In the winter of 1981, when I was young, I fell madly in love with a handsome poet. About two weeks into our affaire de cœur, we went to the Thalia on the Upper West Side of Manhattan to see Ernst Lubitsch’s last finished film, Cluny Brown (1946), starring Jennifer Jones and Charles Boyer. The movie enthralled me. It struck me as a brilliant, perfect comedy. A year later, on our honeymoon in Paris (the poet became my husband), we saw the film again and loved it again. Years went by, and I longed to revisit the enchantment I had felt in the presence of what I firmly believed was a cinematic wonder, but Cluny was nowhere to be found, not in the remaining theaters that showed old movies after the Thalia closed in 1987, and not in the video stores that had popped up everywhere in my Brooklyn neighborhood. When I declared Cluny Brown my favorite comic film, few people had even heard of it. And then one afternoon in the midnineties, my husband and our daughter (who had come into our lives in the natural course of things) walked through the door. “Mom,” she cried. “We found it. We have Cluny Brown!”
It was just as good the third time. Despite regular pretensions to the contrary, a work of art has no objective measure. A film’s meanings come alive in its viewers. Cultural context and conventional expectations play significant roles in its reception, and because time may alter both, those meanings change. Reading through the critical material on Lubitsch’s films, I became aware that Cluny Brown is not among the master’s most admired American movies. Far more attention has been given to Ninotchka (1939), The Shop Around the Corner (1940), To Be or Not to Be (1942),and Heaven Can Wait (1943). Although Peter Bogdanovich has long proclaimed Cluny Brown a “masterwork,” it is a film that has often been underestimated.
“The Lubitsch touch” has been defined in many ways, but the phrase hovers over the filmmaker like a halo. It appears to be a quality of visual and verbal grace that cannot be reduced to any particular aspect of production. As far as I can tell, no writer has mentioned that, whatever it means, it summons the tactile sense, what is never present for any moviegoer except by imagination. Lubitsch loved to evoke that missing sensual element by suggestion—especially the play and pleasure of human sexuality. In Cluny Brown, the sex role is taken by plumbing. The orphaned Cluny, a plumber’s niece, is enamored of sinks, drains, pipes (and, by inference only, toilets) when they are clogged beyond use. Her tool of preference for releasing the unwanted pressure is the hammer. “One good bang might turn the trick in a jiffy!” she tells the two startled men who open the door to a lady plumber in the film’s opening scene.
The screenwriters Samuel Hoffenstein and Elizabeth Reinhardt deftly adapted the story from Margery Sharp’s 1944 novel of the same name—a tightly written, sly comedy that skewers the British class system. The novel’s heroine is a plumber’s niece, but the sexual plumbing metaphor is not in Sharp’s book. Although the erotic significance of plumbing is hardly subtle in the film, its connection to the insistent theme of place—knowing one’s place, being out of place, seeking a place in an unwelcoming world, and being so smugly and securely stuck in place that only a violent bang will dislodge you—has not been fully recognized.
“Cluny has an unmistakable need to release her pent-up yearning for adventure, including a (not fully conscious) desire for swooning, orgasmic bodily fulfillment.”
“The film has a theme, which sounds as loudly as honking, belching pipes: human freedom.”
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