Film Studies: Too smooth for this harsh world

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The Independent Culture

I am a month late in this melancholy celebration, but as I conjure up the look on Dennis Price's face I can only believe that lateness would pale beside the marvel of anyone remembering him at all (he died in October 1973). Even now, some of you may wonder who it is I am talking about. This was a supporting actor who died 30 years ago - of cirrhosis, on the island of Guernsey. It sounds like The Goon Show already, and I like to think that Price was some inspiration to those Peter Sellers' characters, to utterly fraudulent upper-class fellows, D'Ascoynes fit for the chopping block.

Let me explain, and let me put up my other topical hook for this piece - the publication in the BFI classic films series of Michael Newton's excellent monograph on Kind Hearts and Coronets. That is a film from 1949, directed and written by Robert Hamer, and alleged to be an Ealing comedy, though it could just as well be one of the more intriguing film noirs of that moment. This is the movie in which an upstart rogue of immense, aristocratic charm, Louis Mazzini, necessarily raised at 73 Balaclava Avenue, Clapham, rises to his merited position as Duke of Chalfont, by murdering every other D'Ascoyne in his way.

In some quaint circles, the film remains famous for Alec Guinness's virtuoso (but rather plain) playing of eight unlucky D'Ascoynes. This is just another wretched sign of Britain's depressing respect for versatility and nobility. For the film is blessed, graced, driven forward and inspired by the immaculate and nearly saintly lethal intelligence of Dennis Price as Louis Mazzini, the Clapham boy who had an unshakable sense of how a gentleman behaves.

Kind Hearts and Coronets is one of the greatest of British films, and Newton does it full credit. But I was especially touched by his asides on Dennis Price, who was just 34 when he played Louis and seemed destined at that moment one day to sit at Lord Attenborough's right hand, if not on it.

"Dennis Price" does seem a name that might have been purchased at Arding & Hobbs, so I'm happy to tell you that his real name (and how I long to hear him say it) was Denniston Franklyn John Rose-Price. He was born in Twyford, Berkshire, the son of a brigadier-general (presumably a man who was arranging the slaughter in Flanders). The boy went to Radley and Worcester College, Oxford, where he tried the stage and was good enough to get a modest West End career, helped along by Noel Coward - Price is certainly in that tradition, though so creamy as to expose the real sourness in Coward. He did his war in the Royal Artillery, and was invalided out - there is always about Price some tremor of the inner wound.

He married (unhappily) and had daughters - I hope they are alive to read this - but was, as they say, incurably romantic about men. It's tricky now to know exactly how that read in 1949, but I think Mazzini's upward thrust (along with his uncertainty whether to possess or be possessed by Joan Greenwood or Valerie Hobson) is always undercut by the man's serene gayness. Indeed, to see the film now is to realise how far Price (with curls and Edwardian costume) is the screen's first ghost of Oscar Wilde, and maybe still the best.

Price had started in films in 1944 with Michael Powell's A Canterbury Tale - Powell saw him on stage and found him "impudently well-mannered". Stardom was predicted. A Rank contract settled on him like fog. But Price was not the swashbuckler that James Mason or Stewart Granger could be. He was, maybe, less persuaded by himself, sadder. More easily cast down. The crisis came when he was cast in The Bad Lord Byron - a promising venture in outline, maybe, but awfully like a raid on Dieppe for which young Lt Price was the man who had to do the dirty work.

And maybe Kind Hearts was alarming. Shouldn't it have provoked street demonstrations in which every English Mazzini overthrew the House of Windsor? Well, no, not yet. Price became a supporting actor, always elegant, yet wasted, abused by casting and not even able to kill himself. Landladies were always rescuing him, though Newton says that after one attempt, he came round, and murmured "What glory, Price?" He was reduced to horror films, to trash, to being Robert Ross as Robert Morley played Oscar Wilde, to observing the over-acting of Vincent Price. He was dead at 58, with over a hundred films to his credit. So treat yourself, see Kind Hearts and Coronets and know that England is a coarse sieve to its own genius.