Cluny Brown (1946)

“Nobody can tell you where your place is… Wherever you’re happy, that’s your place.”

Synopsis:
An itinerant Czech philosopher (Charles Boyer) is invited to stay at a country manor owned by the parents (Reginald Owen and Margaret Bannerman) of one of his admirers (Peter Lawford); meanwhile, a quirky, plumbing-loving housemaid (Jennifer Jones) sent to work in the manor falls in love with a stuffy local pharmacist (Richard Haydn), not realizing Boyer has his eye on her as well.

Genres:

Review:
While conceding that it doesn’t quite rank among his best work, critics nonetheless seem uniformly charmed by Ernst Lubitsch’s final completed comedy (he died midway through directing 1948’s That Lady in Ermine), based on a coming-of-age novel by Margery Sharp. I’m less impressed. Beautiful Jones (whose comedic performance is eerily reminiscent at times of Marilyn Monroe) puts forth her best effort, and comes across as appropriately free-spirited, but she nonetheless seems inappropriately cast as a lower-class maid-servant (and when she talks at a certain point about how make-up doesn’t do much to help her appearance, one can’t help snorting a bit). Meanwhile, it beggars all belief that she would fall head-over-heels in love with an annoying prig like Haydn; what could she possibly be thinking? That she’s ultimately best suited for Boyer’s charismatic European refugee is made clear from the start; we thus spend the entire film waiting for them to finally realize this fact themselves. There’s subtle humor to be had, I suppose, in the running joke about Cluny’s obsession with plumbing —

“Whoever gets me won’t have to worry about his plumbing.”
“You know what plumbing does to me — I just can’t keep my hands off it.”

— but this humor ultimately feels somewhat forced and juvenile. Boyer fares well, and I’m fond of Helen Walker’s unabashedly privileged performance as the much-lusted-after “Betty Cream”, but the rest of the film simply leaves me unmoved.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Charles Boyer as Professor Belinski
  • Helen Walker as Betty Cream

Must See?
No; this one is only must-see for Lubitsch completists. Listed as a film with Historical Importance and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

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One Response to “Cluny Brown (1946)”

  1. Not a must.

    Poor ‘Cluny Brown’: it seems to want so badly to be a good film – but it just isn’t. The film, like its heroine, ‘doesn’t seem to know its place’.

    It has most of the right ingredients – except a good script. The casting is marvelous (who wouldn’t want to work with Lubitsch – who, at this point, had some of his best films directly behind him?), and the actors all seem primed for comedy. But, unfortunately, what they’re speaking is often smart without being all that funny. That’s not completely the case – which is surprising; occasionally some very well turned phrases come forth. Just not often enough. If one defended the film as ‘a gentle comedy’, that would be generous. No doubt the aim is to be subtle, very British and very droll, but it’s mostly just very spotty.

    The strangest thing here is that the ones who usually come off best are those with the least to say (and they are given some of the best lines). In fact, Una O’Connor (of the Whale ‘Frankenstein’ films) strikes a memorable one-note by doing nothing at all but constantly clearing her throat (her timing is excellent).

    Haydn – although technically not playing a gay man (tho he lives with his mother) – manages to infuse ‘queen’ into just about everything he says (i.e., “[Mother] likes to see a young lady who doesn’t put *stuff* on her face. If I may say so…so do I.”)

    The terrific Walker does a fine, thorough job with passive-aggression, almost making it downright sexy (to Lawford: “I don’t want to hurt you, darling. If we ever have a row again, do tell me we’re having one so we may have a long, long chat about it afterwards.”)

    Even some of those playing the help are given moments of successful, quiet hilarity –

    Sara Allgood: You’re so right, Mr. Syrette, so right. One is born to things or one isn’t. I remember when I was a little girl, I used to say to my dolly, “Did you ring, your ladyship? Shall I bring you tea, m’lady?”

    Ernest Cossart: Mrs. Maile…15 years ago – when I saw you for the first time – you were removing the crumbs from Lady Carmel’s bed with such earnestness…crumb by crumb. I knew instantly you had the spark.

    Jones is certainly likable but, considering she is the main character, she is oddly under-utilized. It’s true: we do spend much of the film wondering why Jones and Boyer aren’t together more, esp. when the final scene (vaguely similar to the conclusion of Billy Wilder’s ‘Love in the Afternoon’) proves what we’ve been barely teased with all along.

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