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Tag Archives: Joan Greenwood

Kind Hearts and Coronets (June 21, 1949)

Kind Hearts and Coronets
Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)
Directed by Robert Hamer
Ealing Studios

Alec Guinness isn’t the star of Kind Hearts and Coronets. Not exactly. Dennis Price plays the protagonist, a ruthless social climber who attempts to murder his way to a dukedom, but Guinness dominates the film by playing eight different characters of vastly different ages (including one who is a woman).

If the opening credits of the film didn’t clearly show that Guinness plays multiple characters, I’m sure a few viewers would miss that fact, since he disappears into each role.

Greenwood and Guinness

The film tells the story of Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price), whose mother was disowned by her aristocratic family, the D’Ascoynes, when she married an Italian organ grinder. (Guinness isn’t the only actor in the film who plays multiple parts. Price plays his own father in a short flashback, sporting a thick black mustache.) Mazzini’s father died when he was a baby, leaving his mother penniless.

Mazzini vows revenge on the D’Ascoynes. He keeps careful track of all the noblemen and noblewomen who stand in the way of his Dukedom. Sometimes the death notices bring good news. Sometimes the birth column brings bad news.

After a chance encounter with his playboy cousin, Ascoyne D’Ascoyne, leads to Mazzini losing his job, he decides that waiting for everyone who stands in his way to die of natural causes will take too long, and he coolly takes to plotting murder.

Alec Guinness

Kind Hearts and Coronets is based on Roy Horniman’s 1907 novel Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal. I haven’t read the novel, but by all accounts the film improves on it. The dry, acerbic voiceover by Price apparently owes a lot to its literary source, but the comedic tone of the murders is amped up for the film. In the book, Israel Rank mostly disposes of his victims with poison, but in the film they meet their ends in wildly varied ways; drowning, explosion, falling from the sky, and a well-placed shotgun blast. And yes, a little poison.

Another difference between the film and the book is that the novel’s protagonist has a Jewish father. I think the name “Israel Rank” is a trifle too obvious for a half-Jewish man who attempts to improve his station through murder. And in any case, “Rank” was out of the question as the surname in the film since Ealing Studios’ films were distributed by J. Arthur Rank and most of Kind Hearts and Coronets was shot at Rank’s studios at Pinewood. The scale of the film was simply too large for the Ealing studio.

Price and Greenwood

Guinness is a comedic juggernaut in Kind Hearts and Coronets and Price ranks with Hannibal Lecter as one of the most charming serial murderers in cinematic history, but the film also features two great performances by women: Valerie Hobson as Edith, the noblewoman whom Mazzini schemes to marry, and Joan Greenwood as Sibella, the seductive coquette who rejected him in favor of a boring, wealthy man, but with whom he carries on an extramarital affair for most of the film.

Kind Hearts and Coronets is one of the most pitch-black comedies I’ve ever seen, but it never devolves into mere gruesomeness. The witty and irony-laden script is one reason, but the fact that Guinness plays all of the murder victims is another. It adds a layer of theatricality to the proceedings that makes it difficult to take any of the homicides too seriously.

Ealing scored a real one-two punch in 1949 with Whisky Galore and Kind Hearts and Coronets. One is warmly human and the other is cold and biting, but they both rank among the best comedies ever made.

Incidentally, the title of the film is taken from one of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poems, “Kind hearts are more than coronets / And simple faith than Norman blood.”

Kind Hearts and Coronets will be shown on TCM on April 2, 2014.

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Whisky Galore! (June 16, 1949)

Whisky Galore
Whisky Galore! (1949)
Directed by Alexander Mackendrick
Ealing Studios

I first saw Whisky Galore back in college. It wasn’t part of a class, it was just a Saturday-night feature shown in the film department.

I went to Bard College, which is in a beautiful, rural part of New York State. Procuring booze wasn’t exactly difficult, but it could be a challenge, especially if you didn’t have a car. So this rollicking tale of whisky drinkers on an isolated island suddenly facing the prospect of living without “the water of life” resonated with more than a few audience members. Hell, some of us were probably only there because we couldn’t find any booze.

I enjoyed Whisky Galore the first time I saw it, but I didn’t find it uproariously funny. This time around was different. I now think it’s one of the best comedies ever made.

Except for a few sight gags here and there — like a straight line of footsteps leading into a cave where whisky is hidden and a weaving, curving line of footsteps leading out — most of the humor is subtle and tongue-in-cheek. I realized that I’d completely missed some of the funniest bits of the movie on my first viewing. (If you have even the slightest difficulty understanding English or Scottish accents — or if you’re at all hard of hearing — you’re going to want to watch this film with subtitles. The DVD currently available to rent from Netflix has no closed captioning, and there are several reviews written solely to complain about that fact.)

Whisky Galore is based on the novel by Compton MacKenzie, which was inspired by the sinking of the S.S. Politician in 1941. The screenplay is by MacKenzie and Angus MacPhail.

The film takes place in 1943 in the Outer Hebrides, on the fictional island of Todday. The Second World War is raging, but far from Todday. The Home Guard goes on maneuvers and set up roadblocks that would be ridiculous even without the benefit of hindsight. The Home Guard in Todday is commanded by the puffed-up Captain Paul Waggett (Basil Radford), who is English, and frequently mystified by the peculiarities of the Scottish natives of this far-flung island.

One day, disaster strikes. Not famine or pestilence, but something far, far worse. No whisky.

But then, one foggy night, the S.S. Cabinet Minister, a freighter carrying 50,000 cases of whisky, runs aground on the shoals.

When Waggett gets wind of the locals’ plan to “liberate” as much whisky as they can from the ship before it sinks, he jumps into action. Waggett feels strongly that order must be maintained. Allow a little looting, and anarchy will follow.

Basil Radford

Whisky Galore wrings humor out of more than just forced sobriety and drunken revelry. It’s an extremely well-crafted film about small-town life.

Todday seems to contain just two small villages, Snorvaig and Garryboo. The insularity of Todday is personified by the young schoolteacher George Campbell (Gordon Jackson), who assigns his students a composition assignment, “Why I like living in Garryboo.”

One of his pupils reads his essay aloud: “There are more people in Snorvaig. But they are not so nice as the people in Garryboo.”

Even though Campbell is an adult with a real job, he lives with his mother (played by Jean Cadell), who still treats him like a child. She doesn’t let him use the telephone on the Sabbath, and when he protests, she scolds and punishes him. “Go to your room, George Campbell! There’ll be no church for you in Snorvaig today!” And he sheepishly complies.

All the actors in this film are wonderful, and perfectly cast. Besides the pitch-perfect performances by Radford and Cadell (who have the funniest exchange of the picture when he tries to convince her to let her son out of his room because he needs his Home Guard second-in-command), I especially liked the lovely Joan Greenwood and the stalwart Bruce Seton as the man who loves her.

But, as I said, all the actors are wonderful. And this is a wonderful film. Even the ending, which seems to have been forced on the filmmakers by the censors, is hilarious.

The October Man (Aug. 28, 1947)

The only problem with a really crackerjack opening is that sometimes it can make the rest of a film seem staid.

Roy Ward Baker’s The October Man, which was written and produced by spy novelist Eric Ambler, features a stunning, completely wordless opening sequence in which a bus full of passengers navigates twisting English country roads at night in the rain.

Jim Ackland (John Mills) sits next to a little girl. The two are friendly with each other, and he ties his handkerchief into a rabbit shape to amuse her. The film cuts from them to an axle under the bus with a loose screw, to the sleepy driver, and back to them. When disaster comes, it is swift.

Before the accident, Ackland had a good job as an industrial chemist and was quite sane. During the accident, however, he suffered a depressed fracture of the skull and multiple brain injuries.

The little girl on the bus next to him was the daughter of some of his friends, and he blames himself for her death, twice attempting suicide during his convalescence.

Eventually, though, Ackland starts to get his life back on track. He moves into a boarding house full of fusspots and weirdos and gets another job as a chemist. He meets a nice girl named Jenny Carden (Joan Greenwood) and starts seeing her regularly.

But when one of the other residents of Ackland’s boarding house — a woman named Molly Newman (Kay Walsh) — is murdered, suspicion falls on Ackland. The only person who should know beyond a shadow of a doubt whether he’s guilty or not — Ackland himself — isn’t even sure, since he’s a paranoiac who suffers from blackouts.

The October Man is a good film. It’s well acted and well shot, and the central mystery is intriguing, if not particularly difficult to unravel. My main problem with it is that nothing in the film is equal to the suspense and power of the first minute.

This was the first feature film that Roy Ward Baker directed. (He’s listed in the credits as “Roy Baker.”)

Baker was a prolific director of British film and television who worked into the 1990s, and who died last year at the age of 93. During World War II, Baker worked under Eric Ambler in the Army Kinematograph Unit, which eventually led to him directing The October Man. If you’re a fan of Hammer Studios’ horror films, you’ve doubtless seen films directed by Baker, but he worked in all manner of genres. His most enduring film is probably A Night to Remember (1958), about the sinking of the Titanic.