Ernst Lubitsch’s last completed film was a riff on the British class system in the period before World War II. The estate of Sir Henry Carmel is turned upside down by two outsiders: Adam Belinski (Charles Boyer), a Czechoslovakian writer forced from his country by the Nazis, and Cluny Brown (Jennifer Jones), the orphaned niece of a Cockney plumber who is hired as the new maid but who secrets desires to pursue her uncle’s profession.
Cluny is constantly chided throughout the film for not knowing her place – a reference to both her status in the ossified British social hierarchy and in gender protocol for wanting to do a man’s plumbing job. The film’s funniest segment comes at her arrival at the estate, where Sir Henry and Lady Carmel mistake her as a society equal and invite her to tea, only slowly becoming aware that they are giving equal treatment to a servant. Belinski, who is at the estate at the request of the Carmels’ anti-Nazi son (a young Peter Lawford), is adept at working his too-generous hosts to his advantage – particularly when it comes to maneuvering them into pressing money into his hands in tribute to his anti-Nazi work. Belinski views Cluny as a social and emotional equal and serves as her guardian angel until she realizes his true intentions.
This is not top-tier Lubitsch – the film takes a surprisingly long stretch before it starts to click, the notion of British obtuseness to pre-war Hitler is laid on too thick, and Boyer is not a natural in dishing out comic lines. Still, the film has enough odd humor to keep up a smile. Jones is delightful as the off-kilter Cluny – her eagerness to fix a back-up sink shows a sense of comedy that rarely surfaced in her work. But the real tonic here is supplied by the supporting players, particularly Richard Haydn as the nasally pharmacist who seeks Cluny hand in marriage, Una O’Connor as his mother – she has no dialogue, but makes her intentions knowns through a versatile series of throat clearings – and Helen Walker as a self-confident society gal who allows the Carmels’ son to chase her long enough before she catches him.
“Cluny Brown” is only now being made commercially available on DVD and Blu-ray (a bootleg copy was being sold on Amazon for the past few years). Fortunately, The Criterion Collection is releasing it in a sharp 4K restoration, which will certainly invigorate Lubitsch completists.