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Review: Kind Hearts and Coronets

A class can be taught comparing British and American manners using only Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Family Jewels.

Kind Hearts and Coronets
Photo: Eagle-Lion Films

A class can be taught comparing British and American manners using only Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Family Jewels, two films that are honest to the culture and time from which they originate. Jerry Lewis’s 1965 film could be read as a reverse remake of Robert Hamer’s 1949 Ealing Studios comedy. Lewis plays seven roles in The Family Jewels, six uncles and one chauffer to a little rich girl who seeks a new “father” to share her $30 million fortune, while in Kind Hearts and Coronets, the great Alec Guinness plays eight relatives that come under attack by a distant relation denied his rightful place within their family. Both films are concerned with the nature of privilege, and the means by which the characters in these films attempt to preserve and attain status mirrors the nature of British and American modes of behavior. One film explodes in the same way the other implodes.

Like its aesthetic, The Family Jewels’s performances are loud, brash, and colorful. Kind Hearts and Coronets, by comparison, exudes an extraordinary feeling of reserve; its absence of color suggests a vulgar policy of exclusion. Quite possibly the darkest of the Eailing Studios comedies, it isn’t very funny—even by the stiff-upper-lip standards of the Brits, the humor is so dry and nonchalant as to appear nonexistent—but Hamer’s gift for character observation is generous and insightful, which he cleverly echoes in the fiber of the film’s early scenes.

Often restricting action and light to the center of the screen (in one scene, the curvature of a tree limb provides the frame of the picture with an iris-like border), Hamer reflects Louis Mazzini’s (Dennis Price) outrage and exclusion using his constricting camera. Valerie Hobson’s Edith D’Ascoyne, widow of one of Louis’s victims, is neutered by her husband’s death in the same one-dimensional way as the woman with the funny hat from Robert Siodmak’s Phantom Lady, and while Louis’s girlfriend, Sibella Holland (Joan Greenwood), suggests another wet-noodle type, Hamer unleashes the character’s wit and cunning after an interesting twist of events, giving Louis a nemesis he can tango with on equal footing. This respect and understanding for the role of the female, her suffocation, and her desire and potential for outrage within British society exposes the depth of Hamer’s kind heart and mind.

Cast: Dennis Price, Valerie Hobson, Joan Greenwood, Alec Guinness, Audrey Fildes, Miles Malleson, Clive Morton, John Penrose Director: Robert Hamer Screenwriter: John Dighton, Robert Hamer Distributor: Eagle-Lion Films Inc. Running Time: 106 min Rating: NR Year: 1949 Buy: Video

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