Cluny Brown Review

The famous story goes that at Ernst Lubitsch's funeral, following a final, and fatal, heart attack in flagrante delicto that left him dead at just 55 years old, the director Billy Wilder told fellow filmmaker William Wyler: "No more Lubitsch." To which Wyler responded: "Worse. No more Lubitsch pictures." At least he went out on a creative high note. Lubitsch's final completed film turned out to be Cluny Brown, the comedic story of a plumber's niece (Jennifer Jones) who goes to work as a maid at an upper class family's country estate only to cross paths for a second time with Czech professor Adam Belinski (Charles Boyer). He's believed to be taking refuge from Nazi threats, this being England in 1938, but is really an intellectual freeloader benefiting from a misunderstanding with the family's son (Peter Lawford). It'll all work out in the end.

The film opens with a London man readying a party only to have his sink clogged (on a Sunday!). Belinski shows up not realising his friend, the usual resident of this apartment, has sublet and is out of town. The tenant believes Belinski to be the plumber. This is the first of several instances of identity confusion in the film. Another knock at the door reveals Miss Cluny Brown, who is ready and willing to try her hand at the clog, but not taken seriously as a plumber. She enters, bangs around on the pipes (her preferred method of clearing them out), and the water suddenly begins draining again. Why not stay for a drink? Cut to Cluny enjoying her second cocktail (ever) and writhing around on the couch in a Persian cat imitation. Jones was never more sensual or funnier than she is in this scene. From there, Cluny and Mr. Belinski meet up again in the unlikely location of the Carmel estate where she's sent off by her uncle to work. He's taken monetary refuge after being discovered by Lawford's Andrew Carmel and his chum, who recognise Belinski and believe a man of his ideals must be in danger from the Nazis.

Lubitsch absolutely reveled in gently poking and prodding the upper crust. He did this repeatedly in his films, portraying the rich as lazy, inarticulate fools out of touch with reality. In Cluny Brown, he's especially savage. Andrew is so incensed at Hitler and the Nazis that he wrote a letter to the Times. He sees Belinski’s requests for money as opportunities to help show his respect for a brave and honourable man, as opposed to being taken advantage of by a layabout. His father is oblivious to world events, so much so that he’s ready to praise the Nazis when he thinks that’s the popular opinion. (Later on, he expresses bewilderment at Hitler's status as a sportsman, citing the dictator's book My Camp.) Lubitsch seems to especially disdain the brand of passive activism on display from the Carmels. They come across as the English version of Eugene Pallette's character in Heaven Can Wait. Less crude, but equally dense. The director's feathery touch prevents any preaching or moralising, nudging the viewer to see it his way without totally destroying the subtlety. He shows his cards in terms of making known a frustration with the apathetic rich, but never uses it as a focal point for the story. Lubitsch movies are romantic comedies, first and foremost, functioning simultaneously as stinging satires for those willing to jump in headfirst.

Where Cluny Brown excels, and something I didn't appreciate the first time I watched the film, is in having it both ways. Aside from being full of humourous swipes, it's also terribly clever at times, portraying not just the upper class as cretins but also the middle class and the lower class as being none too bright. The service staff at the Carmel estate are nearly inhuman in their complacency, with the butler memorably expressing his disgusted disbelief that Belinski addressed him as an equal at the table instead of ignoring him outright per tradition. They even have their own class substructure and dismiss Cluny to the very bottom. The middle class chemist Wilson, who courts Cluny in a nasally perverse display of backwards machismo, is just as entrenched in his mediocre existence as the Carmels are in their wealth. He places himself far above his customers in importance and demonstrates the same rigid views of class as the Carmels and their servants. It begs the question why Cluny would even bother with Wilson. He's such a colossal windbag that the viewer wonders what the appeal would be.

The most probable explanation is that Lubitsch is trying to extend the film's overarching theme of knowing one's place, told to Cluny by her gruff uncle and repeated more than once. When relayed to Belinski, he responds with the maxim that feeding nuts to squirrels in the park is fine, but others might prefer to give squirrels to the nuts. Different legumes for different grooms, I guess. With Wilson, Cluny perceives that she's upgraded her class position and is just happy to land someone with his own business and residence (despite the hilariously uncontrollable throat-clearing of Mrs. Wilson, played by Una O'Connor). He's a total, inexcusable bore. Cluny's fireball dynamism is hardly a good match. It becomes a little too obvious that Bilenski concurs in this truism. He tells Cluny they can't be involved romantically despite desiring the contrary. Veteran watchers of classic romantic comedies will be able to guess how it all turns out, though the ending is done exceptionally well here and with an inventive flair.

Despite the air of inevitability, Lubitsch and his screenwriters may have painted themselves into this corner of resolution on purpose. By the end, it's obvious that Cluny and Bilenski are the only two in the film with a lick of sense and, thus, they must be together. My central reservation in such an ending is the obvious ickiness in bringing together the very young female character with the much older man of the continent professor. Indeed, it's really the only way to please the audience since every single other character is an unabashed moron (and English!), but it sticks out a little uncomfortably all the same. What somehow allays the creepiness factor is the combined contribution of Jones and Boyer. She's ostensibly the star (on loan from her captor boss and future husband David O. Selznick), but Boyer is given just as much, if not more, screen time, since a large portion of the film separates the actions of each with little or no convergence between the characters. This lack of favoured focus on either actor may initially seem a bit disjointed, but allowing both to breathe on their own better establishes the individual personality of each.

In that sense, it's an excellent example of balancing between two different, yet complementary lead roles. Because the film's title is Cluny Brown, the audience expects Jones to be the main character, but it's really a shared film between Boyer and her. I was initially unimpressed with both actors, disappointed in a perceived lack of distinguishing attributes, but a second viewing revealed the significant charms found in each performance. Boyer's Belinski would seem to be a part tailor-made for Cary Grant - the sophisticated, borderline cad who's also a voice of sanity amid shallow madness. Yet, it's really a perfect Boyer role. The French actor, retaining his accent despite playing a Czech here, does sophistication well and also adds a light, philosophical touch perfect for the Lubitsch style. Jones, aside from purring through slightly risque sexuality unusual for 1946, seems to entirely understand the social limitations of her character. The actress is a little too worldly to be playing this working class woman, but the inherent kookiness she lends to Cluny more than makes up for any shortcomings. She manages to convey bubbly ignorance alongside a cautious desire for rising above her lower class fate.

The more you see of Cluny Brown, the more you come to appreciate Jennifer Jones. As an actress, she was nearly handcuffed to Selznick's side and shuttled off to a certain kind of exoticism in many celebrated roles. Lubitsch's film shows how much of a mistake it was to pigeonhole Jones into absurdly high-minded fare. She plays winsome to perfection in this picture. Sexy, funny, lispy - it turns out Jennifer Jones had a side rarely seen on film. She was on the upturn of her career in 1946 and Boyer was sloping in the other direction of his, but Cluny Brown is classic, unparalleled Lubitsch. Despite its minor flaws, the film is a final near-masterpiece for the director, and one that's heretofore been hard to find on home video. Light, sophisticated humour with characteristically assured handling of material no one else could have pulled off this well abounds. Needling the frivolous nature of all classes, Lubitsch finished up his film career by producing a work of gossamer charm. In many ways, this is his version of Renoir's The Rules of the Game. Sixty-plus years later, it's time to add another notch to the director's list of great movies.

The Disc

Regarding the image quality, Cluny Brown looks fairly good, but I do have two significant concerns. The disc is single-layered and even with a 96-minute film devoid of any extras aside from the trailer, a higher bitrate could have surely improved the image. A more difficult to justify problem is that the transfer suffers from noticeable, if minor combing on two separate occasions. Until somewhere in the disc's sixth chapter, the transfer appears to be progressive, but then switches (approx. 36:15) to apparently being interlaced. Then, in chapter 8, the combing ends only to start up again in parts of chapters 12 and 13 before stopping the rest of the way through. Otherwise, this is a reasonably strong effort. Grain is minimal and unobtrusive, and the picture looks quite clean, mostly damage-free. Detail is maybe on the soft side, with acceptable contrast. This seems to be a good quality print used by the BFI, but it's a little disappointing that the transfer is not fully progressive and that the disc is not dual-layered.

No complaints on the audio track at all. It's clear, free from hissing or pops, and volume is consistent. Only a two-channel English Dolby Digital mono track is included. Obviously, the film is almost entirely dialogue so there's not a lot of reaching necessary in the sound, but it comes through nicely. Subtitles are optional in English for the hearing impaired and white in colour.

The only extra on the disc is a theatrical trailer (2:47). A ten-page booklet is also included and contains the original June 1946 New York Times review by A.H. Weiler and a Lubitsch essay written by Thomas Elsaesser, reprinted from The Oxford History of World Cinema.

Final Thoughts

I'm thrilled to see Ernst Lubitsch's final completed film released by the BFI and equally glad to rediscover how funny and charming a movie it is. With no R1 edition at the moment and the French R2 disc hard to find, Cluny Brown is a movie ripe for a release. I don't think this DVD is the definitive effort, with essentially no extras and a not entirely ideal transfer, but it's priced accordingly and should tide over Lubitsch fans everywhere.

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