the protagonist's Italian background are largely sympathetic), but retained extreme violence that was later toned down for the delicate cinemagoers of Clement Atlee's Britain.

Domestic readers will be amused by the abandoned reference to General Lord Rufus D'Ascoyne's most recent imperialist adventures. "General Lord Rufus had just returned from suppressing a rebellion in Ireland, " the screenplay explains. "It was convenient that he had done so with some bloodthirstiness for this made me confident his demise would be blamed on the Sinn Feiners."

It is, however, the nature of the murders that takes the breath away. One victim is battered to death with a hammer. Another is eaten alive with swans.

All interesting stuff. It seems unlikely that the proposed version would be superior to the one released in 1949. It's hard to imagine that film being bettered in any regard. The plot was ideal for a nation waking up to its own history of inequality: Robert Price plays the disregarded member of a Ducal family who plans to murder his way to the title. Alec Guinness essays every doomed D'Ascoyne with an array of ticks and vowel contortions that no contemporary could equal. Joan Greenwood is hoarsely adorable as Edwardian England's idea of a femme fatale.


In short, beyond improvement.

Opens June 7th.

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist