Saturday, March 26, 2011

Movie Review: Cluny Brown

Cluny Brown (1946)
directed by Ernst Lubitsch, starring Charles Boyer, Jennifer Jones

Cluny Brown (Jennifer Jones) is a girl that doesn't know her place. So says her Uncle Arn (Billy Bevan), who packs his niece off to service as a maid at the country estate of the Carmel family. Cluny's greatest happiness is plumbing, but that just won't do for a girl in 1938, especially one who takes to hammering pipes with such unseemly enthusiasm. At the Carmel estate, Cluny does her best to be helpful, but what kind of maid advises the master on which cut of meat he should take? It seems her best hope for happiness is Mr. Wilson the chemist (Richard Haydn) and a life of married respectability. But Mr. Wilson would never approve of a wife"plumbs." If Cluny can only last long enough without disgracing herself. And with the friendship of writer and refugee Adam Belinski (Charles Boyer), maybe she will manage it.

Belinski meanwhile, has his own problems. After a chance encounter with Cluny at the home of Hilary Ames (Reginald Gardner), he falls into the hands of the well-meaning and well-off Andrew Carmel (Peter Lawford), who desperately needs a distraction from his hopeless romance with the Honorable Betty Cream (Helen Walker). Andrew has read Belinski's work and is convinced that he must be bustled off to the Carmel estate before Hitler can get him. Despite Belinski's attempts to convince Andrew that political writing isn't exactly the same as a game of Spy vs. Spy, he is soon installed in the lap of luxury with Adam's kindly but conventional parents (Reginald Owen and Margaret Bannerman), who seem to remember hearing about this Hitler before, yes wasn't he that outdoorsy chap who wrote "Mein Camp?" Belinski doesn't object to indulging and possibly educating the Carmels, but it is Cluny who captures his interest. If only she weren't so set on marrying that idiot Wilson.

Cluny Brown is a marvel of a movie for just how often it threatens to sink into a quivering custard of cuteness and just how smoothly it eludes that fate. I was surprised by how much I was laughing at this story, which is essentially just another satire on British class issues. Yet it gets a big boost from the direction of Ernst Lubitsch and a script that is equal opportunity, taking shots at both the rich and clueless ("So many of these foreigners have foreign names") and the close-minded poor ("If I was a sheep, I'd be happy to serve the Empire"). Into this buttoned-up world, the titular character's need to unstop sinks and speak her mind marks her, not as a revolutionary, but as an original and that's just as bad. Cluny's "banging" isn't just funny innuendo but a potent metaphor for her eagerness and energy that gets no other outlet in a world more concerned with being correct than being happy.

Jennifer Jones' work here is a star turn to put beside her work in
Portrait of Jennie, where she aged convincingly from precocious girl to sophisticated woman. Here, she plays it in the middle as a young woman just out of girlhood, brimming with imagination but with no experience of the world, like a latter-day Anne of Green Gables. Jones manages the difficult task of playing Cluny as sometimes ridiculously innocent, a woman who can look at Richard Haydn's fussy chemist and gush over him ("It's so exciting to meet a man who's surrounded by hundreds of bottles and every one of them life or death"), yet not at all stupid. Against her more ostensibly worldly-wise superiors, Cluny is the only one truly open to new experience, the only one with the promise of true sophistication.

Hollywood generally takes two different routes when portraying a May-December romance. One, act as if the age difference doesn't exist. Or two, have the younger woman be the ardent pursuer as the man tries to resist her, as in a fair chunk of Humphrey Bogart's ouevre and nearly half of Audrey Hepburn's. Cluny Brown is unusual in that Charles Boyer's character is clearly portrayed as being the more experienced mentor to a naive young woman and just as clearly the one who falls first. It's hard to overstate how perfectly pitched Boyer's performance is here. He must constantly balance between being Cluny's fount of advice and her unspoken, frustrated suitor, between being the charming rascal who lives off wealthy patrons and the man of conviction that makes a surprisingly earnest plea for British intervention late in the movie. While it's Jennifer Jones' sparkle and energy that give Cluny Brown its heart, Boyer is the one who keeps the romance from toppling.

Aside from Boyer and Jones, this movie's a veritable buffet table of character actors: the aforementioned Reginalds Gardner and Owen, Richard Haydn, Ernest Cossart, Sara Algood, and Una O'Connor. O'Connor gets the best supporting role as Mr. Wilson's mother, a woman whose only form of communication is by clearing her throat at intervals. There is a whole world of disapproval in those coughs. In Lubitsch movies, the better you can talk, the more likable you are; in Cluny Brown, the silver-tongued Belinski and bubbling-over Cluny are the heroes. People who can keep their mouths shut, like Cossart and Algood's prim servants, do so because they have nothing to tell.

Yet, for all its swipes at the ostrich-like nature of the English country folk, the movie holds out the hope for improvement. These people are good people after all; they could just stand to be a little more clever about it. The Carmels gradually begin to listen to Belinski's ideas and slowly, very slowly, take baby steps into considering the world outside. The callow young Andrew Carmel tells Belinski, "I intend to write another letter to the Times...No, I'll join the R.A.F." "Better," answers Belinski. "Join the R.A.F and rise above the Times." There's an odd kind of post-war wistfulness to Cluny Brown, looking back on pre-war England with both criticism and nostalgia.

Andrew's subplot gives Cluny Brown a drop of real seriousness but his other subplot, the romantic entanglement with Betty Cream, is one of the film's weak spots. Betty Cream goes from disdaining Andrew to being his intended without much explanation, other than a desire to get off the shelf. Still, I could forgive this weakness because Betty Cream is played by Helen Walker.

Hollywood is littered with the corpses of possibly-brilliant careers, but I have to take a pause here to mourn the loss of Helen Walker. She was a beautifully poised presence on screen, intelligent and faintly amused by the plot unfolding around her. I was previously struck by her in Nightmare Alley, playing a heartless psychologist and turning in one of the great underrated femme fatale performances. Here, she's just mildly bitchy in the Gail Patrick tradition, a woman of supreme self-involvement but no real cruelty. I love her disinterested screams when Charles Boyer barges into her room. Yet Walker's character, in her total and utter shallowness, is smarter than other such fictional socialites, smart enough to know her own limitations. Like her name, Betty Cream lives on the surface and she likes it that way.

While it doesn't have the same recognition as Trouble in Paradise or The Shop Around the Corner, Cluny Brown has enough pure enjoyability to holds its own with the rest of the Lubitsch library. It's a light film sure, but what's wrong with that? And there's a hint of stiletto sharpness under all that fluff. Watch the scene where the Carmels, having mistaken Cluny for a guest instead of a housemaid, ply her with tea and pastry. The moment where they realize their mistake and slowly, politely, begin to move away from her, lowering their voices and glancing away, is truly painful.

Favorite Quote: 

"You see she's not dressed for plumbing. But what woman is?"

Favorite Scene: 

I knew this movie had me from Cluny's first entrance. Right from her first line, "Well, shall we have a go at it?" and Jennifer Jones' feline smile stretching from ear to ear.The combined innocence and sensuality of Jones pulling off her stockings so she can get at those pipes is amazing. In that moment, the movie can barely contain her. And the reactions of Reginald Gardner and Charles Boyer are just perfect: Gardner completely off-guard and Boyer amused, interested, and already starting to fall for her. I feel compelled to echo's Cluny's feelings upon seeing a stopped-up sink: "I never thought it'd be as good as this."

Final Six Words: 

Gives you "that Persian cat feeling"

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