Pipe Dreams

12.24.10

Ernst Lubitsch, Cluny Brown, 1946, stills from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 100 minutes. Left: Cluny Brown and Lord Carmel (Jennifer Jones and Reginald Owen). Right: Cluny Brown (Jennifer Jones).


GOING OUT WITH A BANG BANG BANG, Ernst Lubitsch’s final completed film was this terrific, superbly performed 1946 comedy about an eponymous plumbing prodigy named Cluny Brown (Jennifer Jones) and a cadging Czech émigré (Charles Boyer) ignoring the rungs on England’s class ladder, circa 1938. When Jones’s Brown hears a clogged pipe calling, she gets that look, and must obey her uncontrollable urge to whip out the wrench and play fix-it, to bewilderment and condemnation. Velvet-baritoned and never without an urbane excuse, Boyer’s Belinsky inspires confusion but then respect from the marveling blue bloods who host him, and he grows enamored of this English girl whose name seems built to foil his liquid accent. The two curiosities are employee (maid) and guest (pet cause of the son of Lord and Lady Carmel), respectively, at the Carmel country estate—a Woosterishly oblivious Anglo sanctuary from the Continent’s brewing chaos—and from this most basic fish-out-of-water premise, Lubitsch again makes a film so enjoyable and clever that we too feel like we’re getting away with something.

Wilde is as much a touchstone as Wodehouse, given the sustained double entendre and satire going on, and part of the secret of Cluny Brown’s effortlessness is the execution of its impeccable writing by one of the era’s best comedy ensembles. Jones, though the extreme, is exemplary: The actors plunge into their characters’ worldviews and never look back. Clueless Lord Carmel (Reginald Owen), who wouldn’t survive a second in the wild, and his unflappable wife (Margaret Bannerman), who smoothly gets to the diplomatic heart of every matter, are a microcosm of one society’s workings. Likewise, the village pharmacist, Mr. Wilson (Richard Haydn), is just as insular-minded and self-entitled, and, as a perfectly integrated Englishman, an object of Cluny’s obsession. You can understand why British critics were not chuffed to watch these parodies of pride after enduring the war.

In fact, it’s hard to find a throwaway cast member. Helen Walker’s breezily cruel thoroughbred, for example, is worth watching closely for every line delivery. But for the lines themselves, Lubitsch, who would die a year later from chronic heart problems—shortly after sleeping with his mistress—could thank inveterate scribbler Sam Hoffenstein, who adapted Margery Sharp’s original novel. The author of the bestseller Poems in Praise of Practically Nothing and a spoof of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” called “The Moist Land,” the poet-journalist-screenwriter Hoffenstein sounds like a comic character himself, though maybe one out of Preston Sturges

Nicolas Rapold

Cluny Brown runs December 24–30 at Film Forum in New York. For more details, click here.