CLUNY BROWN – reviewed by film historian, John Baxter

7th Jul 2022

In retrospect, 1946 was the wrong time to make Cluny Brown.  In her 1944 novel, Margery Sharp gently satirized England’s pre-war landed gentry, a society of country-house weekends and cocktail parties, made possible only by an underclass of domestics and artisans, all eager to serve, and proud of “knowing their place” in an intricate hierarchy.

Clover “Cluny” Brown is an orphan. Raised by her uncle, she lacks most social skills but is ambitious to follow him and become a plumber. His working-class accent makes it easy to “place” him socially, but Cluny, with no such signifier, is easily mistaken for a lady, with catastrophic results, as when some future upper-class employers think she’s “one of them” and invite her to tea.

By chance, she meets Adam Belinski, a Czech intellectual and fugitive from Hitler, alone and friendless in London in the last few weeks of peace. The two outsiders forge an eccentric relationship that concludes with them travelling together to – *author’s message* – a classless America, where people reward Belinsky’s intellect and welcome Cluny’s working-class background as exotic and charming.

Darryl Zanuck bought the novel as part of a deal with David Selznick aimed at widening the box-office appeal of Jennifer Jones, whom Selznick was about to marry. She had never played comedy and the role of Cluny looked suitable for a first attempt. John Cromwell was set to direct with Ernst Lubitsch as producer but when James Hilton’s script proved disappointing, Selznick moved on to his epic western Duel in the Sun, leaving Lubitsch and Samuel Hoffenstein to rewrite the story yet again, making it less a farce and more a comedy of manners with Belinsky rather than Cluny as its protagonist. Lubitsch also agreed to direct, ensuring a mittel Europeen treatment of the material.

Charles Boyer, who had proved his comedy skills in Tovarich, was an obvious choice to play Belinsky. At fifty, he had reached a difficult point in his career. For Clark Gable and Gary Cooper, grey hair and wrinkles enhanced their authenticity as men of action.  But for romantic leading men, particularly if they were foreign, the tendency was to cast them as priests, maitres d’ and the occasional head of state. Boyer would play all these in time, but for the moment he was ready to fight to keep his name above the title.

He already knew the novel. Sharp was a favorite writer of his British wife, and they had read it together when it ran as a magazine serial. Belinski was a character he had played before in Arch of Triumph and Hold Back the Dawn. He and Lubitsch spent the war helping many such people find new homes in the United States. Men and women of heightened sensibility, they pined for a return to their former life, while knowing privately that it no longer existed.

Stranded in London with only one suit and no money, Belinsky seeks out an old friend in hopes of borrowing the rent, but finds his apartment occupied by a sub-tenant (Reginald Owen, resident silly-ass Englishman) whose sink is blocked on the very afternoon he’s hosting a cocktail party. An anguished call for a plumber produces, instead, the plumber’s resourceful niece, Cluny Brown. Thereafter, their fortunes entangle as she’s sent to work as a maid in the country house where he is, by chance, a house guest. Although Lubitsch mocks a society where having a dinner jacket is of greater importance than the activities of “that Hitler chappie,” he also applauds the generosity and good nature of the gentry, and their respect for the truly important things in life, in particular gardening and dogs.

Jones showed little talent for comedy but Boyer took up the slack, helped by a strong supporting cast, mostly borrowed from MGM.  Peter Lawford plays a young engagé aristo and C.Aubrey Smith makes a token appearance, but Sara Allgood and Ernest Cossart steal the show as housekeeper and butler to Belinski’s hosts and Cluny’s employers. They deliver, straight-faced, quietly horrified autopsies on the two outsiders’ social blunders. “Her handling of the china has been sinister,” says Cossart, choosing from among Cluny’s numerous defects as a housemaid.

Plumbing is only a minor theme in the novel but Lubitsch turns it into yet another means of mocking the class system. Cluny is eager to make plumbing her life, to the embarrassment of her uncle and others of her class, including the village pharmacist (a repeat by Richard Haydn of his strangulated-voice role in Ball of Fire), who sees her as a potential wife. The afternoon tea he arranges to introduce her to his censorious family ends in disaster when a blockage in the pipes tempts Cluny to demonstrate her skills in the toilet.

The film’s release in June 1946 was a train wreck, beginning with a tepid  reception in the United States. Audiences that wept for brave little Britain in Mrs. Miniver were puzzled to see the same society viewed obliquely from the perspective of Vienna, Berlin and Paris.

Film-goers in the UK, still in an uproar over such Hollywood productions as Objective Burma!, which placed an Americanized Errol Flynn at the heart of the almost entirely British and Australian Burmese campaign, found the mocking tone particularly offensive.  One paper compared its view of class distinctions to “kippers fried in cream, an anchovy laid across a strawberry ice [or] any other simile that conveys complete and awful wrongness.” Another complained of “caricatured aristocrats and adenoidal chemists and self-conscious ‘characters’ and upper classes all seen as amiable half-wits, while the lower orders are smugly servile morons.” C. Aubrey Smith, doyen of Hollywood’s British contingent, published a formal apology for having taken part, and the film was pulled from cinemas after a week.

Cluny Brown offers a snapshot of that moment in contemporary history when, having fought a war to preserve traditional values, the winners became increasingly doubtful that those values had any place in a post-war world. Within a few years, what the prologue to The Third Man would call “the old Vienna, with its Strauss waltzes and easy charm” – the world of Lubitsch, in fact – would be engulfed by the cynicism of that film and Billy Wilder’s black market Berlin in A Foreign Affair. Belinsky and Cluny might have been welcomed by a pre-war United States, as in the novel, but one fears for them in the wised-up world of 1946.