Ernst Lubitsch was one of the pioneers of cinema, beloved for his films brimming with elegance and wit. He was adored by his colleagues, including Billy Wilder who found himself getting his big break writing for Lubitsch. (In later years, Wilder would have a sign that hung in his office saying “How would Lubitsch do it?”) Health issues took their toll on Lubitsch and the acclaimed director died in 1947. At his funeral, Wilder mournfully remarked, “No more Lubitsch.” The great director William Wyler responded, “Worse than that. No more Lubitsch pictures.” Lubitsch’s final film, Cluny Brown, had been unavailable on any format for some time, but that’s finally come to an end as the last hurrah of a cinematic titan arrives on DVD/Blu-ray as part of the Criterion Collection. Cluny Brown features all of Lubitsch’s trademarks as it’s a thoughtful, touching movie with a sense of humor that works just as well today as it did when it debuted in 1946.
Based upon Margaret Sharp’s novel of the same name, Cluny Brown takes place in London as the tension before World War II are mounting. Czech professor Adam Belinski (Charles Boyer) enters a London apartment expecting to see a friendly colleague only to discover the apartment has been sublet by a socialite who is stressing over a clogged sink. Belinski is a charming individual capable of leading the affluent to cater to his needs with just the slightest suggestion. When a plumber arrives, the men are surprised to see young Cluny Brown (Jennifer Jones) wielding a wrench and eager to get the pipes cleared. In just a brief interaction, a unique bond forms between Belinski and young Cluny Brown. Their bond is clear – she’s a young woman trying to find her place in a world of rigid class and gender standards and he’s an equally defiant free spirit.
Cluny’s uncle wants to dissuade her interest in taking up his trade as a plumber and arranges for her to be sent to the countryside where she’ll work as a housemaid for the Carmel Family. However, young Andrew Carmel (Peter Lawford) sends Adam Belinski to his family’s estate. Andrew is a young idealist and is interested in using his vast means as a way to help Belinski whom he is certain is desperately evading Nazis. During dinner, Belinski and Brown have their surprising reunion, turning a dinner of sternly dignified class into something more raucous. No matter where she’s at, Cluny Brown struggles to fit in with an overbearing housekeeping staff. As Belinski navigates the buttoned-down world of the British upper class, Cluny Brown finds a possible way out of being a professional domestic with a marriage to a local chemist.
What Lubitsch makes crystal clear from the moment we see her, and this further comes through in the screenplay adaptation by Samuel Hoffenstein and Elizabeth Reinhardt, is that Cluny Brown is not an average girl destined to a life austere domesticity. She’s not the type of woman to be pigeonholed by societal norms. Jennifer Jones delivers a magnificent performance as the eponymous woman, one that’s bubbling with the promise of youth but also weighed down with the burden of expectations, be they familial or societal. Whenever it seems that Cluny is about to crack under the external pressures of a proper English life, Adam Belinski is there to reaffirm her self-worth and individuality. This unexpected duo prove to be kindred spirits, outsiders trapped in haute world of the English aristocracy.
The trademark “Lubitsch touch” is all over Cluny Brown, and the master director is able to balance comedy, romance, and commentary on politics and class throughout the heartwarming story of a couple of outsiders. The dialogue crackles with wit, and Lubitsch so ingeniously crafts moments of sexual innuendo for comedic moments that were pushing boundaries in its time. When it comes to class, Lubitsch is relentless is painting the hereditary aristocrats as bumbling fools, insulated by the power of wealth and easily manipulated by Belinski to suit the eccentric professor’s needs. Within the frames of Cluny Brown you can see so clearly why Lubitsch was revered in his day and why his legacy carries on as it’s a film overflowing with heart, humor, and intelligence.
The Criterion edition of Cluny Brown boasts a new 4K restoration of the black and white comedy, once again delivering pitch-perfect presentation that ensures the film has never looked better. Acclaimed film critics and historians Molly Haskell and Farran Smith Nehme discuss the female characters of Lubitsch’s films and how they greatly diverged from the conventions of their times. Film scholar Kristin Thompson provides a brand new video essay on the film. Archival materials on the Blu-ray include a 1950 radio adaptation of Cluny Brown featuring Charles Boyer and Dorothy McGuire as well as a 2004 interview with Bernard Eisenschitz on “The Lubitsch Touch.” Of course, this is all accompanied by a booklet essay from Siri Hustvedt.
While the reality is that there have been “No more Lubitsch pictures” over the past 72 years since his death, the work that Ernst Lubitsch left behind endures because it is one of a kind. With his final film, Lubitsch further cemented his legendary status with a whirlwind of romance and comedy that hasn’t lost an ounce of its potency over the intervening years. With another edition within the Criterion Collection, the legacy of Ernst Lubitsch will endure for another generation. Cluny Brown is a unique film with unique characters. Some movies are just so conventional that they’re simply feeding nuts to the squirrels. Cluny Brown is a rare film that dares feeds squirrels to the nuts.
The final film of acclaimed director Ernst Lubitsch, Cluny Brown is a heartwarming comedy that has endured over the years thanks to its director’s famed light touch, and now it finally arrives on Blu-ray as part of the Criterion Collection.