Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Squirrels to the Nuts

I recently re-watched Cluny Brown, the last completed film by Ernst Lubitsch. Don't look for it, as it's never been released on DVD or even VHS. It's based on a charming novel by Margery Sharp, who is probably best known for writing the source material of The Rescuers. And though I don't remember as much about the novel as I should, I know it's one of the few times Lubitsch ever did a movie that retains some of the dialogue and themes of the source material (his usual practice was to take a play, keep the basic plot and throw out all the original dialogue; even his adaptation of Noel Coward's Design For Living includes exactly one line of Coward's). The novel and the movie are both about a free-spirited English girl who shocks everyone -- upper and lower classes alike -- by her unwillingness to "know her place" and her love of plumbing. Lubitsch delights in playing up the idea of plumbing as a metaphor for sex, and of open "plumbing talk" as a metaphor for sexual frankness, whether it's Cluny's satisfied smile after she's unclogged a drain, or the unwillingness of most of the characters to even admit that drains and pipes exist, or Cluny's description of the joy of hitting a pipe with a wrengh: "I can't wait to roll up my sleeves and bang, bang, bang."

Apart from making Cluny somewhat ditzier than she is in the book -- the novel is essentially Cluny's story, while the movie is told more from the point of view of the lone Continental character, an Eastern European emigre, Belinski, played by Charles Boyer -- Lubitsch and his writers made the comedy broader by playing up the Anglophobic aspect of the story. Made in 1946 but set in 1938, the movie is like a sigh of relief from Hollywood after all those years of having to do stiff-upper-lip movies about our brave English allies. The movie briefly acknowledges that these are the people who will pull themselves together and fight Hitler when the time comes, but most of the time it just tees off on English culture: the class-consciousness at all levels of society (Cluny's uncle, a plumber who "votes Labour," is just as class-obsessed as the upper-class characters), the smugness, the obsession with order and routine, the lack of interest in non-English culture and the unfamiliarity with the best of English culture (Boyer's character is the only person in the movie who can quote Shakespeare). At the end of the movie, as in the book, the two people who don't have a "place" in this society -- Cluny and Belinski -- go to America together, and Lubitsch ends the film with a scene in New York, shot without sound, where we see that the two are finally at home: Belinski has given up writing long academic works and started writing bestselling mystery novels, while we see Americans being charmed, rather than shocked, by Cluny's openness and outgoing personality.

Lubitsch is often considered the epitome of the sophisticated European director bringing European values to America, but apart from the fact that his sense of humor wasn't all that sophisticated -- he started out as a slapstick comedian in German movies -- he's one of the most pro-American filmmakers, probably more pro-American than most Americans. His movies are usually set in Europe, but they often focus on characters who are a little less Old World than the unsympathetic characters; when Herbert Marshall in Trouble in Paradise is told that he seems American, his response is "Thank you." You can see why Lubitsch chose to do Cluny Brown; though only the last one minute takes place in America, it's still kind of a long-distance celebration of his adopted country as a place that accepts and even celebrates the outcasts of Europe.

The film also plays as a sly parody of some of the more annoying conventions of Hollywood wartime films. For example, the character played by Peter Lawford becomes convinced that Charles Boyer's character, being an Eastern European refugee and a well-known intellectual, must be constantly on the run from Nazis and constantly in danger of being captured and killed. Lawford's distorted image of Boyer makes Boyer out to be almost exactly like the Paul Henreid character from Casablanca or the Paul Lukas character from Watch On the Rhine, and much fun is had at the expense of this distorted view of the situation by one who mostly seems to know about it from movies.

The movie is superbly cast all around, though Jennifer Jones (as Cluny) has trouble doing an English accent, and mostly just gives up in Kevin Costner fashion, she's nonetheless excellent, making you wish that David Selznick had let her do more comedies and fewer overblown dramas like Duel in the Sun. Hopefully Fox will release it one of these days.

Incidentally, when I saw Cluny in a theatre a few years back, the biggest laugh was for Boyer's line, to Helen Walker as the Honorable Betty Cream, acknowledging that he might be subconsiously attracted to her: "When I was reaching for my aftershave lotion, is it possible that subconsciously I was reaching for something else?"

1 comment:

Darlene said...

I enjoyed reading your comments on one of my favorite films. I have plumbers banging away in my house at this very moment, and that made me nostalgic for a girl who dreams big and believes we should throw squirrels to the nuts.

They don't make plumbers like that anymore.[g]