Posted : 5 months, 1 week ago on 10 November 2017 09:31
(A review of
Ernst Lubitsch and his zesty, twisty brand of comedy and wit is on display in Cluny Brown, his final completed right before his death in 1946. (That Lady in Ermine was completed by Otto Preminger by 1948.) Cluny Brown contains many of his grand hallmarks, but it’s ever-so-slightly a notch below his grandest statements like Ninotchka and To Be or Not to Be. Class manners and snobbery is taken through the proverbial set of punches here as only Lubitsch can, and he goes out with a tart, sweet romantic bang.
Set in 1938, Cluny Brown focuses in on a Czech refugee (Charles Boyer) fleeing from the rise of Nazism, winding up staying in the manner home of an idealistic, green student (Peter Lawford), and falling for a loopy tomboy who works as a chambermaid (Jennifer Jones). It’s a zippy, light 100 minutes as Boyer and Jones elegantly dance around their inevitable romance while a lot soft, yet still spiky, satire swirls around them and some howling and sharp bits of dialog get dropped throughout. I’m deeply fond of Boyer’s description of a character’s ability to toss a cookie like a brick. Or a roundabout bit of dialog between several characters that questions why cocktail parties are a thing, and the answer becoming something of a perfect circle of skewed logic.
That “Lubitsch touch” is a potent filmic language that passed away right along with him, and it’s addictive and narcotizing in the joy it places in self-amusement and social satire. One of the funniest reoccurring jokes involve Una O’Connor as the unimpressed mother of Richard Haydn’s pharmacist. She speaks no dialog and uses a series of throat-clearing and coughs as a form of mood signaling, and this hectoring gag is a continual sort of bemusement and may be the one of the thorniest barbs Lubitsch throws out. Richard Haydn’s character certainly gets plenty of contempt thrown his way, as another running gag involves Boyer’s harassment of his shop.
Yet the English bourgeoisie don’t get off the hook here, and Lubitsch frequently underscores the happy obliviousness in which they go about their lives and the run-up to the war is merely a lot of background chatter. Lawford’s character makes a lot of capitulations towards good liberal politics, but all of it boils down to taking the right posture as its own form of back patting. And his parents, especially Reginald Owen’s clueless Sir Henry Carmel, get the sharpest bits of class-based humor. Owen is frequently at a loss for how to pronounce the last name of Boyer’s character, and wishes that his son’s loud liberal politics would quiet themselves down already. It’s a grand joy to watch Boyer’s cosmopolitan refugee play these characters against each other while he sneaks out his own agenda.
Then there’s Cluny Brown herself drifting through it, and this has to emerge as one of the greatest performances of Jennifer Jones’ career. It isn’t that she’s impossible to pin-down into socially acceptable roles and norms, no matter how much many of the characters try to do so, but the clear freedom Jones is feeling in the role. In prior films she possessed a startling intensity that threatened to topple everything out of its delicate balance, but a screwball heroine is a perfect outlet for that kind of energy. Jones feels like a natural in Lubitsch’s world and work, and she delivers both her physical comedy, moments of drama, and double-entendres with consummate skill and grace.
There’s one moment that has to be a hallmark for Jones’ career up to this point, and maybe even for her career in total, and that’s her introductory scene to the Carmel estate where she will be working as a chambermaid. She’s mistaken for a visitor of equal class as the Carmels and treated to all the luxury and kindness that affords, and once they realize the truth of the matter the oxygen in the room slowly goes out. The Carmels pull away from Cluny, but Jones sits proudly still even if momentarily defeated. All she does is look sad and hold a teacup, but Jones’ body language and inner light radiate so much more of the story.
Just as good is an earlier scene where she first meets Boyer’s character in an apartment. Cluny is the niece of a plumber and has a liking for the trade, so she appears in her uncle’s place after a service call is made. Reginald Gardiner is the fussy occupant of the apartment, and he’s applaud by her gusto with a masculine task, while Boyer is immediately intrigued and beguiled by this oddball. The three of them end of getting drunk and Jones is an absolute delight in this scene. She feels free and lacking in the self-conscious artifice that had its first twinges in moments of Since You Went Away and Love Letters. Her unguarded joy here is palpable, and Lubitsch’s camera loving watches her sway, slur, and ability to conform to social graces.
The romance at the heart of Cluny Brown is not one built on immediate sexual sparks like James Stewart and Margaret Sullivan in The Shop Around the Corner, or a clash of personalities found between Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas in Ninotchka. Instead, Boyer and Jones have a sweeter spark that makes your root for them nonetheless. They’re twin displaced souls, one a literal refugee while the other has a distinct inability to pick up on social cues or mores, and they recognize a certain kindred spirit in each other. You want them to have a happy life laughing at the absurdities of life together.
This is a smaller scale film, and it can’t help but feel a bit deflated in comparison to Lubitsch’s entire oeuvre, but at least it’s also the sight of a cinematic master delivering one final solid work. It’s pleasurable and absurd, frequently it’s so damn pleasurable because it’s so absurd, and Cluny Brown is probably something of an underappreciated gem.