Saturday, May 09, 2009
Movie Review: Kind Hearts and Coronets
The most successful and best of the Ealing Studios pictures, Kind Hearts and Coronets is also paradoxically one of its most atypical offerings. While most Ealing productions were jovial, patriotic, wholesome, and practically bereft of sexuality, Kind Hearts and Coronets was full of spleen towards the British class system, possessed of a healthy eroticism underscored by actress Joan Greenwood's huskily voiced femme fatale, and unapologetic for both. On paper, it would seem to be impossible to sympathize with Dennis Price's Louis Mazzini, who personally and methodically kills six members of his family to be first in line for a Dukedom. Mazzini's reasons for seeking revenge are a result of the fact that the D'Ascoyne family disowned his mother for daring to marry beneath them and to marry a foreigner, an Italian opera singer. This would seem to be a petty and inexcusably vindictive reason for seeking blood justice. However, the priggish, cold, and thoroughly inhuman behavior of most of his victims make it difficult, if not impossible to feel that each of these haughty, disdainful, and supremely calculating aristocrats deserve nothing less than death. Furthermore, Mazzini is blessed by a smooth grace and easy charm that endears him to the audience, even as he disposes of his relations with scientific precision. This might be one of the more chilling conclusions drawn from this skillfully constructed, brilliantly scripted, cynical black comedy but it certainly isn't the only one.
To understand the film, one must first understand a bit about the studio of its birth. Ealing Studios was a British film (and later television) facility whose apex in the public eye ran for roughly a decade, 1945-1955. It had been around for roughly a decade before then, but Ealing found its niche with a series of satirical comedies, for which it is best known today. The studios were run by Michael Balcon, a second-generation Eastern-European Jew, who embraced the British way of life and his new country the way only an earnest convert can. At times, Balcon's desire to show the greatest number of rosy, thoroughly British customs and mannerisms possible led to the incorporation of a superfluous number of on-screen mentions (tea time was overemphasized whenever possible) and correspondingly hackneyed sayings into the screenplays of his company's films. Daring to identify as so unapologetically U.K. was a risky move in those days, since British film already had a reputation overseas of being inferior to Hollywood and in the years before Anglophilia, American audiences felt the same.
The film was groundbreaking in a multitude of ways. The talented Alec Guinness plays eight separate parts, each of which are thoroughly convincing, which was an especially difficult task to pull off with any credulity since it was filmed in the era before even rudimentary special effects. Ealing had budget limitations that occasionally were to the detriment of its pictures, but it did maintain a talented makeup division, to whom all the credit in the world is due in creating a skillful rendering of each of Guinness's D'Ascoyne characters. The tradition of playing multiple roles within the same picture is inherited from the stage, would be a motif often adapted by subsequent British actors as a way to show off their acting prowess. Peter Sellers, in particular, played three separate character in Dr. Strangelove, and had every desire to play four until he sprained his ankle in the middle of shooting. Lindsay Anderson's second directorial effort, O Lucky Man!, required most of the primary actors to take on as many as five and six separate parts.
Kind Hearts and Coronets narrowly missed being severely edited before it reached audiences. Ironically enough, this had nothing to do with the sheer number of stylized murders committed or the suggestion that the murderer might conceivably go free at the end, but absolutely everything to do with the charged eroticism (beyond tame by today's standards) between Mazzini and Sibella as well as the unapologetic adulterous affair the two conduct without expressing the slightest pangs of guilt. Studio head Balcon was well-known for his substantial Puritanical streak and had to be talked into leaving the picture just as it was by Director/Screenwriter Robert Hamer. Balcon might have conceivably been concerned about the film's potential loss of financial gross in the United States, since it was quite possible that several elements of the film would violate the still potent restrictions of the Production Code.
As it turns out, upon American release, the film was changed substantially. Six full minutes were removed. The ending was, in fact, completely changed to fit the Code's insistence that those who commit crimes must always pay for them in the end. The most blatantly adulterous language between Mazzinni and Sibella was toned down, a few choice remarks criticizing an incompetent Christian Parson were removed, and a particularly offensive children's nursery rhyme was sanitized. More than any other objectionable feature, the film is, I fear, not in as wide a distribution as it could today be because of this roughly two-minute section that is undeniably quite racist. In it, the new Duke and Sibella recite a familiar rhyme that includes a dreaded racial slur that begins with the letter N. Notwithstanding, a modern audience will find Kind Hearts and Coronets very engaging today, in the way that only art which is years ahead of its time can be. The callous, cynical tone struck by the film--one that makes no attempt towards atonement or overt moralizing-- would prove to be a lasting impression that would find more, not less frequent expression with the passing of time.