By Tony Williams.
Cluny Brown belongs to that lost realm of Hollywood cinema that combined expert and unique direction with distinctive acting and a humor that critiqued arbitrary patterns of imposed behavior….”
Ernst Lubitsch’s last completed film, Cluny Brown (1946), represents a fitting conclusion to that director’s special version of a Hollywood comedy of manners he pioneered during his transition into a different country and cultural milieu. It was, after all, a cinematic realm he contributed to with his indefinable “Touch.” Light without being inconsequential, satirical without being too heavy-handed, Cluny Brown belongs to that lost realm of Hollywood cinema that combined expert and unique direction with distinctive acting and a humor that critiqued arbitrary patterns of imposed behavior without lacking an undeniable sympathy for characters under examination. As Billy Wilder recognized, we will not see Lubitsch’s likeness again. His cinema reveals that classical Hollywood was capable of reaching the highest pinnacles of comedy that combined individual and social critiques in the complementary realms of tragedy and comedy.
Though released in the post-war era, the film is set in 1938, the year of the Munich crisis with Charles Boyer playing Czech refugee Adam Belinski soon to encounter the arbitrary nature of British class society and those who do not know their “place,” like Jennifer Jones’s title character. If Arlo Guthrie once said (on a 1970s BBC radio program) that “Home is where you hang your hat”, then the film moves to the logical, but utopian, resolution that one’s place is where one consciously decides to make it, as opposed to rigid personal and social entrapment codes of “proper” behavior. In addition to the main characters, some make their own form of escape within certain limitations. The aristocratic Carmels lose some of their stuffiness. Their son Andrew (Peter Lawford) will cease writing letters to The Times about the European situation and join the R.A.F. in preparation for the imminent conflict, enlisting after he becomes engaged to the independent Betty Cream (Helen Walker). She will always be her own woman, despite the “daughterly docility” she displays towards Lady Carmel (Margaret Bannerman) when she has clearly made up her own mind before her future mother-in-law’s prompting. Both Adam and Cluny act as Lubitsch comedic versions of Barbara Stanwyck’s screwball heroine Sugarpuss O’Shea in Howard Hawks’s Ball of Fire (1941) who brings therapeutic disruption to the very different environments they find themselves in. Yet, Cluny does not dominate this relationship as she does with Gary Cooper’s initially a-sexual absent minded professor in Hawks’s film. Instead, she acts as a complementary element, both needing their eccentric partner to ideally fulfil their future relationship.
Yet others are beyond salvation. Pharmacist Jonathan Wilson (Richard Haydn) will remain stuck in his rigid mental attitudes that lack the insight to see how Cluny could change his life. But this is an impossible dream as the knowledgeable Adam recognizes. Yet he leaves Cluny’s spontaneity to indirectly help her to escape the trap of married life with Una O’Connor’s mother-in-law not screeching incessantly, as in The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), but coughing incessantly like those blocked up drains Cluny dismantles with her plumbing. Can it be accidental that Haydn appears in both this film and Ball of Fire? As in the best examples of classical Hollywood cinema, casting is everything, especially for those who love this realm. In Ball of Fire, Haydn is the one professor who has enjoyed temporarily married bliss. His role in this film reveals what could have happened to him, had he not.
One could see Cluny as a future “Rosie the Riveter” working in factories like those drafted females in Millions Like Us (1943). but marriage to Wilson would have been as much a mistake as Jane Eyre’s commitment to the clergyman in Charlotte Bronte’s novel. He would have never let her out of the house. If Cluny does not find her Mr. Rochester, she does commit herself to Adam and the final scene shows them happily married in the New World celebrating his further transition from academic to best-selling crime novelist. As in other Lubitsch films, Cluny Brown is no less a cinematic “garden of delights” than his more celebrated films. It complements them in significant ways.
The oft-quoted line “Squirrels to the Nuts/Nuts to the Squirrels” also evokes The Palm Beach Story (1942) with its equally eccentric “Ale and Quail Hunting Club” who contribute nothing substantial to the story. But where would these films be without these absurd asides? Audiences would be familiar with Cluny Brown’s historical content and would not need reminding of those grim times. Similarly, To Be or Not to Be (1943) initially appears to be in bad taste in view of what we now know of the period. However, isn’t this instance of “The Lubitsch Touch” a key recognition of the fact that there are other dimensions to human existence such as lightness and hopes for a better world? One also thinks of Cluny Brown’s title character complementing the initial optimistic hopes for a fairer society in America in the immediate post-war era as well as Britain’s attempt to jettison the Old Order with the landslide victory of a Labour Government. Yet those hopes proved premature in the light of the McCarthy, Reagan, Thatcher, Trump, Johnson counter-revolutions and the appearance of hideous ideologically sugar-coated later versions of “knowing your place” in Downton Abbey (2010-2015, 2019) and Victoria (2016- ). Humor plays its part in yearnings for a better world. Lubitsch may not have thought of it in such a way but his work is far from being trivial but rather important for depicting alternatives in a light-hearted, non-dogmatic manner.
Here, at the time of writing, I’ve deliberately avoided re-reading Joseph McBride’s coverage of the film in his exceptional book How Did Lubitsch Do It? (2018) that I’ve reviewed in this publication until I finished this review. Now reading it, especially his last sentence, I’m at a loss to understand why Criterion did not ask him to do an audio-commentary. (It is as inexplicable as the company not asking David Ryan to do one for the recent Criterion version of 1984.) Despite its accessibility, Siri Hustvedt’s cover essay does not approximate the excellent criticism by one of the world’s leading Lubitsch scholars. Other things are more significant as McBride’s closing lines articulate.
As in Shakespeare, the metaphors of fecundity and rebirth are celebrations of life asserting itself. It’s especially poignant to witness this ending while knowing that it is the true swan song of a great director who was approaching death when he made the film but whose body of work is one long joyous celebration of life. (459)
Other features are disappointing. Reminiscent of the recent Criterion DVD re-issue of Rebecca (1940), we have another sixteen-minute “coffee talk” conversation where Molly Haskell and Farran Smith Nehme add little to what we already know about Lubitsch’s female character. Despite its expertise, Kristin Thompson’s new fifteen-minute video essay is more of a neo-formalistic exercise of shot reversal than anything else, a foundation on which to build further criticism. Bernard Eisenschitz’s fourteen-minute 2004 interview adds nothing new, while the 1950 Screen Director’s Playhouse radio version with Boyer and Dorothy McGuire lacks any form of Lubitsch touch with vulgar humor accompanied by live studio laughter resembling an imposed laugh-track designed to make crude what was more subtly delivered on screen. Betty Cream is missing from this version. Dorothy McGuire makes a brave attempt at a Cockney accent that really does not work.
However, two elements rescue this adaptation from total insignificance. At the end of the radio version, Screen Director Guild President Joseph L. Manciewicz (perhaps smarting at Cecil B. DeMille’s McCarthyite attacks on him at a Guild meeting) appears to deliver an Award to Billy Wilder for Sunset Boulevard (1950). Both express their friendship with Lubitsch. Finally, towards the end of this version, it becomes evident that the adaptation is set in the present rather than the past, as in the film version. Before he turns to a successful career as a mystery writer, Adam’s initial book was to have been The Economic Consequences of World War Three. Had he written this, his loyalty would have come under question. 1950 was the first year of the Korean War, an event that made Lubitsch’s utopian aspirations even more difficult to realize than in the past.
Tony Williams is an independent critic and a Contributing Editor to Film International.