MUBI's retrospective Ealing Comedies is showing May 31 - August 7, 2018 in the United States.
Re-reading his memoirs from his prison cell, Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price) narrates the story of his life in Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949). Disowned by his maternal family, the aristocratic D’Ascoynes, and thus condemned to a life of poverty, Louis decides that his only option is to swiftly murder his living relatives in order to obtain the dukedom which is rightfully his. As the guiding light of the film, being both narrator and protagonist, Louis takes up the greatest amount space. But it is Alec Guinness who has made Kind Hearts most memorable, by playing all eight members of the D’Ascoyne family that Louis encounters. With a broad range of characters—young and old, men and women, as caricatures or with honesty—Kind Hearts is perhaps the perfect example of Guinness’ work with the Ealing comedies, as an actor whose ability to embody a diverse cast never got bogged down in garrish pantomime. With naturalism, Guinness’ roles in his Ealing comedies brought a human realness to the absurdity of the films.
Ealing comedies themselves were a fluid group. Most broadly defined as a cycle of comedies from Ealing Studios made in the post-war era, they likely began with Hue and Cry (1947), and likely ended ten years later with Barnacle Bill (1957), though earlier and later films may have fit the criteria. Producing a large number of films, comedies were only a small percentage of Ealing’s output. But the success, quality, and lasting impact of these films has made them the iconic feature of Ealing Studios. Guinness, performing in five of the comedies, would become a well-known fixture of the cycle. Largely, Ealing comedies shared an absurd sensibility: they were never subtle films, and they reveled in a broad humor based in stock characters and zany plots with clever dialogue. But, for all its intentional unreality, Guinness took on these roles almost too well, imbuing characters with a believability.
In The Ladykillers (Alexander Mackendrick, 1955), Guinness appears as the criminal “Professor” Marcus, an exaggerated mastermind, both sophisticated and slimy. Marcus organizes a gang of thieves to carry off a robbery in a room rented from the elderly Mrs. Wilberforce (Katie Johnson), who ultimately foils their plans. With long straggly hair, overbite, and theatrical makeup, he looks almost like Nosferatu. But it works—he’s a seedy thief of cartoonish proportions, yet it does not makes the film feel juvenile in its humor, nor lazy or cheap in its attempts to get laughs with false teeth and bad makeup. A burlesque bank robber, he is not too grotesque to carry the film. Instead, the costume is made to feel pure and honest in a performance which captures an energy which feels comfortable in it: the visual falseness is subjugated to a sensual naturalism. Performing Marcus to be a character who demonstrates an easy confidence in his surroundings, Guinness makes one accept the absurdity, without detracting from the humor of it. Marcus is played to feel like a real person, despite the film’s efforts.
In a film like The Lavender Hill Mob (Charles Crichton, 1951), we find Guinness in a completely opposing role. Not the villain in the least, he appears as Henry, a downtrodden bank clerk working for a pittance, who finally comes up with a plan to steal gold bullion to escape his draining, dour life. From the start of The Ladykillers, we are not on the side of Marcus, who unscrupulously exploits a kind old lady. But Henry is the sort of man we identify with. He has been treated unfairly, has been unable to improve his condition in life, and none of this is his fault: it is the restrictions of constant labor, of capitalist society, which keep him down, and against which he fights. But tonally, Henry is almost a mirror of Marcus. An equally amplified figure of meekness rather than criminality, Henry is nearly cartoonish. But, with the exception of certain comedic scenes, Henry is played with a dramatic sincerity which removes him from what could have been the personification of a joke.
Without irony or any sly self-awareness, Henry is acted as a real figure: there is ease in his movements and actions, which should not have them. His frenzied plotting, his put-on submissiveness, his deep desire for power, and his potential lust for violence all come together in Guinness as real rather than lurid. For with all the mugging there is a softness. Glaring anxieties briefly give way to subtle neuroticism or sadness, raucous joy presents itself with moments of genuinely pleased expressions and discreetly emoted satisfaction. With the comedy is a display of emotions which, in their muted presentation, give a sense of hardy truth to the performance.
Kind Hearts and Coronets was Guinness’ first Ealing comedy, but probably his greatest. Given eight roles to play, each character’s screen-time was small. Playing the D’Ascoynes, Guinness took on a spectrum of characters. There were the more exaggerated. A suffragette aunt who does little more than smash windows before dying in a hot air balloon accident, or a general who repeats the same war story in a deep voice before being exploded are pleasant detours in the story, but largely singular jokes. But other characters are each given a certain dignity and respect, a natural aura which elevates them beyond their basic comedy within the story.
In the D’Ascoynes, we find a cast of characters acted with a care which crafts them sensitively enough to perform individualistic personalities, quirks, and idiosyncrasies. As young Henry D’Ascoyne, a twenty-something photography enthusiast, we find Guinness playing a character who feels almost too fleshed out to be murdered after only a couple of scenes. As the elderly characters, there is a pleasure in the humor of seeing the then-35-year-old Guinness made up to look as though he is a tottering old man. Yet even the most “extra” of his larger roles, such as the hypocritically gourmand Reverend Henry D’Ascoyne, carry a sense of humanity. The character is largely a series of jokes: the Reverend never knows when to shut up about church architecture, or when his gastronomical indulgences are inappropriate. But played with a calmness and a sense of care, the Reverend moves beyond farce, allowing him to feel alive and real.The performance sells the comedy, but offers subtleties. The Reverend is played as a man who happens to be interested in buttresses, and, to the benefit of the film, it’s funny. Had his interests been played as knowingly humorous, the comedy would have been quite different, more brash but less organic and nuanced. Inhabiting roles rather than putting them on as costumes, Guinness avoids the snark or mockery that comes with caricature, even for the most satirical figures.
This sensitivity is remarkable, however, as it is not characteristic of the film as a whole. Dennis Price’s performance can be described a reduction of gentlemanly evil. At the time better known for playing villains and cads in Gainsborough melodramas (another concurrent cycle of films, this time romantic historical dramas, from Gainsborough Pictures), as Louis he doubles down on his evil poshness, playing his character with a laughing self-awareness. Joan Greenwood, playing Louis’ love interest Sibella, is little more than the femme fatale, a chaotic figure of lust and passion, while Valerie Hobson as Lady D’Ascoyne, a widow and figure of goodness and purity to oppose Sibella, equally falls into an easy mold. While this style of acting works exceptionally well within the comedy, the contrast of Guinness’ performances is an invigorating twist to the film.
Every character in Kind Hearts and Coronets is an exaggeration. Each is singularly focused (Dennis on his dukedom, the D’Ascoynes on their respective interests, the women on their womanly needs), which makes sense within a surreal narrative. With hysteria, the film has a feeling of urgency in its extremes and divides. Love and hate, chastity and sex, poverty and wealth, and life and death: there are never in-betweens, and when they crop up, it is only as a stepping stone to the other end of the spectrum. But while every actor in this film works well with these sorts of extremes, allowing characters to be reductive types, we can appreciate that Alec Guinness, while given perhaps the most simplified characters of the whole film, plays them with a humanity, allowing them to become real beyond their comedic entrappings.