Ealing studios comedy films

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Ealing studios comedy films

Post  eddie on Fri Dec 23, 2011 8:05 am

My favourite film: Kind Hearts and Coronets

In the latest addition to our ongoing writers' favourite film series, Liese Spencer shares her love for the dark, whip-smart Ealing comedy that blew away her teenage funk

Liese Spencer

guardian.co.uk, Thursday 22 December 2011 09.50 GMT


Acting genius … Alec Guinness as Lady Agatha D’Ascoyne in Kind Hearts and Coronets. Photograph: Allstar Collection/Cinetext/EALI/Sportsphoto Ltd/Allstar

Sat in front of the gas fire one Sunday afternoon during my neverending adolescence, I didn't pay much attention to the black and white film starting on BBC2. As its lace-trimmed credits rolled I knew exactly what was coming: a comfortably dull period drama. A couple of hours later, as its neat ending was undercut by a final, fiendishly clever twist, my 14-year-old funk of know-it-all boredom had been blown away. How exhilarating to see a bunch of well-dressed, well-spoken grown-ups behaving despicably – and getting away with it. For a cosy Ealing comedy it was incredibly black. Unlikely as it seemed, apparently there were adults – even as far back as 1949 – who understood that most people were disgusting and the world sucked.

Kind Hearts and Coronets
Production year: 1949
Country: UK
Cert (UK): U
Runtime: 106 mins
Directors: Robert Hamer
Cast: Alec Guinness, Dennis Price, Joan Greenwood, Sir Alec Guinness, Valerie Hobson

Set in 1900, Kind Hearts and Coronets tells the story of Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price), a Clapham draper's assistant and distant heir to the D'Ascoyne dukedom who decides to murder everyone standing between him and the family title in revenge for their cruel treatment of his mother. From the opening scenes, in which a hangman frets about the "proper" execution of his titled victim ("the last execution of a duke was very badly bungled. That was in the days of the axe of course"), Robert Hamer and John Dighton's whip-smart screenplay and economical direction sweep you up and speed you along.

We catch our first glimpse of the debonair Mazzini from behind – lustrous curls gleaming above the padded satin collar of his smoking jacket as he pens his memoirs in his well-appointed cell. We then follow him in flashback as he drinks port in country vicarages, punts along the Thames and takes tea on sunny home-county lawns, all the while killing off his relatives one by one.

Busy as he is "pruning" his family tree, Louis still finds time to conduct an adulterous affair with his equally worldly childhood sweetheart Sibella. (How fantastic, I thought, that she was allowed to be just as nasty as he was.) "Louis, I think I've married the most boring man in London," she purrs about his better-off rival, Lionel. "In England," he replies. "In Europe," she sighs.

If Price's beautifully modulated voiceover creates much of the film's spell, then Joan Greenwood's fruity delivery is also funny and seductive. Always pouting from beneath some complicated hat, Sibella is poison in petticoats. Louis describes her as: "Vain, selfish, cruel, deceitful. Adorable."

The film is best known now as an early showcase for Alec Guinness, and his cameos as eight variously jolly, arrogant, mean and stupid D'Ascoynes are acting genius – I especially like the vim with which the suffragette Lady Agatha punches in shop windows with her brolly. In the famous funeral scene where we see the remaining D'Ascoynes together, Guinness inhabits each of his Edwardian establishment gargoyles completely – general, admiral, banker – before the camera finally comes to rest on the clergyman leading the funeral service (Guinness again) and Mazzini rounds off his inventory: "And in the pulpit, talking interminable nonsense, the Reverend Lord Henry D'Ascoyne."

Kind Hearts and Coronets is a brilliantly sustained attack on what Hamer called "established, although not practiced, moral convention". Silkily subversive, his amusing comedy of "20th-century homicide" not only makes you root for a serial killer but delight in the ingenuity with which he dispatches his victims. Its witty script can still feel disarmingly dark today. "I was sorry about the girl," Louis muses coolly, after sending playboy Ascoyne D'Ascoyne and his mistress to their death over a weir, "but found some relief in the reflection that she had presumably, during the weekend, already undergone a fate worse than death." In another he erases infant twins from the D'Ascoyne family tree – explaining that "fortunately, an epidemic of diphtheria had restored the status quo".

From a fairly privileged background himself, Hamer won a scholarship to Cambridge before being sent down for a homosexual affair and going into films. This was his first as director, and his most perfect. (In different ways, drink does for two of the D'Ascoynes and it did for the alcoholic Hamer too, aged just 52.)

Knowing that backstory, his disgust at the callousness and hypocrisy of Britain's class system seems more pronounced. Take the scene where the Duke finds a poacher caught in one of his mantraps and sends in his gamekeeper – to collect the bird; or the assassination of the general at his club with a booby-trapped tin of caviar: "If there's one thing the Ruskies do well … " the pompous old bore tells his dining companion before being obliterated by Mazzini's homemade bomb. (The others, of course, being molotov cocktails and the communist overthrow of a feudal system.)

Kind Hearts and Coronets may not be the most cinematic film – there are others more spectacular, more thrilling, more moving, more romantic, – but watching it was such a delicious surprise to my 14-year-old self. Like hearing an elderly relative swear, its sophisticated cynicism shocked me awake.

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Re: Ealing studios comedy films

Post  eddie on Sun Dec 25, 2011 1:50 am


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Re: Ealing studios comedy films

Post  eddie on Sun Dec 25, 2011 1:51 am


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Re: Ealing studios comedy films

Post  eddie on Sun Dec 25, 2011 1:53 am


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Re: Ealing studios comedy films

Post  eddie on Sun Dec 25, 2011 1:54 am


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Re: Ealing studios comedy films

Post  eddie on Sun Dec 25, 2011 1:55 am


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Re: Ealing studios comedy films

Post  eddie on Sun Dec 25, 2011 1:57 am


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Re: Ealing studios comedy films

Post  eddie on Mon Dec 26, 2011 12:00 am

eddie wrote:

It's comparatively unusual for a film to be adapted as a play (usually it's the other way round), but that's just what's happened to The Ladykillers:
**************************************************************************************************************
The Ladykillers – review

Gielgud, London

Michael Billington

The Guardian, Thursday 8 December 2011


A mad Moriarty genius of crime: Peter Capaldi as Prof Marcus with his gang. Photograph: Tristram Kenton

I got into an edgy debate with Graham Linehan on the Today programme about the propriety of turning hit films into plays. I needn't have worried too much about The Ladykillers, however. For what Linehan and director Sean Foley have come up with is a very different animal from the 1955 movie; and, while it may lack the Ealing touch, it works very well as a slapstick farce.

Linehan sticks to the outline of the William Rose screenplay. A criminal gang occupy the upstairs room of a demure old lady's rickety house, and pose as a string quartet to cover a planned King's Cross heist. But, in Michael Taylor's design, the house itself becomes a skew-whiff folly, and everything about the character of the villains is exaggerated. The professorial mastermind is palpably unhinged, while his gang now comprises a closet transvestite, a young druggie, a Romanian cuthroat, and a brain-numbed ex-boxer.

What was once macabre comedy has acquired a madcap, Marx brothers quality. At one point the whole gang hides in a tiny cupboard which makes them look like a hydra-headed monster; when asked the reason for their concealment, they reply: "Mrs Wilberforce, we are artists."

We see them giving a concert to the old lady's teatime guests which turns into a wild parody of avant-garde music. And Foley's production piles on the sight gags: chairs and tables spin across the stage every time a train passes, the robbery is re-created by miniaturised cars colliding on a vertical wall, and, when the thieves fall out, a trick-knife is embedded in the boxer's bonce, and the pill-popper is apparently run through with a non-musical stave.

If something is lost in the process, it is the movie's metaphorical resonance. In true Ealing fashion, the film represented the triumph of age and tradition over the thrusting opportunism of the post-war world. Charles Barr in his book on Ealing Studios even suggested the gang could be seen to represent the 1945 Labour government defeated by the paralysing charisma of the governing class. Be that as it may, the film has a state-of-England quality, which here, apart from a fleeting reference to Suez, goes by the board.

But it is churlish to complain when the play garners so many laughs and is so vibrantly acted. Peter Capaldi turns the professor into a deluded Moriarty who thinks he's a criminal genius, but can't get a cello case out of a window. James Fleet is also very funny as the bogus major, quivering with delight at the sight of an empty frock, and there are lively contributions from Ben Miller as the word-mangling Romanian who announces "old ladies give me the penises" and from Clive Rowe as the ex-pugilist who finds a passion for the cello. Marcia Warren, meanwhile, neatly captures the quiet grit of the lavender-scented landlady.

This is emphatically not a replica of the movie, and one or two gags, such as a rotating blackboard that constantly flattens one of the gang, are overworked. But it is an exuberantly inventive evening, one existing in its own right at a tangent to the original, and proving that an ingenious William Rose idea, even when put to a farcical purpose, can still smell as sweet.

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Re: Ealing studios comedy films

Post  Yakima Canutt on Sat Jan 07, 2012 9:27 pm

Againzt the odds, Coen bros out-Ealinged Ealing with their 'Lady-Killers', not becuz they inserted Irritable Bowel Syndrome into the plot, but becuz they transformed the criminal musiq ensemble into a bitchin Renaissance quintet compleet with theorbo and sackbutt.

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