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Cluny Brown (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]
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The final film completed by Ernst Lubitsch, this zany, zippy comedy of manners, set in England on the cusp of World War II, is one of the worldly wise director’s most effervescent creations. Jennifer Jones shines in a rare comedic turn as Cluny Brown, an irrepressible heroine with a zeal for plumbing. Sent to work as a parlormaid at a stuffy country manor, she proceeds to turn the household upside down—with plenty of help from Adam Belinski (Charles Boyer), an eccentric continental exile who has fled the Nazis but is still worried about where his next meal is coming from. Sending up British class hierarchy with Lubitsch’s famously light touch, Cluny Brown is a topsy turvy farce that says nuts to the squirrels and squirrels to the nuts. BLU RAY SPECIAL EDITION FEATURES • New 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack • New conversation between film critics Molly Haskell and Farran Smith Nehme on unconventional female characters in Ernst Lubitsch’s films • New video essay by film scholar Kristin Thompson • The Lubitsch Touch, an interview with film scholar Bernard Eisenschitz from 2004 • Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of the film from 1947, featuring Olivia de Havilland and Charles Boyer • PLUS: An essay by novelist and essayist Siri Hustvedt
- MPAA rating : s_medNotRated NR (Not Rated)
- Product Dimensions : 0.7 x 7.5 x 5.4 inches; 5.92 Ounces
- Director : Ernst Lubitsch
- Media Format : Subtitled, Blu-ray
- Release date : September 17, 2019
- Actors : Charles Boyer, Jennifer Jones, Peter Lawford, Helen Walker, Reginald Gardiner
- Subtitles: : English
- Studio : The Criterion Collection
- ASIN : B07T44DF2D
- Number of discs : 1
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#25,823 in Movies & TV (See Top 100 in Movies & TV)
- #1,620 in Comedy (Movies & TV)
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A girl with a passion for plumbing (Jennifer Jones) is sent to an English country estate to work as a housemaid after embarrassing her uncle (guardian) because he feels she doesn't know "her place". Along the way, she becomes acquainted with a Czech refugee (Charles Boyer) who ends up staying at the same estate. Together they eschew the stuffy aristocratic household and even the servants, who cringe at anyone stepping outside their social boundaries.
The acting is first rate, especially Jennifer Jones who shines in a rare comedic role (sadly, she would only do one other comedy, "Beat the Devil" in 1954). Not only is her timing superb but she brings a sympathetic note to her character. The closing scene with Jones and Boyer, told completely in pantomine, is priceless. The supporting cast is equally superb with Richard Haydn, Sara Algood, and Una O'Connor as standouts.
As usual Criterion presents an impeccable black and white, 4k digitally restored print. Extras include a conversation with film critics Molly Haskell and Farran Smith Nehme, a video essay by film scholar Kristen Thompson, interview with film scholar Bernard Eisenschitz and a 1950 radio adaptation with Dorothy McGuire and Charles Boyer.
Before I go any further, in the interests of full disclosure, I should say here and now that I first suggested CLUNY BROWN to the powers-that-be at Criterion 10 or 15 years ago, and also that I formerly worked for them as a writer/producer/narrator, going all the way back to the laserdisc era. But I haven't had any formal contact with them in almost a decade, and haven't even seen any of those powers-that-be (or almost anyone else associated with the company) face-to-face in that amount of time, despite all of us being situated in the same city.
All of that said, this release -- and my observations are based on the standard DVD, not the Blu-Ray -- is a winner all the way, and in more ways than I appreciated when I first set this review down, almost a week ago.
Until this past week, with this disc in hand, I'd never really had a chance to do multiple viewings of CLUNY BROWN -- when it ran at repertory theaters (where I've seen it at least 8 times in the last 20 years), it was usually paired with something else, and usually for one day only. And if it ever ran on WOR's Million Dollar Movie here in New York (where it would have aired at least twice most days), I don't remember it from that venue.
Now, in the week since this release appeared, I've watched it 4 times, and each time it's just as funny as the first, but each time there is also a different layer of wit and irony (some of the latter very sad, when you think about it -- which this movie does ask you to do, between the laughter and the joy of watching these characters interact -- but a lot of it charmingly witty) to absorb. Indeed, I've discovered with this release that, as is true of much genuinely great art, whether presented in a gallery, on a theatrical or an operatic stage, or in a concert hall, CLUNY BROWN is a work that gives you something different to savor each time you partake of it.
There's the sexual humor, of course, which got past any of the "moral guardians" of society prepared to object to it at the time, about the title-character (Jennifer Jones), a young woman who has come of age with an unusual fascination for plumbing (courtesy of having grown up around her uncle, a plumber), and seems to interact most comfortably, and display her most deeply held enthusiasm, especially around men, when dealing with pipes and plumbing. But there's also the presence of Charles Boyer's Czech-expatriate professor/author, Adam Belinski who, having seen the insanity sweeping over the larger world first-hand, is doing his best to take it in his stride -- and why let a little thing like being driven from his homeland (assuming that Czechoslovakia was ever fully home to this glibly cosmopolitan wanderer) by the oncoming incursion of the Germans distract him from enjoying the fascinating sight of a beautiful, coltish young lady rolling up her sleeves and rolling down her stockings to whack at a frozen, unyielding pipe with a wrench? He copes with the adversities of being a penniless (for the moment) refugee in London in June of 1938 -- a London most of whose inhabitants, if they are aware of the gathering storm around Belinski's former home, are quite happy to ignore it -- using his wits to keep his balance internally and externally; and for a time he even immerses himself, with infinite patience, in the isolated, confined provincial world of rural England, all of its inhabitants just as blissfully ignorant of being on the eve of a war that everyone watching in 1946 (and beyond) knows is coming just 'round the bend. (A war that -- as the audiences for this picture knew, when it was released in 1946, and we know today -- will make all sorts of things that are simply "not done" very commonplace, probably including young ladies doing plumbing, and certainly their also taking up heavy farm labor and other tasks unfamiliar to their gender in modern England, and taking younger servants out of well-to-do homes . . . if Syrette and Mrs. Maile think they have trouble getting young women to be parlor maids in the country in 1938, wait till the Women's Land Army and other wartime initiatives come along!). And there is the genuinely sincere and engaged, if somewhat inept and stumbling, presence of two charming upper class twits, Andrew Carmel (Peter Lawford) and John Frewen (Michael Dyne), who know that there is danger abroad in the world, but are totally clueless about its true depth and breadth, or what opposing it will really mean.
And there's the Honorable Betty Cream (Helen Walker), a seemingly vacuous socialite content to keep the world -- mostly consisting of would-be suitors -- on a string, but knows slightly more of the real world than she lets on. And Sir Henry and Lady Carmel (Reginald Owen, Margaret Bannerman) and their servants, Syrette and Mrs. Maile, and the other residents of the little valley and the adjacent village in which they live (most clearly embodied by Richard Haydn's provincial, narrow-minded chemist), whose complacency is totally disrupted in different ways by the presence of Cluny and Prof. Belinski.
Sexual sensibilities and contradictions, class distinctions and political commentary run through the satire in CLUNY BROWN in multiple directions without ever treading upon or interfering with each other. (And there is the unavoidable [and sad] fact, probably not lost on audiences in 1946, though forgotten today, that in a matter of weeks after the early summer 1938 setting of CLUNY BROWN, the British [and the French] -- still wary of even discussing the idea of going to war on behalf of another nation's sovereignty, after their experiences of 1914-18 -- did, indeed, betray Czechoslovakia and set the stage for the start of the Second World War; the greater irony for viewers today is that, as we now know, but did not at that time, if the British and French had stood firm on Czechoslovakia, the German military, which did not regard itself as prepared for war with England and France in 1938, was fully ready to rise up and depose Hitler and his government).
That's all a mighty full menu and an even fuller table -- holding what would seem, from my description, like a very heavy meal, in terms of entertainment -- to be set by what is essentially a comedy.
But CLUNY BROWN pulls it off, and does so in so extraordinarily light-footed and humorous a way, that audiences might not appreciate until long after just precisely how full a menu of ideas, irony, and multi-faceted wit they've just consumed. We're talking a comedy here that is, on one level, of the same depth as, say, Chaplin's THE GREAT DICTATOR or Lubitsch's own, earlier, TO BE OR NOT TO BE, but in many respects CLUNY BROWN transcends both in the laughter it generates on each viewing, as well as the thoughtfulness and range of thinking that it provokes, and the sheer lightness and breeziness of its tone and texture.
And it -- and we, the viewers -- have great, GREAT fun in the process of taking it all in. Over and over, I might add -- trust me, this is one release that is not going to be watched once or twice (or thrice) and then get put on your shelf. This is a heavy-rotation 1940s movie, maybe not quite on the level of, say, CASABLANCA, but close.
The biggest reason for this, of course, is Ernst Lubitsch himself, who gave us a movie whose humor, despite all of its topicality and depth, and multiple layers of meaning and reference, has proved impervious to age across almost 75 years. One must also praise screenwriters Samuel Hoffenstein and Elizabeth Reinhardt (plus an uncredited James Hilton), and original book author Margery Sharp; the latter's original work, a satire of the English class system, received an added layer of fiercely piercing humor about sexuality, especially female sexuality, that was also so carefully spun that it seems to have tiptoed right past the eyes of the Breen Office (Lubitsch had a knack for doing that). And then there are the four central performances, of Jennifer Jones (based on what we see, this might've been the happiest shoot she was ever on), Charles Boyer, Peter Lawford (maybe his best work, other than his villain turn much, much later, in How I Spent My Summer Vacation), and Helen Walker.
The new digital restoration looks and sounds gorgeous, with lots of detail everywhere, visual and audio, that has sometimes eluded me even on the big screen in 35mm. The supplements consist principally of mini-documentary and discussions, by female critics, dealing with the movie's sexual component, though Molly Haskell and Farran Smith Nehme do allude to the satirical political elements as well. Kristin Thompson turns in an okay video essay covering some of the same territory, and novelist Siri Hustvedt's annotation is nicely (even sweetly) personal, about the movie and what it means to her. There's a vintage radio presentation of the story, as well, which I haven't checked out yet, but the supplements are engaging, especially Nehme and Haskell, who are lively and animated in their discussion.
As to the movie . . . the sexual component is timeless, witty (with lines that are still laugh-out-loud funny, no matter how many times you hear them, especially as delivered by Boyer in his most subtly wry continental manner), and charming; but the satirical political side of the movie has also proved all-too-up-to-date. The 1938 British setting, in a world that audiences in 1946 and beyond knew was about to go mad, in an orgy of attempted self-destruction, and the complacency and narrow-minded mentality of the British people -- and especially the rural populace, extending to all classes -- has proved much too real today, in its contemporary incarnation amid an era of Brexit and the potential end of the so-called United Kingdom.
In that regard, CLUNY BROWN is very much a movie for the ages. Looking at it anew in 2019, courtesy of The Criterion Collection, the Peter Lawford character, in particular, comes across as painfully modern, a man aware of and deeply concerned about the lunacy enveloping the world, but woefully ill-equipped (at first) to deal with it, or even to know how to do so in his own way, until the movie's denouement. In the character set-up for CLUNY BROWN, his Andrew Carmel is perfectly matched to Helen Walker's Betty Cream, who seems to be gifted with many of the same insights as Boyer's academic sophisticate (in addition to sitting a horse well, hang it all . . .).
But the central couple in the end is comprised of Boyer and Jones, the latter at last liberated from her class restrictions by the charming, eccentrically iconoclastic Adam Belinski, a free-thinker adrift in a world in which too much thought is far too attenuated, and both of them joyfully blossoming amid the madness just beyond the gates (at the ending, presumably circa 1939 or 1940) of the United States.