Cluny Brown (1946)

“Nobody can tell you where your place is.”

When Hilary Ames (Reginald Gardiner) has a problem with his sink just as he’s preparing to host a cocktail party, the last person he expects to fix the problem is a young woman. He mistakes visitor Adam Belinski (Charles Boyer) for the plumber before Cluny Brown (Jennifer Jones) arrives, wrench in hand and ready to get to work.

cluny brown 1946 film poster
(Image via IMDb)

Cluny is filling in for her uncle, a professional plumber. She has a knack for fixing things, though her uncle disapproves and often reminds her to know her place. Adam, impressed by Cluny, tells her that her place should be wherever she is happy and offers a toast in celebration of Cluny fixing the sink.

Cluny’s uncle is none too happy to find that she’s fixed the sink, or that she’s had a drink. He decides to ship her off as a live-in maid for the wealthy Carmel family. She doesn’t quite fit in with the Carmels, but in a twist of fate, Adam happens to be their houseguest.

Cluny Brown was directed by Ernst Lubitsch. The screenplay was written by Samuel Hoffenstein and Elizabeth Reinhardt from a novel by Margery Sharp.

Jennifer Jones’ character of Cluny is quirky and doesn’t fit in with the crowd in late-’30s England. I loved the film’s ability to poke fun at Cluny while still endearing the audience to her, and using her to highlight society’s closed-mindedness. She isn’t a world-changing hero of an outsider but isn’t “saved” from herself by transforming to fit the norms, either. She’s a wonderfully written character, and Jones does well in the role, making Cluny funny and easy to like.

I’m often lukewarm on Jennifer Jones’ performances, but I really liked her here — especially in that hilarious “Persian cat feeling” scene.

I’m a total sucker for Charles Boyer, who is, as usual, incredibly charming in his role. I trusted Ernst Lubitsch would make me love them as a pair, and he easily did.

Aside from Boyer and Jones, the film’s characters are caricatures — common fixtures of wealthy British society exaggerated and played for comedy. (See: Betty Cream, the scheming and squealing socialite portrayed brilliantly by Helen Walker).

cluny brown film still 1
(Image via TCM)

In addition to painting society folk as narrow-minded weasels, the film takes a few jabs at their indifference toward world affairs. The action is set in 1938, but many of the characters seem unaware of or unbothered by the conflict leading into the second World War. The script is truly fantastic!

I heard from many people that this was a must-watch before FilmStruck closed up shop, so I made sure to squeeze in a viewing. Unfortunately, it isn’t readily available on disc (Amazon lists a few low-quality and imported options) and isn’t streaming anywhere (not legally, at least), now that FilmStruck is gone.

I almost feel bad recommending it since it is so hard to get a hold of, but Cluny Brown lived up to the Twitter hype, so I urge you all to keep an eye out for it if you’ve never seen it. Perhaps it’ll pop up on TV some time, or Criterion will bless us with a release. We can hope!

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