Tag Archives: British Aristocracy

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

6a00d8341c2b7953ef013485c24605970cKind Hearts and Coronets is a completely droll and delightful comedy of murders, which happens to feature Alec Guinness eight times over. He also dies eight times over. He is blown up (twice), shot, drowned (twice), poisoned, and has his hot air balloon punctured by an arrow. He also manages to die of a perfectly ordinary heart attack. By the end, there isn’t an Alec Guinness left standing.

The story follows the quest of a draper’s assistant, Louis Mazzini, (Dennis Price) to murder his way to the D’Ascoyne Dukedom. There are seven D’Ascoyne’s standing in his way (all played by Guinness), not to mention the duke himself (also played by Guinness).

Louis is himself the son of a D’Ascoyne, but she romantically ran off with an Italian tenor and was cut off by the family. But that doesn’t prevent her from raising her son with the utmost conviction of his family worth and the grievous offense done to his mother by the family. He decides on revenge after she dies and gets to work, starting things off with an improvised double drowning.

The film makes ruthless fun of the aristocrats and one is almost on Louis’ side for how they all refuse to acknowledge his existence, except that Louis is just as much of a snob as they are.

The two women in Louis life are Sibella (Joan Greenwood), his childhood sweetheart, and Edith (Valerie Hobson), the teetotaler wife of young Henry D’Ascoyne. After Henry is blown up (in his dark room – he’s a photography enthusiast), Edith becomes a widow and Louis determines to marry her. He believes she would make an ideal, dignified and gracious Duchess.

In the meantime, he carries on an affair with Sibella, who he does not think would make a very good Duchess, though she is the only person to see through him. Louis thinks that he has the upper hand and can discard her at will, but she turns out to be every bit as good at scheming as he is, if not a bit better. In hindsight, he really should have just married her – they would have been unstoppable.

Alec Guinness

Alec Guinness

Dennis Price is superb as the man who would be a duke, narrating his story on the night before he is to be hanged (by an executioner thrilled to his core that he is to meet – and hang – a Duke…with a silk noose, no less). It is primarily his story. However, the film is most famous for allowing Alec Guinness the chance to play eight different members of the same family, roles which he approaches with a hilarious kind of tongue-in-cheek deadpan expression. Suppressed glee, perhaps. All one has to do practically is look at Alec Guinness in one of his roles and break out laughing.

He plays the duke, a young photography enthusiast oppressed by his wife’s extreme goodness (and insistence that he abstain from alcohol), a stubborn admiral, a general, a doddering old clergyman, a radical suffragette (my favorite of his roles), an old banker, and a roue, who is also the son of the banker.

Apparently, Alec Guinness was offered four roles, but when he read the script he thought it was so marvelous he suggested that he play eight, instead.

What is interesting is how understated it is all done, though. There is only one shot where we have all eight Guinness’ D’Ascoyne’s together and in every other case they are in separate scenes of their own. None of it is in the least showy. The one scene where he does appear in full force (at church) was evidently very difficult to do, however, and it took several days. They would expose different portions of the film, each with a different Alec Guinness.

This is brilliant British comedy, about as funny as anything I’ve ever seen, in truth. I think, in time, this could become a real favorite.

This is part of the Dual Roles Blogathon. The rest of the posts can be found in recaps for Days 1, 2, and 3.

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Posted by on October 2, 2016 in Movies


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If I Were You – P.G. Wodehouse

51fdg9cAeSL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_I love P.G. Wodehouse. He’s most famous for creating Jeeves and Wooster, but my favorite of his stories are those part of his Blandings series, with Lord Emsworth, his prize pig and the parade of impostors that always seem to be trooping through his estate. However, Wodehouse also wrote a host of stand alone novels that have nothing to do with Blandings or Bertie Wooster and I have begun sampling them. If I Were You was written in 1931 and is a Wodehouseian blend of The Prince and the Pauper and “The H.M.S. Pinafore.” Two boys switched at birth must now trade places. The barber becomes an earl and the earl becomes a barber (except no one will let him give them a shave).

Anthony – Tony to his family and friends – believes he is the Earl of Droitwich and has just gotten himself engaged to the somewhat cold-blooded Violet Waddington, heiress of Waddington’s Ninety-Seven Soups. He lives with his “brother,” the Honorable (and useless) Freddie Chalk-Marshall, his aunt and uncle, Sir Herbert and Lady Lydia Bassinger, and his butler, Slingsby (who likes to play the horses and has an unfortunate habit of picking the wrong one).

But Mrs. Price (coincidentally the sister of Slingsby), Tony’s childhood nurse, likes to make lachrymose and slightly tipsy visits to cry over him, often bringing along the putative Syd Price, pugnacious socialist and barber extraordinaire…. who happens to look just like one of the ancestors hanging on the wall.

Soon the cat is out of the bag and Syd insists on his rights and settles in to learn how to be an earl while Tony must play barber for a while…while the family tries to sort everything out. Lady Lydia, Sir Herbert, Freddie and Violet are all for taking the matter to court. Tony isn’t too perturbed, though. He’s fallen in love with Syd’s American manicurist, Polly Brown, and is enjoying being near her at the barbershop.

It’s a typical Wodehouse concoction and made me laugh numerous times (no one can make me laugh quite like Wodehouse), but If I Were You turned out to be somewhat unexpectedly grating. On the one hand, Wodehouse is subverting the traditional notion that “blood will tell.” In this case, blood most certainly does not as Syd proves much more at home giving a shave than riding a horse or interacting with the nobility, while Tony has all the ease, polish and good manners of – not good breeding – but a good education. On the other hand, Wodehouse can’t help but betray a certain degree of snobbery regarding education and refined manners.

16418The trouble is that Syd really is done out of his inheritance by his scheming family. It’s justified by saying that he isn’t really happy as an earl, but that seems a feeble excuse. The family is appalled at the thought that this uncouth, cockney socialist could really be their relative and they deal with the situation by quite simply refusing to believe it’s true…even though it probably is (though it’s never proved quite proved). Their horror was so gratuitous and ungenerous that I couldn’t help wishing that Syd would remain the earl, just to spite them.

Freddie, Lady Lydia and Sir Herbert do everything in their power to oust Syd and are joined in their endeavor by Slingsby, who can’t stand to have his former nephew lording it over him. Perhaps I felt for Syd simply because no one was on his side…not his real uncle or even his supposed uncle. He’s supposed to be universally obnoxious, but he isn’t really (after all, Polly likes him and often defends him). He just likes to assert that he’s as good as anybody else and with people like Freddie, Lady Lydia and Sir Herbert trying to prove that he isn’t, one can’t help but feel for him.

Admittedly, Wodehouse is definitely aware that the British aristocracy is of limited use in the world. Tony’s somewhat humorous justification for it? “Every time…that I got a twinge of conscience at the thought that I was living off the fat of the land and doing nothing to deserve it, I used to console myself by reflecting: ‘Well, at least I’m a sportsman!’” He could have also said that at least he has “nice manners,” which Syd does not have. Though Tony does occasionally wonder of what use people like Freddie are in the world, Wodehouse backs out by having Freddie save the day in manipulating Syd into voluntarily giving up his claim to be earl (he’s instead going to be an extremely wealthy barber). I think it would have been more satisfying if everything wasn’t restored to exactly the same state at the beginning.

And when Sir Herbert and Lady Lydia pretend to teach Syd how to be a proper earl and succeed in turning him into a slightly cringing, browbeaten man, I almost hated them. Even Tony is uncomfortable, bringing up his thoughts that at all costs they must be good sportsmen. Lady Lydia and Sir Herbert are definitely not good sportsmen, but I guess we are to forgive them because they are so fond of Tony. Besides, as Lady Lydia says, “the whole British social system…rests on the principle that a man with his ancestry can’t be a vulgarian.”

And even though Wodehouse is definitely writing tongue-in-cheek, one gets the feeling not even he would not like to have a cockney socialist earl on the loose.


Posted by on January 13, 2016 in Books


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