Ernest Lubitsch is one of the finest directors of the Golden Age of Hollywood. I’ve waxed lyrical about him before in my post on To Be Or Not To Be, but every time I watch one of his movies, I am dazzled by his sensational satire and his incredible ability to construct complex but relatable films.
Cluny Brown (played by the beautiful Jennifer Jones) is a young woman who wants so much more out of life. And one of the things she wants out of life is to be a plumber, but not just any plumber, a really exceptional one. Her dreams are scuppered, however, by the fact that she is a woman. According to everyone around her, she does not know her place, making social faux pas, such as not immediately introducing herself as a maid to her new employers. She also repeatedly comes into contact with Adam Belinski (played by the always wonderful Charles Boyer), who believes that the class system and social constraints are to the detriment of society, and discomforts the aristocratic parents of his young friend, Andrew (played by pretty Peter Lawford).
When I first watched this film, I had absolutely no idea what it was about. I went in completely cold. I just really liked the Criterion cover and also the fact that Charles Boyer and Jennifer Jones were in it. But I was enchanted from the first scene, where a blocked sink introduces us to Cluny Brown, a young woman who doesn’t quite know what she wants out of life, but is sure it isn’t what everyone else wants for her. I was immediately on Cluny’s side when her uncle kept telling her that she didn’t know her place and needed to learn it. How can one be happy with being pushed into service for their entire life, with seemingly no prospects of independence or personal happiness? These themes are explored throughout the film, especially in how the upper classes and working classes are not so different in this way. While those in service lack autonomy because of the fact that they have to live to serve their “betters”, the upper classes cannot give into their own genuine feelings because it’s not “how things are done”.
Andrew loves Betty Cream (played by the lovely Helen Walker), but they play a game of exhausting cat and mouse due to social expectations and class “procedure”. Belinski, of course, oversteps these boundaries in two separate, wonderful scenes, which expose the lunacy of the rigid class system in England. He explains to Andrew’s uptight father that class distinction often stifles creativity and rationality, and then confronts Betty Cream in her bedroom, who refuses to admit that she’s being unfair to Andrew due to social decorum. Both of these scenes are incredibly well acted by all involved, but Charles Boyer’s sincerity is wonderful, and makes the other characters’ decisions even more ludicrous and frustrating.
This breaking of social decorum results in two amazing scenes between Sara Allgood and Ernest Cossart, who play the housekeeper, Mrs Maile, and the butler, Syrette. Firstly, Mrs Maile seems terribly sympathetic to Syrette when he explains that Belinski addressed him as an equal instead of a servant, as if Syrette has undergone a terrible trial. This scene made me laugh out loud because of Sara Allgood’s amazingly deadpan acting. In the second scene, Mrs Maile and Syrette express their love and admiration for each other, but by complimenting one another’s abilities as a servant. Syrette basically explains love at first sight, but expresses it by saying that he thought how dedicated Mrs Maile was in picking up her Ladyship’s breakfast off her divan “crumb by crumb”. Whilst ridiculous, these scenes expose the fact that British servants are expected to live for only the service they can provide for their employers, and how this should fill them with pride and fulfilment, instead of their private, interior life and desires.
Cluny eventually falls in love, or what she thinks is love, with a pompous pharmacist named Jonathon Wilson. Wilson is played to perfect nasal effect by Richard Haydn, perhaps best remembered now for his role as Uncle Max in The Sound of Music. Wilson’s character epitomises that small minded, middle class attitude which also strangles any possibility of creativity or individuality. His mother, played brilliantly by Una O’Connor, is so affected, but also literally suffocated by mendacity, that she only communicates in ridiculous throating clearing, sniffing and coughing. She releases a cacophony of such ludicrous sounds when Cluny eventually breaks the social rules once again, and her relationship with Jonathon comes to an abrupt halt, as no wife of his can have a mind of her own.
In the end, however, Cluny and Belinski come together and make a wonderful life for themselves, with Belinski writing a bestselling murder mystery novel, which alludes to a running joke throughout the movie about a nightingale.
Jennifer Jones’ wonderfully unaffected and witty performance is stunningly realised throughout the film, with her lovely face another clear indicator that she is most definitely not meant for a life of boring normality. Charles Boyer, as always, blasts any chance of mediocrity out of the water with his wonderful drawling voice and arched eyebrows. He and Jones have such palpable chemistry, and you root for them to be united from the very first when he admires her whilst she stretches and preens on a sofa after successfully clearing said blocked sink.
If you haven’t seen Cluny Brown, which is likely seeing as its one of Lubitsch’s lesser known films, then definitely seek it out. It’s the kind of film that makes you laugh uproariously, but like all Lubitsch films, also makes you really mull over serious, pervasive issues that are still relevant today.