Cluny Brown (1946)2
July 28, 2014 by smumcounty
It’s a beautiful Sunday afternoon in London in 1938. Hilary Ames (Reginald Gardiner) is preparing for a dinner party in his elegant home in London. However, this morning his sink has taken the opportunity to become clogged and is now filled with fetid, dirty water. Ames has called all the plumbers in the book but they’re all out strolling in the park on this beautiful day. There’s a knock at the door, but it’s no plumber. It’s Adam Belinksi (Charles Boyer) who has come by to borrow twenty pounds and visit his friend from whom Ames is subletting the apartment. Belinski is no help with the sink, of course. “What you need is a plumber,” he tells Ames. A second knock on the door gives Ames hope, but this time it’s a beautiful, young girl, Cluny Brown (Jennifer Jones). She’s no plumber but her Uncle Arn is and she’s learned a lot from watching him work. She’d like to take a whack at Ames’ pipes. Cluny rolls down her stockings and prepares to get to work. “You see she’s not dressed for plumbing. But what woman is?” Belinksi comments to Ames.
As Cluny starts to bang on the pipes, she recounts her recent trip to have tea at the Ritz. “You’d never think I was out of place.” Belinski is impressed by this young girl and how uninhibited she is. “What made you feel out of place?” he asks. ”Oh, I didn’t think I was. It’s Uncle Arn. He’s always telling me, ‘Cluny Brown, you don’t know your place. Think of your place. Cluny Brown, you ought to learn your place.’” Belinski takes exception to Uncle Arn’s idea of place. “Where’s anybody’s place? I’ll tell you where it is. Wherever you’re happy. That’s where it is. In Hyde Park, some people like to feed nuts to the squirrels. But if it makes you happy to feed squirrels to the nuts, who am I to say nuts to the squirrels?” That in a nutshell (pun intended) is the theme of this film. “Squirrels to the nuts!”
Cluny succeeds in clearing the clog and they break out the cocktails to celebrate. Cluny is unaccustomed to drink. She gets tipsy very easily and it is in this state that Uncle Arn finds her when he arrives. Uncle Arn (Billy Bevan) is appalled that they’ve given a young girl strong drink and he’s doubly upset that Cluny has shown she doesn’t know her place. “You’re going into service, you are. You’re going to be a domestic in a decent home.” Uncle Arn throws the pound note that Ames tries to give him as payment on the floor. Belinski picks it up and laments, “When the lower classes start throwing away pound notes, the upper classes better look out,” whereupon he pockets the pound note.
Later during Ames’ dinner party, Betty Cream (Helen Walker) and Andrew Carmel (Peter Lawford) find Belinski asleep in one of the bedrooms. Andrew immediately recognizes Belinski as a Czech writer who has been hounded out of Europe by Hitler. He considers Belinski a great man who is certainly just one step ahead of the Nazis. Belinski agrees that he is in trouble, “Unless a miracle happens. I’m a man without a home.” Belinksi, of course, means that he doesn’t have the money to pay the rent and his landlady is throwing him out, but Andrew takes this to mean he is a man without a country. Later when Andrew suggests that Belinski come to his family’s country estate for an extended stay, Belinski is more than willing to agree.
Meanwhile, Cluny has been sent to an estate in the country to go into service so she can learn her place. As luck would have it, this is the same estate to which Belinski has been sent in order take refuge from Andrew’s imaginary Nazis. Belinski surprises Cluny at dinner while he is dining with Lord and Lady Carmel and Cluny is serving the mutton. When she sets eyes on Belinski and realizes who he is she shouts, “Nuts to the squirrels,” and drops the platter. The butler is convinced that they should let Cluny go but Belinski comes to her rescue. “It should be ‘squirrels to the nuts’. But I have an open mind. And if someone says to me ‘nuts to the squirrels’, I accept it. You may be inclined to say that to me yourself someday when you know me better, and I’m not so sure if you will include the squirrels.” “It’s much too deep for me, Bellinksi,” Lord Carmel replies.
Later that night Belinksi enters Cluny’s room through her window as she is composing a tearful letter to Uncle Arn. Belinski comforts Cluny by telling her that they’re both out of their element. “I’m a city man. I love cars and traffic and lights, smoke in my lungs. What have I got? A big-mouth nightingale right under my window.” This calms Cluny and she embraces Belinski in gratitude and then is frightened by her own forwardness. The logic of romantic comedies would indicate that these two fish out of water should become romantically involved but the film eschews this logic by having Belinski and Cluny make a pact. Neither is the other’s type, but if because of their close proximity they should start to have romantic feelings, they shouldn’t hesitate to kick one another.
A few days later when Cluny and Belinski run into one another on the street, Cluny seems much more cheerful. She explains that she has been invited to have tea with Mr. Wilson (Richard Haydn), the local chemist, and his mother. Belinksi seems a bit jealous; he was all set to invite Cluny for a beer but when he sees how happy she is, he’s happy for her.
Mr. Wilson is definitely not the type that Belinski would approve of, however. He’s thin and pasty and speaks in a nasally tone, certainly no one’s idea of tall, dark, and handsome and he’s none too gallant. When they meet up in his shop, Cluny is anxious that he should compliment her on her flowered hat – after all, Mr. Belinski noticed her accoutrements:
Mr. Wilson: Notice what?
Cluny: They way I look.
Mr. Wilson: Well, I remarked about it the last time I saw you. I said you looked intelligent.
Cluny: Oh, no. That’s not what I mean. Here, the garden on my head.
Mr. Wilson: Well, I don’t object to it myself but my mother might think it a little frivolous.
What a charmer! When Mr. Wilson shows Cluny his parlor, he points out a map of the area with flags pointing out important points: where he was born and his current residence, where he intends to remain for the rest of his life. “But what if the house burns down?” Cluny inquires. But Mr. Wilson has thought of that. He has the very best lightening rod money can buy installed on the top of the house. “And if I should ever be blessed with little Wilsons. I should expect Mrs. Wilson to keep matches away from them,” he tells her with a meaningful glance. Ewwww. Of course, if Cluny is lucky enough to form a match with Mr. Wilson she can also look forward to sharing the house with Mr. Wilson’s mother, who we meet next: Una O’Conner, in a hilarious performance without a single line. The old biddy is wheeled around in her wheelchair and voices her approval or disapproval (mostly disapproval) of things by forcefully clearing her throat. At the end of the evening, Mr. Wilson’s mother is dozing quietly while Mr. Wilson is entertaining Cluny with both the songs he knows on the harmonium.
Belinski encounters the couple as Mr. Wilson is walking Cluny back from the tea, and he is obviously displeased after gauging Mr. Wilson’s qualities from up close. Later Belinski calls Cluny into his room with the intention of telling her that Mr. Wilson is not the sort of man to make her happy and that they should consider breaking their non-romance pact.
Cluny: Oh, I’m so glad you like him.
Belinski stares at Cluny dumbfounded and then Cluny tells him how, when she was in Mr. Wilson’s parlor, she felt for the first time how it must be to have a place. She was comforted by Mrs. Wilson’s snoring because she’s an orphan and she’s never heard her mother snore. Belinski is reconciled to Cluny’s choice. “But you’re happy now. That’s all the matters,” he says.
Mr. Wilson works quickly. When Cluny is next invited to Mr. Wilson’s house, for a birthday party for his mother, Cluny is convinced that he will take the opportunity to ask her to marry him. When, at the party, he rises before his party guests to speak, it certainly seems as though he is moving towards that pronouncement. But then fate intrudes in the form of Mr. Wilson’s kitchen pipes which begin to bang and wheeze without end. As Mr. Wilson tries to continue and ignore the interruption, Cluny gets a sparkle in her eye. She can’t resist the siren song of the taps and she eventually gives in. She jumps up and announces, “I can fix it,” and runs into the kitchen to begin hammering away at the pipe beneath the sink. After clearing the sink and coming back into the room, Mrs. Wilson excuses herself with a series of coughs, and goes to bed whereupon all the other guests take their cue and depart. Mr. Wilson is visibly shaken by Cluny’s performance.
The next day, Belinski has decided it’s time for him to leave the Carmel estate and get back to London. He says his goodbyes to the family but when he tries to find Cluny to give her a small present he’s bought for her, he’s told she’s still in bed, ill. So he leaves the present with the housekeeper to give to Cluny and departs for the train station. When Cluny gets the gift and realizes that Belinski is leaving she runs to the train station to catch him to say goodbye. There, in front of the train carriage, Cluny tells Belinski about how she ‘disgraced’ herself last night by trying to fix the plumbing.
Belinski’s only reply is to motion to the carriage and tell Cluny, “Get in.” As the train pulls away from the station, Belinski explains that he loves Cluny and that she should go away with him.
He then explains to Cluny that he was going to write a book, “Morality vs. Expediency”, which would have surely been a failure. But now, he’s going to write a best-seller, a murder mystery.
Cluny: But, Mr. Belinski, what if there should be three of us.
Belinksi: Then I’ll write a sequel. But why limit ourselves? I’ll write a serial!
Cluny: Oh, Mr. Belinski, I don’t think I’ll have much time for plumbing.
The film then ends with a shot of a bookstore window in what appears to be New York. The window features a large display of “The Nightingale Murder!” by Adam Belinksi. Belinski and Cluny walk past and admire the window. Cluny is dressed very elegantly. As they kiss and discuss their good fortune with a cop, Cluny has a fainting spell which is Hollywood code for “she’s pregnant.” Sure enough the film ends with a shot of the same bookstore window featuring, “The Nightingale Strikes Again!”
“Cluny Brown” is a rather gentle critique of the British class system. Only, here it’s not the upper classes that are the most conscious of their position but rather the lower classes, the class to which Cluny belongs, which is the most stifling. We see this in Mr. Wilson’s reaction to Cluny’s desire to plumb (?) but we really see it most clearly in the characters of the butler and housekeeper of the Carmel estate. The scenes with the two are really hilarious. At one point, the butler (Ernest Cossart) comments to the housekeeper (Sara Allgood) on Belinski’s unusual behavior. “This foreign gentleman rose at dinner and addressed me directly. Yes, Mrs. Maile. Sir Henry and Lady Carmel’s guest spoke to me as an equal.” Horrors! This is the world that Cluny has been born into and Belinski is wise enough to realize that any young girl who doesn’t feel out of place having tea at The Ritz one day and banging away at the pipes the next could never be happy married to such as Mr. Wilson. So he decides to make the ultimate sacrifice and run away with this beautiful and charming young woman.
This was director Ernest Lubitsch’s last completed film. As such, it definitely has what is called ‘the Lubitsch touch.’ Although people would debate what that means, here I think it’s obvious in the witty repartee of the characters, especially Belinski, and the charm of the story. There’s also a bit of the sexual innuendo often cited as a characteristic of Lubitsch films, as in the scene where Belinski comes out of Cluny’s room after comforting her. The butler and housekeeper are watching from a distance as Cluny speaks of her love of plumbing. “I can’t thank you enough. Oh, I feel so much better… How lucky that we met in that flat. I wish I were back there right now. I wish I could roll up my sleeves and roll down my stockings and loosen the joint. Bang, bang, bang!” Their faces go white with horror, of course, since they have no idea she means it literally.
So the Lubitsch touch is a big draw for this movie but I think the biggest pleasure in watching this film is in the characters of Belinski and Cluny. Charles Boyer is his ever-charming self here and he is given most of the good lines as he plays his fish out of water Czech, a bit mischievous in gently deflating some of the pomposity of the Carmels. That line about the lower classes losing respect for the coin of the realm – and then promptly pocketing the pound note – is typical of his character in this film. Jennifer Jones is bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, with a touch of the minx. She has fewer good lines but you’d have to have a heart of stone not to fall in love with her, especially in the scene in which she gets tipsy on martinis and reclines on the divan explaining how the drink has made her feel. First she’s feeling ‘chirrupy’ and then she gets a Persian cat feeling. At this point, Ames pulls the blinds. Me-ow!
“Cluny Brown” is a lesser known Lubitsch film but I would rank it up there with “Shop Around the Corner” or “Ninotchka.” Definitely worth seeing.
Thanks. Really enjoyed reading your informative review. I’ll be back for more! Regards from Thom at the immortal jukebox (plugged in now).
A thoroughly entertaining read! 🙂