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  • Charles Drazin

Kind Hearts and Coronets 75th Anniversary

This month sees the 75th anniversary of Kind Hearts and Coronets. It had its trade show on Tuesday 14 June 1949 and then opened at the Leicester Square Theatre on Thursday 23 June. It is the film that  thirty years ago first got me writing about the British cinema when I wrote an essay about its writer and director, Robert Hamer, for the London Magazine. So it has a very special place for me, which makes me want to return to it – and him – now.

Kind Hearts and Coronets stands out for an adult sophistication miraculously free of the commercial compromises that so often mar the mainstream cinema. It is as near to perfection as any film I can think of. Hamer never came close to matching its achievement, but really much more extraordinary was that he should have been able to make it in the first place.  That he did so owed much to the head of production at Ealing Studios, Michael Balcon, who was prepared to tolerate the bleak, cynical perspective of a film that was so contrary to his own instincts.

Every now and then Balcon’s respect for individual talent – even when it was, in his view, a wayward talent – and the benign, collaborative working environment that he fostered at Ealing  – famously known as ‘the studio with the team spirit’ – made possible works of subversive brilliance that ran against the grain of the public-minded, socially responsible film-making which he generally sought to encourage. Two earlier films of this kind stand out: Alberto Cavalcanti’s Went the Day Well? – an anti-war film made in the middle of a war; and  the unsurpassed portmanteau film Dead of Night, to which several of Ealing’s young directors contributed – including Hamer, making his début as a director – but which owed its overall integrity to Cavalcanti, Ealing’s unofficial chief of creativity.

It was Cavalcanti – or rather ‘Cav’ as his friends called him – who brought Hamer to Ealing in the first place. When the war began, Cav was head of production at the GPO Film Unit, which was then the flagship of the British documentary movement. He hired Hamer – who  was a passionate francophile and admirer of such French poetic realist films as Le Jour se lève and Quai des brumes  – to work as an editor on a propaganda film called French Communiqué, which detailed the efforts of the French army  to hold the doomed Maginot Line. With their shared love for the French cinema – to which Cav had been a prominent, much admired contributor during the 1920s – the two became close friends and it was only natural that Hamer should soon join Cav after Balcon invited the Brazilian in 1940 to oversee the production of Ealing’s wartime documentary films.

Pat Jackson, who was a young film-maker at the GPO Film Unit during Hamer’s brief time there, told me that Cavalcanti and Hamer had been lovers. I have found no separate evidence to verify the truth of this comment, but it seems plausible. In any case, the fact that Hamer led a deeply troubled romantic life certainly was true. In the early 1930s he was sent down from Cambridge for a homosexual affair after having been betrayed by a fellow undergraduate.

It was the composer Geoffrey Wright, with whom Hamer had written songs for the 1933 – in the circumstances ironically titled – Cambridge Footlights revue No More Women, who gave me the details of what happened: ‘Robert and I met as undergraduates at Corpus, Cambridge. We became friends and I learned the college, on finding he had fallen deeply in love with a fellow undergraduate (someone who had been at Stowe with me), sent him down for a year on the strict understanding that he under-went psychiatric treatment. At the time I suppose this was comparatively enlightened.’ (This was a time when engaging in homosexual acts was still a criminal offence.) ‘It happened before we met and I understood he was now “cured” and “normal”. Indeed, I never knew another homosexual attachment. But this so-called cure led later to his disastrous marriage and to appalling stresses relieved by drinking.’

After a bitterly unhappy marriage to the actress Joan Holt, which ended in divorce, Hamer drifted through a series of destructive relationships with other women, none lasting very long, and also became one of the film industry’s most notorious drunks. ‘He was very bright, but very, very disturbed,’ commented the producer Tony Havelock-Allan, who – as the 4th Baronet of Lucknow – could easily have stepped out of the world of Kind Hearts and Coronets himself. He told me a story about how Hamer had ‘taken a fancy’ to his wife, the film star Valerie Hobson. ‘[He] asked her out to dinner, and produced under the table an unsheathed knife that long with which he gently threatened her.’ God knows what exactly was going on here, and I wish I had questioned Tony further while he was still around to be able to elaborate, but the story fits in with other personal accounts of Hamer’s occasionally alarming behaviour.

It is Valerie Hobson who in Kind Hearts and Coronets, as the beautiful but priggish Edith D’Ascoyne, asks: ‘Was Lord Tennyson far from the mark when he wrote: “Kind hearts are more than coronets and simple faith than Norman blood”’? But the way most of the characters in the film behave suggests a world in which the opposite is true. It portrays a society in which the qualities in life that really matter receive only lip service, while the key to social advancement, which people seem to care about much more than kindness, love or faith, is undeserved privilege and birthright. Beneath its bright comic surface, Kind Hearts and Coronets is a dark, tragic film about a young man whose disappointment with the cruelty of the world causes him to become murderously cruel himself.

Hamer knew how to put his pain into his work. In Kind Hearts and Coronets his own fatal weakness for alcohol inspires the wonderfully comic portrait of the amateur photographer and secret drinker young Henry D'Ascoyne who keeps sherry in the developer bottle in his darkroom.

Some time after it was clear that Kind Hearts and Coronets was going to be a classic film, his writer friend Mark Benny pointed out to him ‘the Freudian implications of killing off poppa Guinness eight times’, but ‘Robert rejected this interpretation, and insisted that in his script he had been killing himself’. ’No one can be satisfied with one death,’ he told Benny. ‘I’d’ like to die like Charles XII, drowned in a butt of brandy, but I’d also like to die like Stefan George, poisoned by a rose-thorn. Bits of me have already died in these ways.’

Thirty years ago the very first person I talked to about Hamer was the screenwriter Diana Morgan, who had known him at both Cambridge University and Ealing. She was one of his closest friends. My impression when I later met some of her Ealing colleagues was that she had probably been in love with him. Certainly she was the most staunch guardian of his memory.  I visited her at Denville Hall, the home for retired theatre people. In her room on a high shelf, overlooking us as we spoke, was a bronze bust of Hamer. She told me she had once donated it to the British Film Institute, but they stuck it away to languish unseen in some backroom and so she kidnapped it back. Her concern was to find a fitting home for it before she died. And now, so many years later, I regard that bust as a bit of unfinished business that should be rediscovered and given a place of honour.

Hamer had a twin sister, Barbara, a fact that irresistibly brings backs to me the image of Alec Guinness as Lady Agatha D’Ascoyne (‘I shot an arrow in the air. She fell to earth in Berkeley Square.’). When Barbara died, it was Diana who arranged for Barbara’s companion, Mary Ambler, to give me one of Robert Hamer’s school prizes, a book of the writings of the Victorian art critic John Ruskin. Although I have yet to read it – and to judge from its pristine pages, probably nor had Hamer – it’s one of my most treasured possessions. I like to think it was Diana’s prize to me for wanting to write about her friend when most of the people my age were then falling over Quentin Tarantino.

No one I spoke to knew or cared about Hamer more than Diana and I had to agree with her view that probably he would have been happier to live as a gay man. ‘He was thwarted,’ were the first words she said to me about him. He was thwarted in love, she thought, just as he had been thwarted in his work as a writer and film-maker.

But if he never matched the brilliance of Kind Hearts and Coronets, it wasn’t for lack of trying. Diana gave me a copy of an unrealised screenplay that Hamer had written in the 1950s. Called For Each the Other, it was loosely based on the play L’Ame en peine by Jean-Jacques Bernard. On the title page, Hamer wrote this dedication to Diana: ‘A la marraine de “Baby” avec la reconnaissance profonde du scénariste’ (to the godmother of ‘Baby’ with the deep gratitude of the scriptwriter).

The screenplay offers a glimpse of the unsettled existence he was leading in the 1950s. It tells the story of two people who are made for each other but after several near encounters finally meet only in death. Hamer provides a self-portrait of himself in the character of the sophisticated Anthony, a connoisseur of poetry, painting and music, who drifts listlessly from bar to bar, from woman to woman, always a whisky bottle in his pocket. It was beautifully written, but far too mordant and bleak in tone for a 1950s cinema whose models of success were Genevieve or the Dam Busters. When Anthony is accused of being a cynic, he answers, ‘If it is cynical to believe that what you don’t lose on the swings you will mostly lose on the roundabouts and that the first necessary equipment for the pursuit of happiness is the awareness and acceptance of this, then I am a cynic.’ But by the end of the decade, Hamer – unable to find anyone who would finance the stories he wanted to make, struggling to find work, and having destroyed his health with drink – was losing far too much on both the swings and the roundabouts to turn his life around.

‘A tragic story indeed, of talent wasted by circumstance,’ another Ealing friend, Brenda Danischewsky, wrote to me. Her husband Monja Danischewsky had been director of publicity at the studio and was associate producer of Whisky Galore (incidentally also celebrating its 75th anniversary this month). Hamer, Brenda thought, was a victim of his own impossibly high standards.  ‘Inability to compromise one’s intellectual honesty may be a virtue in itself, but certain disaster when trying to satisfy the disparate demands of the Film Industry. Kind Hearts, as you say, was an exception, but it did really seem that poor Robert did not stand much chance the way he was going. To use a country phrase, he was “too tender”, almost spoilt, so too sensitive for comfort. Such people suffer a lot from the “Agenbite of Inwit” – an unmanageable conscience. His conventional and probably very happy boyhood would not have helped him to stand up to the disastrous marriage and the problems he faced in his work.’

As an example of the ‘Agenbite of Inwit’ in action, she recalled an occasion when Hamer’s parents came up to town to visit him:  ‘Robert asked Monja to join them at dinner “in order”, said Robert, “to show that I have respectable friends in London.” There must have been many times when he yearned for a conventional life.’

But finally the sheer exuberance and coruscating wit of Kind Hearts and Coronets make me want to end this piece – intended, after all, to celebrate an anniversary – on an upbeat note. Hamer directed Googie Withers in three films and Alec Guinness in four. In their correspondence both stars were keen to stress his sunny side. ‘He was very humorous with a pixie kind of fun,’ commented Googie Withers. ‘You can actually see it in his photograph.’ She was referring to a picture I had sent her of Hamer as a schoolboy at Rossall School. He was about to win a scholarship in mathematics at Cambridge University. It was a time before the years of disillusionment when, to quote from a song that he wrote for the Footlights, ‘tears and frowns have no place’ and ‘a little laugh makes you to forget’.

Alec Guinness – in a note distinctive for his elegant, sloping handwriting – also suggested that I could make Robert Hamer seem a little less severe. ‘When not in  his cups he could be fun,’ he commented. ‘I rather wish you could say how much actors enjoyed working with him. He was always sympathetic, encouraging and good-humoured with them. He was also capable of giggling during a shot.’ Here was the saving grace: it was this relish for laughter, after all, that resulted in the greatest black comedy ever made.

1 Comment

Shinta Fukuda
Shinta Fukuda
5 days ago

A beautiful piece of honest, personal writing, Charles. In a world so full of lies now — "it's humanitarian aid, not genocide!" — it has transformed my day. So, keep on writing like this! Thank you.

— your friend, Sandy Anderson

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