Cluny Brown: The Joys of Plumbing

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’s leading characters are both displaced persons, exiles in the England of 1938. Adam Belinski (Boyer) is a Czech philosopher and political refugee. Belinski is never identified as Jewish in the film, but as a wandering figure who cannot return home, he is surely akin to Lubitsch, a Jew born in Berlin in 1892, who migrated from Germany to Hollywood in the early twenties and would live just long enough to watch the world of his early life vanish in smoke. Cluny Brown (Jones) has no real home—her guardian, Uncle Arn, sends her off to service as a parlormaid in a doomed effort to help her “learn her place.” She is further exiled by the force of her personality: she has an unmistakable need to release her pent-up yearning for adventure, including a (not fully conscious) desire for swooning, orgasmic bodily fulfillment: “You know what plumbing does to me,” she says to Belinski near the end of the film. Cluny just can’t keep her hands off those tempting nether regions of valves, nipples, floats, and (I found it in a plumbing manual) ball cocks.

Belinski and Brown meet by chance in a London flat at the film’s opening, when the niece, in her uncle’s place, answers a call for emergency sink relief, successfully bangs the drain into cooperative disgorgement, and is treated to a new theory of life. “Nobody can tell you where your place is,” the philosopher tells the fledgling plumber. “Where’s my place? Where is anybody’s place? I’ll tell you where it is. Wherever you’re happy, that’s your place.” The two are later reunited at the estate of Sir Henry (Reginald Owen) and Lady Carmel (Margaret Bannerman) in the country, where, due to pleas from their antifascist if hapless son, Andrew (Peter Lawford), Belinski has been situated as a guest, and where Cluny has found her situation as a maid. Each is out of place in his or her own way among people so satisfied with their place on the social ladder and their rigidly defined sex roles that they cannot imagine existence beyond the insular village of Friars Carmel. “So many of these foreigners have foreign names,” remarks the befuddled Sir Henry, whose circular thinking is indicative of his severely confined mental space. Every class-bound character in the movie suffers from a startling deficit of imagination, although the Honourable Betty Cream (Helen Walker), Andrew’s love interest, who “sits a horse well,” displays both a wit and a knowingness not given to any other secondary character.

“The film has a theme, which sounds as loudly as honking, belching pipes: human freedom.”

Lubitsch, in league with Hoffenstein and Reinhardt, grants the heroine a robust, sensual appetite for life and a desire to run as freely as the filthy water in the pipes she unleashes with her hammer. Her eagerness is radiantly apparent in Jones’s superb performance—her headlong, striding walk and loose-limbed run; her eager consumption of crumpets; her speedy sartorial preparations for attacking a plumbing job (sleeves rolled up, stockings rolled down). But her hunger for experience is constrained at every turn by her sex, her lowly status as parlormaid, and her own pained need to fit in somewhere, which results in a misguided romantic alliance with Mr. Wilson (Richard Haydn), the nasally impaired prig of a local chemist with a throat-clogged mother (Una O’Connor). Mrs. Wilson never utters an articulate word in the film. She communicates her perpetual disapproval by throat-clearing, a further iteration of the corporeal plumbing metaphor performed to hilarious effect. Both son and mother are desperately in need of a violent bang to clear their stopped-up airways and another bang to jolt them out of their smug middle-class proprieties. Remember, we are in England in 1938. Far more ominous bangs will appear on the horizon soon to startle the Wilsons out of their complacency—in the form of bombs.

The film, shot between December 1945 and early February 1946, has a theme, which sounds as loudly as honking, belching pipes: human freedom. This postwar film is mostly kind to the sleepwalking dolts who know their place—high, middle, or low—and fail to recognize looming catastrophe. But the film also explicitly treats the humiliations visited upon a woman who dares to tread beyond the rigid boundaries of her class and sex.

Because Cluny first arrives at the estate after hitching a ride with a gentry neighbor, Colonel Duff Graham (C. Aubrey Smith), the lord and lady mistake the maid for an old friend of the colonel’s, and graciously offer her tea, crumpets, and conversation, during which Cluny brings up her favorite subject, congested pipes. “When I was a young man,” Sir Henry remarks, “we never even discussed plumbing.” But the moment Cluny innocently blurts out that she thought they knew she was the new parlormaid, the scene is transformed into one of polite but acute discomfort. Lady Carmel reaches for the servant’s bell, and with that discreet gesture, followed by the sound of the ring, our heroine’s fate closes in on her. The housekeeper, Mrs. Maile (Sara Allgood)—supported by her partner in upholding the sanctities of place, the butler, Syrette (Ernest Cossart)—takes charge and informs her that, in her work, she is neither to be seen nor heard.

Both more comic and more excruciating is Cluny’s visit to the Wilsons’ house to celebrate the sixty-fifth birthday of the phlegm-inflicted Mrs. Wilson, a great occasion of no merriment, at which Mr. Wilson is prepared to announce his engagement to Miss Brown. The grim proceedings are interrupted by loud gurgling and coughing noises from recalcitrant pipes, precipitated by the only child guest, who has gone to the bathroom and washed his hands, apparently to disastrous effect. The irrepressible Cluny smiles knowingly, leaps from the table, rolls up her sleeves, and tells the astonished gathering of prudes that she may not make the best tripe and onions in England, “but whoever gets me won’t have to worry about his plumbing!” Happily rushing to the bathroom with her young cohort, who has begged her to let him “watch,” Cluny repairs the sink’s blockage, but not before Mr. Wilson has asked her not to and then closed the door on her, the boy, and the offending room in a classic Lubitsch shot: what goes on behind that barrier is not to be seen.

It is the aftermath of this excursion into the unmentionable that has always hit me the hardest. The mirthless birthday girl and her guests have all excused themselves. Mr. Wilson is seriously displeased and wishes to speak to his fiancée, but before he begins his lecture (mercifully left offscreen), he asks her to make herself “presentable.” The viewer watches as the meaning of this demand dawns on Cluny, and she begins to roll down her sleeves. The close-up of her face is a heartbreaking mixture of surprise and shame, her eyes glazed by tears. There are few close-ups in Cluny Brown—the stagnant sink is given one early on, as is a tipsy Cluny meowing on a sofa, but mostly the film takes place in medium shots with two or more characters in the frame.

It may be helpful to be a woman who has been punished for stepping out of her place while watching the exchange between Mr. Wilson and Miss Brown, but its feminist punch should be hard to miss. The odious man’s automatic assumption of superiority and his resulting condescension to the little lady who needs correction rob the heroine of her dignity, autonomy, and sexuality. The fact that the young woman’s aggressive sexual desire is presented by way of a plumbing metaphor not only allows for comedy, it also underscores the brutality of the injustice by emphasizing the irrationality of the prohibition. After all, as Adam wonders, why shouldn’t a woman go in for plumbing? To those who believe such taboos ended with open humping on the screen, I say: How many heterosexual men actually welcome forceful, lusty overtures from women?

It is in the nature of comedy that our heroes find a place for themselves in the end, but what is this place in Cluny Brown? It is not to be found on the pathetic little map of “our valley” that Mr. Wilson shows Cluny, or on any other map. Lubitsch once said he had been to Paris, France, and to Paris, Paramount, and had to admit he preferred Paris, Paramount—an imaginary Paris. When Cluny confides to Adam that she has dreamed about him riding a horse (and sitting it well, we are meant to infer) wearing a fez, and swooping her up in front of him on the stallion before he carries her away to his tent, the movie fan will note that the Czech philosopher has been transformed by night into a Tinseltown cliché, that dangerous if ridiculous Other of Hollywood exoticism played by Rudolph Valentino in the 1921 potboiler The Sheik. And when Adam leaves the Carmel estate and Sir Henry presses him to give an address, the roving intellectual responds, “General delivery,” an address that is no address. Happiness is spun from wishes in a dream factory, the exact location of which is anyone’s guess because the imagination is not tethered to place.

They get married, of course. In the movie’s brilliant, efficient, silent coda on the streets of New York, Hollywood, the viewer sees no pipes or drains, but we are assured that uninhibited plumbing is still “in the picture.” Take note: Cluny grabs Adam for a passionate smooch, not the other way around. Her pregnancy is neatly implied when she faints. Cluny Brown gets me every time. The joys of plumbing should never be underestimated.