Notes on “Cluny Brown”

Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:

The 1946 “Cluny Brown” is probably the most offhand thing director Ernst Lubitsch did during the sound era. It’s so offhand that it’s almost Buñuelian. Certainly, it’s the most surreal of Lubitsch’s late works. Jennifer Jones plays Cluny, a working-class girl who becomes unreasonably excited whenever she’s confronted with problems related to plumbing. This peculiar predilection disqualifies her from both the high and low portions of polite society. Is her penchant a metaphor for sexual appetite? Possibly, but I think that’s too easy. Much of Lubitsch’s appeal is based in the elusion of crassness. The famous “touch” is a skillful dodge, as well as a sideways acknowledgement, of life’s ineradicable earthiness. For Lubitsch, an appreciation of elegance depends upon an acceptance of the indignity which that elegance exists to surmount. And who accepts indignity more readily than a girl who loves plumbing? Ultimately, Cluny finds her home in America, that land of lax manners and codified impropriety, where not even a girl who plumbs seems incongruous. (It’s not for nothing that, even after he arrived in America, Lubitsch persisted in setting his comedies in Europe. “Trouble in Paradise” wouldn’t work in Chicago.) Much of the material involving Peter Lawford’s callow aristocrat is decidedly second rate; fortunately, it doesn’t diminish the good stuff. The bits set in the pharmacy owned by one of Cluny’s suitors are reminiscent of Preston Sturges in that they’re painfully sympathetic (and somehow melancholy) in their capacity to describe bourgeoise types. Jones gives one of the great (and sadly overlooked) comic performances of the period, combining self-awareness and guilelessness in ways that tweak our understanding of both the actress and the character. Is Jones’ Cluny the one true innocent in Lubitsch’s great comedies? She’s the only one I can think of. 

About Fabrizio del Wrongo

Recovering liberal arts major. Unrepentant movie nut. Aspiring boozehound.
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