It's required that you mention "the Lubitsch Touch" whenever you talk about the director of Ninotchka, To Be Or Not To Be, Trouble in Paradise, Design for Living and The Shop Around The Corner. What precisely you might be referring to is a very vague thing – a knowing sexual sophistication, a playful and non-judgmental acknowledgement of human foibles, or a deft hand in storytelling that whisked normally problematic situations past censors. Within certain parameters, the Lubitsch Touch can mean what you want it to mean.
What doesn't get talked about much is the sense of nostalgia that infuses many of Ernst Lubitsch's later films, especially those set in Europe, the place the Berlin-born Lubitsch left for good in 1922, to become one of the most prominent names in Hollywood's community of creative émigrés. It shouldn't be surprising that it makes itself felt in Cluny Brown, the last film Lubitsch completed before he died, set in London just before the start of the war that had just ended – the war that effectively destroyed what little remained of the Europe Lubitsch had left.
The film begins blithely with a title card informing us that not much was going on one particular Sunday in London in June of 1938 except for Mr. Hilary Ames' afternoon cocktail party. What everyone actually would have remembered about the summer of 1938 was an ever-escalating anxiety over inevitable war.
While air raid defense was being debated in the House of Commons, an ailing Sigmund Freud fled persecution in Austria, arriving in London where he was immediately granted citizenship. In Munich the main synagogue was burned by the Nazis, and a law was passed allowing the state seizure of "degenerate" art. The Japanese were advancing steadily through China and eighteen people, mostly Germans, were indicted in New York for trying to steal US military secrets. Three months later Neville Chamberlain would sign the Munich Agreement.
In the meantime Mr. Hilary Ames (Reginald Gardner, best known for his role as the Noël Coward satire in The Man Who Came To Dinner) is trying to find a plumber to unclog his pantry sink. He mistakes the first man who knocks on his door – Charles Boyer playing Adam Belinski, a Czech refugee and writer – for a tradesman, but quickly learns his error when Boyer wistfully contemplates the sink brimming with water and vegetable scraps and muses that it's an "analogue for human frustration."
Another knock reveals a pretty young woman – Cluny Brown (Jennifer Jones), the niece of a plumber who impulsively decided to take her uncle's call. She's a true oddball, an orphan enthralled with unclogging drains, and Belinski is immediately intrigued by her. He convinces Ames to let her have a go at the sink, and she prepares herself by taking off her hat, rolling up her sleeves and rolling down her stockings, to Ames' shock and Belinski's appreciation.
"You see she's not dressed for plumbing," Belinski observes to Ames. "But what woman is?"
Cluny applies herself to the sink with her spanner and mallet, and the drain gives way with a huge and satisfying gurgle. Celebrating afterwards with her first martini – eagerly poured by Boyer's Belinski – she luxuriates in the accomplishment with a feline, post-coital joy. Cluny describes it as a "Persian cat feeling," burrowing into Ames' settee as she does, to her host's discomfort and Belinski's amazement. He is, we know, utterly smitten, and the rest of the film will set about the business of bringing these two misfits together.
Boyer's Belinski is an icon of antifascist resistance – a hero to the earnest British youth we meet at Ames' cocktail party, the most idealistic of all being Andrew Carmel (a young Peter Lawford), the privileged son of landed gentry, unsure whether his next move is joining the RAF or writing another letter to the Times. Though distracted by his apparently fruitless pursuit of the Hon. Betty Cream (Helen Walker), Andrew invites Belinski to stay at his parents' country estate.
But Boyer's Belinski is no hero – at least not in his own eyes – and Lubitsch wastes no effort in portraying him as a Victor Laszlo. Young Andrew constantly worries for Belinski's safety, imagining Nazis around every corner, but Adam assures him that he's quite safe in England, where the biggest danger is a lack of money and lodgings.
Belinski is a man imbued with the confidence that he's probably the smartest person in any room, and he manages to talk his British hosts out of money, often while insulting them or, with young Andrew Carmel, preparing to engage in fisticuffs over the honour of the Hon. Miss Cream. In Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter in Paradise, his biography of the director, Scott Eyman describes Boyer's Belinski as "a benign, graceful creature of the air, a philosopher, a prince, able to coast through any situation." But he's "no do-gooder; his achievements - which we have to take on faith – seem incidental to the simple sybaritic pleasure he takes in his own company, his own accomplishments."
His English hosts, however, are more or less trapped in place – by their immovable class system, and by what Eyman bluntly describes as "innate stupidity." It's no surprise that the film was poorly received in England – the Sunday Express compared it to "kippers fried in cream, an anchovy laid across a strawberry ice" – and Hollywood's English colony was particularly scandalized, with Sir C. Aubrey Smith, who played a genial country neighbour of the Carmels, issuing a formal apology for appearing in the film.
Belinski is an outsider, but Cluny is very nearly an outcast – a peculiar and high-spirited young woman hardwired to resist easy integration into the class system. After her Uncle Arn (Billy Bevan) discovers her tipsy in Ames' apartment – like Jones, the Australian-born Bevan's accent comes and goes like the tides on the Solent – he arranges her a post in domestic service, where she'll finally "learn her place."
Unfortunately that position is parlour maid in the Carmels' country home, where after an awkward introduction to her new employers, she's taken firmly in hand by the housekeeper and butler, who would fire her immediately except for the oft-stated difficulty of getting girls to work in the country. This is where Adam encounters her again, and where Cluny forces him into an agreement to ignore their attraction and keep their relationship platonic – one of those Lubitsch contracts between men and women that, like the one in Design for Living, is built to fail.
Jones' Cluny is yet another indelible female protagonist from the Lubitsch gallery – an innocent yet sensual creature governed by uncontrollable passion and an unfortunate but hilarious propensity for double entendre. Some of her dialogue is straight from Benny Hill land: her first words to a dumbstruck Ames are "Shall we have a go at it?" Setting to work on a clog, she insists that "one good bang might turn the trick in a jiffy," and she boasts to a sour room of birthday party guests that "whoever gets me won't have to worry about his plumbing."
Wistfully recalling her unclogging of Ames' sink to Adam, Cluny longs for that sensation again: "I wish I could roll up my sleeves and roll down my stockings and unloosen the joint," she tells him.
"Bang! Bang! Bang!"
Cluny strives to fit in and find her "place", to a potentially tragic outcome. She sets her sights on Wilson, the village pharmacist, and his widowed mother (Una O'Connor) who communicates entirely by clearing her throat. Richard Haydn's Wilson is a comic masterpiece – a paragon of adenoidal, middle class rectitude who claims proudly that he's never left their valley and will die in the house where he lives.
Your heart sinks with his every utterance, either groveling or bullying, depending on the status of his interlocutor. But Cluny is intent on fitting into his airless world, even finding it in her to respond with barely concealed ecstasy to a wheezing teatime recital on the harmonium, a scene Lubitsch plays as nearly perverse.
Cluny Brown is based on a 1944 novel by Margery Sharp, whose very English books (which include the Rescuers series of children's novels) were made into several Hollywood films. One has to presume, however, that it was Lubitsch who made class the dominant social landscape of the movie, where the lower classes are concerned about their "place," the upper classes with manners, and Wilson's middle class with appropriate behavior by everyone.
Even with the Nazis massing somewhere across the Channel, Wilson is the closest thing to a villain the movie has, which isn't to say that he's a particularly threatening one. Lubitsch didn't have much time for villains, and even his Nazis in To Be Or Not To Be are hapless dopes. In his biography of the director, Scott Eyman writes that "as always, Lubitsch's answer to the problems of a homicidal world lies in personal fulfillment – not on the world's terms, but those of the individual."
Adam seems powerless to halt Cluny's headlong rush into her unhappy future. But it's plumbing that saves her; sitting through his mother's grim birthday party, Cluny is anticipating Wilson's announcement of their engagement when the pipes in the nearby privy start to groan and bang. She can't contain herself, and with the assistance of an admiring young boy, sets about unclogging the drain with her hammer. She's successful, but this display of high spirits and ignorance of "place" earns her a dressing down from the dour Wilson.
Certain that there's nothing left for him in the country, Belinski announces his return to London, leaving behind a gift for Cluny – a pair of stockings. Running to catch his train before it leaves – at some point she hitches a ride on the handlebars of a bicycle, which whizzes through the village past a scandalized Wilson – they end up together in his train carriage where Adam can no longer restrain himself. He promises that if he were a rich man, he would build her a mansion with the most complex and sophisticated plumbing. She summons the last of her will to resist him:
"You know Mr. Belinsky, men just don't marry plumbers."
Leaving the Carmels and their country house, Belinsky tells them his forwarding address will be "General Delivery" – no place. That resolves into Manhattan in the final scene, a "no place" and a new place where Adam and a chicly-dressed Cluny admire his bestselling murder mystery in the window of a Fifth Avenue bookstore. The misfits find their place in America, beyond the reach of the Wilsons' policing behaviour.
The Lubitsch Touch in Cluny Brown studiously avoids preaching, except for one brief exchange between Adam and Carmel before he leaves, where they approve of Andrew finally deciding on the RAF over another letter to the Times, and Adam dismisses his idea that the war is anything but inevitable. You get the feeling that Belinsky has no intention of sticking around to watch the old world get pummeled out of existence. It's a funny sort of nostalgia, but Lubitsch never made things easy for his audience. Funny and charming, yes – but never easy.
Charles Boyer's career would have many ups and downs in the decades following Cluny Brown. He would return to France in 1953 to star in Max Ophüls' The Earrings of Madame de..., and become a pioneering producer of television in the '50s. Boyer was doing cameos by the '60s, and his last part was alongside Liza Minnelli and Ingrid Bergman in the curious A Matter of Time (1976), directed by Minnelli's father Vincente. He committed suicide with an overdose of sleeping pills two years later in a friend's house in Scottsdale, Arizona.
After five years of Hollywood's best-known affair, Jennifer Jones finally married producer David O. Selznick in 1949. The next decade would be full of prestige roles (Madame Bovary, Carrie, Terminal Station, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, A Farewell to Arms) and some oddities (Gone to Earth, Ruby Gentry, Beat the Devil), and her last onscreen appearance was in The Towering Inferno. She outlived Selznick by over four decades, dying in 2009 at the age of 90.
Ernst Lubitsch died of a heart attack on November 30, 1947, after an afternoon tryst with one of his girlfriends. His last picture, That Lady in Ermine, would be finished to no improving effect by Otto Preminger. Famously, William Wyler turned to Billy Wilder after leaving his funeral and remarked "No more Lubitsch." Wilder replied "Worse than that. No more Lubitsch pictures." Variety's headline the next day read "LUBITSCH DROPS DEAD." Appallingly tasteless, but you can't help the feeling that Lubitsch would have laughed.
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