Kind Hearts and Coronets

Kind Hearts and Coronets

Kind Hearts and Coronets
Original British film poster
Directed by Robert Hamer
Produced by Michael Balcon
Michael Relph
Screenplay by Robert Hamer
John Dighton
Based on Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal 
by Roy Horniman
Starring Dennis Price
Valerie Hobson
Joan Greenwood
Alec Guinness
Music by Ernest Irving
Cinematography Douglas Slocombe
Edited by Peter Tanner
Distributed by GFD (UK)
Eagle-Lion Films (US)
Release dates
  • 21 June 1949 (1949-06-21) (UK)
Running time
106 minutes
Country United Kingdom
Language English

Kind Hearts and Coronets is a British black comedy film of 1949 starring Dennis Price, Alec Guinness, Joan Greenwood, and Valerie Hobson. Guinness famously plays eight members of the D'Ascoyne family. The plot is loosely based on the novel Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal (1907) by Roy Horniman,[1] with the screenplay written by Robert Hamer and John Dighton and the film directed by Hamer. The film's title derives from Tennyson's poem Lady Clara Vere de Vere: "Kind hearts are more than coronets, and simple faith than Norman blood."[2]

Kind Hearts and Coronets is listed in Time magazine's top 100[3] and also in the BFI Top 100 British films.[4] In 2011 the film was digitally restored and re-released in selected British cinemas.[5]


  • Plot 1
    • American version 1.1
  • Cast 2
  • Production 3
  • Reception 4
  • Novel 5
  • Historical source 6
  • Radio adaptations 7
  • Broadway musical 8
  • Digital restoration 9
  • Notes 10
  • References 11
    • Bibliography 11.1
  • External links 12


In Edwardian Britain, Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price), tenth Duke of Chalfont, writes his memoirs while in prison awaiting his death by hanging the next morning. Most of the film consists of a flashback in which Louis narrates the events leading to his imprisonment.

After his mother, the daughter of the 7th Duke of Chalfont, elopes with an Italian opera singer named Mazzini (also played by Price), she is disowned by her aristocratic family, the D'Ascoynes, for marrying beneath her. The couple are poor but happy, until Mazzini dies upon seeing Louis, his newborn son, for the first time. As a boy, Louis's only friends are a local doctor's children: a girl named Sibella (Joan Greenwood) and her brother. When Louis leaves school, his mother writes to Lord Ascoyne D'Ascoyne, a banker, for assistance in launching her son's career. Lord Ascoyne refuses to acknowledge their existence, and Louis is forced to accept employment as a draper's assistant. When Louis's mother dies, her last request – to be interred in the family vault – is denied by her brother, the 8th Duke of Chalfont. Louis vows to avenge her.

After Sibella ridicules his offer of marriage, Louis attends her wedding to Lionel (John Penrose), a former schoolmate with a rich father. He then has a chance encounter at his workplace with one of those in line to inherit the family titles and estates: Ascoyne D'Ascoyne (Alec Guinness in the first of eight roles as a variety of D'Ascoynes). An altercation results in Louis's dismissal from his job. Louis then decides to eliminate those who stand between him and the dukedom.

After causing the deaths of Ascoyne D'Ascoyne and his mistress in a boating incident, Louis writes a letter of condolence to his victim's father, Lord Ascoyne D'Ascoyne, who relents and employs him as a clerk in his private banking firm. Slowly becoming a man of means, Louis discreetly sees Sibella. He next decides to murder Henry D'Ascoyne, a keen amateur photographer, but is also charmed by Henry's wife, Edith (Valerie Hobson). After killing Henry by setting up an explosion in his darkroom, Louis attends the funeral and views for the first time the remaining D'Ascoynes, including Ethelred, the current (eighth) duke.

Louis next poisons the Reverend Lord Henry D'Ascoyne, then meets a now-bankrupt Lionel, who begs for an extension of his loan. Preferring that "someone else pay for Sibella's extravagances", Louis agrees. He then pierces the balloon from which suffragette Lady Agatha D'Ascoyne is dropping leaflets over London, remarking, "I shot an arrow in the air. She fell to earth in Berkeley Square." (This is an allusion to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem 'The Arrow and the Song'.) Boer War veteran General Lord Rufus D'Ascoyne falls victim to a bomb Louis has concealed in a gift of caviar.[Note 1]

Louis's quandary as to how to reach Admiral Lord Horatio D'Ascoyne is solved when the Admiral insists on going down with his ship after causing a collision. When Edith agrees to marry Louis, they notify the Duke. The head of the family invites Louis to the family seat, Chalfont Castle, where he informs Louis that he intends to marry again to produce an heir, which would, of course, ruin Louis's plan to inherit the Dukedom himself. A now anxious Louis quickly arranges a shooting "accident", but before murdering the Duke he tells him the reason for doing so, which is to avenge the mistreatment of his mother. Lord Ascoyne D'Ascoyne suffers a stroke and dies from the shock of learning that he has acceded to the dukedom, sparing Louis the chore of killing a benefactor. Louis becomes the tenth duke but his triumph is short-lived.

Lionel is found dead following Louis's rejection of his drunken plea for help to avoid bankruptcy. Louis is charged with his murder and is tried by his peers in the House of Lords. Sibella perjures herself and incriminates him. Ironically, he is convicted of the one death of which he is entirely innocent, not even having wished it.

Louis is visited in prison by Sibella, who hints she could exonerate him by "finding" a suicide note from Lionel if Louis would agree to dispose of Edith and marry Sibella. Louis indicates agreement, and moments before his hanging, news of Lionel's suicide note reaches the prison from the Home Office. Upon his release, Louis finds both Edith and Sibella waiting for him in carriages. Pondering his dilemma, Louis quotes from The Beggar's Opera: "How happy could I be with either, Were t'other dear charmer away!" When a representative of Tit-Bits magazine interrupts his reflections to ask for the publication rights to his memoirs, Louis suddenly realises he has left his incriminating manuscript in his cell, fearing it will be read and he will be convicted of his many murders.

American version

To satisfy the Hays Office Production Code, the film was censored for the American market.[6] Ten seconds of footage were added to the ending, showing Louis's memoirs being discovered before he can retrieve them; which is implied in the original film in any case. The dialogue between Louis and Sibella was altered to downplay their adultery; derogatory lines aimed at the Reverend Henry d'Ascoyne were deleted; and in the nursery rhyme "Eeny, meeny, miny, moe", sailor replaced the word nigger (restored to the original dialog, in the 2011 Criterion Collection DVD set). The American version is six minutes shorter than the British original.



Guinness was originally offered only four D'Ascoyne parts, recollecting: "I read [the screenplay] on a beach in France, collapsed with laughter on the first page, and didn't even bother to get to the end of the script. I went straight back to the hotel and sent a telegram saying, ‘Why four parts? Why not eight!?'"[7]

The exterior location used for Chalfont, the family home of the d'Ascoynes, is Leeds Castle in Kent, England.[8] The interior was filmed at Ealing Studios. The village scenes in the film were filmed in the Kent village of Harrietsham.[9]


Bosley Crowther, critic for The New York Times, calls it a "delicious little satire on Edwardian manners and morals" in which "the sly and adroit Mr. Guinness plays eight Edwardian fuddy-duds with such devastating wit and variety that he naturally dominates the film."[10] Praise is also given to Price ("as able as Mr. Guinness in his single but most demanding role"), as well as Greenwood and Hobson ("provocative as women in his life").[10]

Roger Ebert lists Kind Hearts and Coronets among his "Great Movies",[11] stating "Price is impeccable as the murderer: Elegant, well-spoken, a student of demeanor", and notes that "murder, Louis demonstrates, ... can be most agreeably entertaining".[12]


Reviewer Simon Heffer notes the plot of the original Roy Horniman novel was darker (e.g., the murder of a child) and differed in several respects. A major difference was that the main character was the half-Jewish (as opposed to half-Italian) Israel Rank, and Heffer noted that "...his ruthless using of people (notably women) and his greedy pursuit of position all seem to conform to the stereotype that the anti-semite has of the Jew."[1]

Historical source

The death of Admiral Horatio D'Ascoyne was inspired by a true event: the collision between [13] The Victoria was sunk, losing over 300 men (including the admiral).

Radio adaptations

The film has been adapted for radio, including a version produced on BBC Radio 4 featuring Robert Powell and Timothy Bateson (first broadcast in 1990),[14] and another for BBC7 featuring Michael Kitchen as Mazzini and Harry Enfield as the D'Ascoyne family.

On 19 May 2012, BBC Radio 4 broadcast a sequel to the film called Kind Hearts and Coronets – Like Father, Like Daughter. In it, Unity Holland (played by Natalie Walter), the biological daughter of Louis and Sibella, is written out of the title by Lady Edith d'Ascoyne. Unity then murders the entire d'Ascoyne family, with all seven members played by Alistair McGowan.[15]

Broadway musical

In 2013, a Broadway musical version entitled A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder opened to rave reviews. Its source, Horniman's novel, was credited, but, due to a rights issue, the film wasn't. The show has all the victims played by the same actor, Jefferson Mays, just as the film has every victim played by Alec Guinness. The musical won four Tony Awards, including Best Musical.

Digital restoration

The Criterion Collection released a two-disc set that featured both versions of the film.[16] UK distributor Optimum Releasing released a digitally restored version for both DVD and Blu-ray on 5 September 2011.[17]


  1. ^ An obscure reference to Hamlet, Act 2, scene 2, 431–440. See Caviar to the general


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External links

  • Kind Hearts and Coronets at the Internet Movie Database
  • Kind Hearts and Coronets at AllMovie
  • Kind Hearts and Coronets – Ealing’s Shadow SideEssay at The Criterion Collection: Linked 2013-05-12
  • Kind Hearts and Coronets: 60th anniversary of a classicThe Daily Telegraph, 9 July 2009: Linked 2013-05-12
  • Books on Kind Hearts and CoronetsVirtual History: Linked 2013-05-12