My trip to see a delightful touring production of a Broadway musical hit, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, had the side benefit of sending me back to the movie made from the same source material. It’s Kind Hearts and Coronets, the very dark 1949 British comedy from the fabled Ealing Studios. The plot in both play and movie (which are loosely based on a novel from 1907 called Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal by Roy Horniman) involves a young man born to the daughter of a noble British family. She was cast out by her relatives when she made what they considered an unsuitable marriage; now her son is determined to regain his lost inheritance by murdering all those who stand between him and the dukedom he feels he deserves. The joke in both film and play is that the eight victims (including a scalawag, a tipsy churchman, and a suffragette) are all played by the same actor.
On film it’s the protean Alec Guinness, whom younger generations associate with the mystical Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original Star Wars. Guinness also won an Oscar for his martinet colonel in The Bridge on the River Kwai, as well as nominations for several widely different roles. In the heyday of Ealing Studios, he revealed his talent for transforming himself by way of accent, posture, and makeup in such wild comic Ealing gems as The Lavender Hill Mob, The Man in the White Suit, and The Ladykillers.
One subtle difference between the Broadway musical and the black-&-white British film (both of which are set back in the Edwardian era, 1901-1910) lies in the tone of each. Given the subject matter, both are necessarily bleak, with heroes who are unapologetic murderers, and furthermore have no qualms about romancing married women. But the stage musical relies more on whimsy: somehow its leading man can more easily be forgiven when he accidentally finds himself on the path to murder. On film, however, the same character is plotting from the start his plan to lop off branches of his family tree. And though his victims are not wholly sterling characters – rather, they’re weak-minded individuals who never would be missed, as Gilbert and Sullivan would have it -- they certainly don’t deserve the grizzly fates that befall them. And in the film there’s lots of collateral damage that our more skittish age might find unnerving.
The amorality of the film version is somewhat surprising when you learn about the head of Ealing Studios, the eminent Michael Balcon. A documentary included with my DVD traces the entire history of the studio. Balcon, who brought together and firmly oversaw a talented stock company of directors, designers, and actors, was himself known to all as a rather prudish man, much given to promoting English virtues on screen. Still, the studio, which under his direction spanned the World War II era through the 1950s, is today revered not for its serious war dramas and tame little fables but rather for the creepy Dead of Night as well as for the tonally complex comedies that Guinness made for such directors as Alexander McKendrick (The Ladykillers) and Charles Crichton (The Lavender Hill Mob).
Crichton, who began as a film editor, was about 41 when he shot The Lavender Hill Mob, about a clever heist conducted by some unlikely mild-mannered Brits. Almost four decades later, he worked closely with John Cleese to bring to the screen A Fish Called Wanda (1988), another heist film—and one of the funniest movies ever made.