What is the famed “Lubitsch touch” if not the quiet thrill of being in on the joke? The director’s penchant for sly elisions—the knowing pan away from imminent hanky-panky or the arch relish of his double entendres—rests upon an implicit understanding between filmmaker and viewer, a trust that, coming from such a sophisticated source, feels like a gift unto itself. He takes for granted not only a worldly knowledge of sex, romance, class, and the multitude of ways that adults so royally mix them up, but an attitude toward such foibles that is at once wry and empathetic. This cocktail of urbane compassion is a very specific blend (the eye must roll in bemusement, but also twinkle in self-recognition); or, rather, it feels specific when you watch a Lubitsch film, his observations on human experience as seemingly candid as a wicked bon mot murmured into your ear above the din of a cocktail party.
That comedy so seemingly contingent upon the felicities of individual temperament can tickle so many viewers speaks not only to the delicacy of Lubitsch’s tone and the mastery of his technique, but to the sneaky accessibility of his narratives, which frequently consider the pleasures and perils of social and sexual transgression. Decked in suave European refinement and surrounded by Lubitsch’s twin brands of dolt (clueless aristocrats and stick-up-their-butt philistines), his protagonists’ sly mistrust of societal convention marks them as isolated outsiders as much as stylish renegades. Lubitsch applauds their casting off of ridiculous communal strictures, while also recognizing the sting of rejection and the difficulty of sorting our life—and especially love—on your own terms. These pinpricks of regret and uncertainty ground the lighter-than-air farce in poignant self-awareness without deflating its comic buoyancy: an acknowledgment that being in on the joke often means choosing to separate oneself from the rest of the party—which was probably not worth attending to begin with.
Cluny Brown, Lubitsch’s last completed film before his death in 1947, offers ample evidence that the then-aging filmmaker still possessed a sharp eye for the absurdities of class snobbery. The year is 1938, and anti-Nazi Czech refugee Adam Belinski (Charles Boyer) has come to prewar London to find safe haven with a professor friend. Finding the apartment occupied by a fussbudget sub-letter (Reginald Gardiner) awaiting the arrival of a plumber to fix his stopped-up sink, the wily Belinski nevertheless makes himself at home. Enter the eponymous plumber’s niece (Jennifer Jones), a spirited orphan who arrives in her uncle’s stead and quickly unclogs the pipes. Belinski and Brown hit it off in their brief—and unexpectedly drunken—afternoon together, and are surprisingly reunited after she gets a job as a chambermaid for the wealthy Carmel family, whose earnest if callow son Andrew (Peter Lawford) takes it upon himself to shelter Belinski at the family estate.
Belinski and Brown continually cross paths in the estate, sharing the kind of easy rapport that makes their eventual pairing a sweet inevitability. If Belinski and Brown dance around romance in a familiarly protracted manner, however, they move more to the rigid waltz of class consciousness than the looser rhythms of personal neuroses that usually drive movie couples apart until the closing act. Few Hollywood films of the time (or any time, for that matter) foreground the economic barriers between their characters as much as Cluny Brown, even if Lubitsch does so largely in the name of light-fingered satire. The Carmel estate proves a ripe target for skewering old-money intransigence, with father Henry (Reginald Owen) and the family’s butler both barely able to conceal horror when Cluny makes a whispered suggestion on which piece of meat to take from the tray as she serves the family dinner. And while Henry can barely muster the interest to keep track of the impending Nazi threat, Andrew twists himself in liberal-guilt knots over the forthcoming crisis, writing irate letters to The Times and threatening to join the RAF—though only after his marriage proposal is rebuffed by the coolly elegant socialite Betty Cream (Helen Walker). (Wife Alice, played by Margaret Bannerman, has some similarly oblivious moments, but possesses more intrinsic wisdom than she lets on.)
But Lubitsch chides the Carmels while still casting an affectionate glance at their daily lives and inner workings. He saves his most barbed humor for Wilson (Richard Haydn), a simpering, nasal-voiced pharmacist whose courtship of Cluny includes tea with his sour-faced mother. For all its delicious dialogue (courtesy of Samuel Hoffenstein and Elizabeth Reinhardt’s script, adapted from the novel by Margery Sharp), the biggest laughs might come from this scowling matriarch, whose sole verbal utterances of harrumphs and throat-clearings speak volumes about the film’s vision of middle-class banality and pettiness.
Boyer’s Belinski remains a respected outcast within these overlapping milieus, a quintessential Lubitsch male who recognizes the blinkered sightlines of the aristocracy and bourgeoisie alike and gently manipulates them for his own survival. Cluny Brown largely downplays Belinski’s role as an anti-Nazi freedom fighter, though he does offer a late-film plea for British intervention that feels strikingly earnest in a movie whose eyebrow appears perennially cocked in self-amusement. (The issue of his German heritage aside, is it any wonder that Lubitsch’s disdain of uncritical groupthink would so often manifest itself in unsparing mockery of fascism?) Cluny, on the other hand, lacks Belinski’s cosmopolitan defenses, and finds herself the clearest target of supercilious class condemnation. There’s a heartbreaking moment when Cluny first enters the Carmel estate escorted by their neighbor, the courtly Colonel Duff-Graham (C. Aubrey Smith). Mistaken for an acquaintance of the colonel’s, Henry and Alice invite her for tea. Cluny energetically chats up the Carmels, commenting on their graciousness and hospitality, until Henry and Alice suddenly realize who she really is. With little more than a few judiciously edited close-ups and medium shots (Dorothy Spencer is the film’s superb editor), Lubitsch charts the conversation’s sudden deflation to its quietly heartbreaking conclusion: a crestfallen Cluny sitting alone, her cup of tea a mocking totem of mistaken social parity.
The scene wouldn’t be such a punch in the gut if it weren’t for Jones’s vivacious performance; her breathless comic energy marks Cluny as a mold-breaking original and underscores those moments when the wind gets knocked out of the character’s sails by those attempting to squeeze her into “appropriate” social roles. Jones excels in that delicate balance of guilelessness and self-awareness shared by so many screwball goddesses of 1930s and ‘40s Hollywood comedies; somehow, we simultaneously buy that she knows Wilson is a dud and that she wants to live up to his skewered expectations of middle-class propriety. When she leaps from the table mid-dinner-party at Wilson’s to fix his backed-up sink, the look of revulsion on Haydn’s face and the slow track-in on Jones as he proceeds to dress her down stings like little else in all of Lubitsch’s oeuvre.
It’s difficult to say that Boyer and Jones have great sexual chemistry. Their burgeoning romance lacks the spark of such earlier Lubitsch pairings as Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullivan in The Shop Around the Corner or Kay Francis and Herbert Marshall in Trouble in Paradise. (Certainly, no moment in Cluny Brown matches the sly melancholy of Francis and Marshall’s late-film farewell, one of the great, poignant shrugs in American comedy.) Rather, they delight because they’re twin displaced souls stuck in a conformist universe, finding in one another the possibility of surprise and cheerful defiance.
Lubitsch, similarly, offers his viewers low-key pleasures over grand gestures throughout Cluny Brown, admittedly lacking some of the winking verve more prominently displayed in his earlier films. His penchant for hinting at off-screen naughtiness by shifting the focus onto telling details in the mise-en-scène is kept to a minimum—save for a film-ending joke involving a blossoming book series and its connection to the couple’s sexual shenanigans. Working with DP Joseph Le Shelle, he moves the camera with graceful unobtrusiveness, all the better to highlight the film’s note-perfect ensemble. Indeed, this formal simplicity fits snugly with the film’s relaxed comic rhythms and gently skeptical view of social barriers and the rare people who can transcend them. For Lubitsch, happiness is the pleasure of having someone to smile with about the world’s absurdities. It’s his great gift as a director that, by the end of his films, we feel as if he’s graced us with that smile, and the sad, funny knowledge that comes with it.