Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Death and the Duke

Fellow film buffs will no doubt have gathered from my pseudonym that I'm particularly fond of the 1949 black comedy 'Kind Hearts & Coronets'.  Alec Guinness' performance as the entire d'Ascoyne family is so good that I just can't find words to describe it.  And who can ever get over Joan Greenwood's voice?

The film also stars Dennis Price as the ultimate social climber Louis, who systematically murders all those who stand between him and the dukedom of Chalfont.  I have wondered at the theme of the film and the timing if its release.  It treats death in a lighthearted manner - even that of twin babies.  Yet it must have been first viewed by hundreds of thousands of people who were still raw from the deaths of loved ones in World War Two.  So why wasn't there mass outrage at this flippancy?

I think that the answer to this lies in the social standing of the murder victims. In 1949 the creation of the welfare state was in full swing and the aristocracy were finally being made to pay their way.  Country houses throughout the land were falling victim to crippling death duties and being given to the nation via the National Trust. (I must at this point highly recommend  Sarah Waters' book, The Little Stranger which vividly portrays this period of history).  The d'Ascoyne family were therefore expendable.  The man and woman in the Clapham Gaumont were in a frame of mind to say "good riddance to the lot of them."  Setting the film in a bygone era was also a wise move, it highlighted that these people had had their day anyway.

Even today, the film is such a cracking watch as it pokes fun at snobbery - which of course is still very much alive. And it is all done with subtle, very English, humour - as if that nice Mr Price were addressing a Duchess with his reminiscences.

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