I shall never forget the day she dusted the right eye out of Lord Henry’s moose

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After the special screening of CLUNY BROWN at Filmhouse, there was much discussion among the appreciative audience about why the film wasn’t better known. Various theories were mooted –

1) Vagaries of TV scheduling — none of us could remember catching CLUNY on TV. While IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, a flop on first release, became a Christmas classic because it had lapsed into the public domain and therefore could be screened free of charge, and therefore was screened A LOT, and while CASABLANCA was already a firm favourite but was given a boost by the fact that Curtiz’s unusual use of closeups makes the film play very well on a small screen, CLUNY BROWN may have just missed out on finding a place on the small screen. And TV is what has kept film history somewhat in the public mind — the dropping of old movies from the schedules has brought about mass amnesia in the young, the loss of a whole language composed of once-iconic faces. Not only are there now western adults who don’t know Jimmy Cagney, they may be in the majority.

2) Vagaries of contemporary reviewing — coming after a string of successes, the somewhat uncategorizable and utterly relaxed CLUNY BROWN probably didn’t get the love it deserved. If you’d just given five-star reviews to NINOTCHKA, THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER and HEAVEN CAN WAIT, you might be inclined to nit-pick just for variety. And you could probably find a few things to criticise –

3) The first act takes place in a London flat and deals with Hilary Ames (Reginald Gardiner) preparing a cocktail party and in need of a plumber. It feels like the whole film is going to be a series of people arriving at the door and either mistaken for plumbers or being plumbers and mistaken for ordinary civilians. But then the film takes off for the countryside and we never see Hilary Ames again. There’s also a coda in New York. So the film is extremely casual about structure, and some people seem to mistake this for sloppiness. Certainly the film has a lightness and a country house setting in common with the Jeeves and Wooster stories, but eschews the tightly-plotted farce form which is one of Wodehouse’s defining merits.

But in fact, all subplots are nicely rounded off and despite the need for comedy characters to resist change, I think we get about four-to-six full character acts, all of which are affecting and delightful. The movie appears to take its time, yet packs in lots of funny supporting players and explores the themes of class and inhibitions and “knowing your place” in a thorough and intelligent manner. It was suggested that the modern Downton Abbey audience might find it very amenable.

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4) Charles Boyer is today mainly known for GASLIGHT and Jennifer Jones I guess for DUEL IN THE SUN and PORTRAIT OF JENNIE. This film shows them in very different modes. They’re both brilliant. He’s just generally excellent, implying Adam Belinski’s romantic yearnings and heartbreak with only the tiniest hints. Jones, with her preposterous attempt at an English accent (inconsistent in itself and about three social classes too high), and her rather full-on approach to every emotion, is less obviously a skilled player, but in fact everything she does is PERFECT. Even the accent works in a weird way, suggesting Cluny’s fish-out-of-water quality. You’ll notice that nobody criticizes Boyer for failing to do a convincing Czech accent, so why should we object to her wandering vowel sounds?

5) The only major cult figure in the supporting class is Una O’Connor, who does sterling work (restrained by her┬ástandards). But there ought to be a cult around Richard Haydn, a real cult that worships him as a god. And Peter Lawford’s callow young man roles in this and the criminally unappreciated Christmas film SOMEONE TO REMEMBER (Robert Siodmak) ought to be enough to redeem him from the Rat Pack pigeonhole he got himself jammed into later. Everybody’s good in this — Canadian Margaret Bannerman makes a splendid English lady of the manor, initially a silly goose, but revealing almost mystic levels of grace and understanding. “We must have a talk about the garden, because everything’s planned three years in advance,” becomes, in her reading, a rather eerie and beautiful encapsulation of Britishness.

Helen Walker’s career was tragically derailed but she’s wonderful and lovely (and believably English) as the Honourable Betty Cream (she doesn’t go everywhere, but she does sit a horse well, hang it) — she has this and NIGHTMARE ALLEY as twin claims to immortality.

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Sarah Allgood and Ernest Cossart — the head servants are far more snobbish and unsympathetic than their masters, which points to the fact that this is a film poking fun at class but still from a slightly conservative viewpoint. Lubitsch is not out to overthrow the system, although in the context of the stultified society presented, Boyer’s cri de coeur of “Your place is wherever you are happy” (paraphrased as “Squirrels to the nuts!”) is somewhat revolutionary.

I’ve just discovered via the IMDb that Cossart was the actual brother of Gustav Holst. Now I have an image of him cavorting in a toga to the theme of Jupiter from The Planets Suite. It’s quite a nice image, really.

***

But really those are all the reasons I can think of why this isn’t a gigantic renowned classic, and I don’t really believe any of them are good reasons.

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12 Responses to “I shall never forget the day she dusted the right eye out of Lord Henry’s moose”

  1. Richard Hayden is a truly amazing figure. He almost invariably played a “sissy” fussbudget (most memorably in Sitting Pretty where he has a duel of wits with “Sissy” King (or is it Queen of Queens?) Clifton Webb. This was an entirely created persona as in a small handful of films he was quite capable of “playing it straight” (in every sense of the term.)

  2. artihcus022 Says:

    There is such a richness of feeling in this film. It’s really quite touching and the actors are brilliant. I love the camerawork especially this scene where Boyer and Jones meet in this open meadoI dont think its conservative for making the servants unlikable. Rules of the Game is much like that. The key scene is when Cluny first meets her employers. Their confusion as to who she is and the great awkwardness when they find out that they were treating a servant like a person. It’s brilliant.

  3. Love RH in Mitchell Leisen’s No Time for Love, which elevates the traditional Gay Best Friend to fairy godmother proportions, and in Mutiny on the Bounty where’s emotionally powerful in a far more understated role.

    Apparently a new Renoir biography in France makes him seem politically more dubious than previous portrayals, but I never felt anything like that came over in his work. And I don’t find the servants in Rules of the Game so harsh: the criticism is more of the system than the individuals in it.

    Gosford Park may be a better analogy: Altman was aghast at how the servants replicated the power structure of their employers. Lubitsch’s point may be that the more hidebound members of any class cannot abide Cluny’s free-spiritedness, but those with a bit of flexibility (a personal rather than a class trait) can enjoy her ebullience.

  4. Randy Cook Says:

    And let’s not forget RH as the botanist/narrator of the 1962 MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY. The prologue (cut from the theatrical release) affords him the opportunity to create a sympathetic character in mere seconds.

  5. He’s AMAZING there. Particularly if you know him from Ball of Fire (in which he is, perhaps, a little broad).

  6. Having just delightfully caught up with three months of Shadowplay, I self-link in memory of the source novel & Lubitsch’s modifications: http://sensesofcinema.com/2005/feature-articles/cluny_brown/

  7. Thank you! I’ve always been curious about that.

  8. Barbara Stanwyck is a little broad in Ball of Fire. Richard Haydn is a medium-sized professor.

  9. In the words of Charlie Brown, “AAAAUUUGGHH!!!”

  10. You’re too kind.

  11. I meant to note — major cult figure is a matter of perspective, for I’m a huge fan of that home-counties-major C. Aubrey Smith.

  12. He’s a marvel! His head and that of Gustaf von Seyffertitz always strike me as being part of the same Heironymous Bosch jigsaw puzzle.

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