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.
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 standards). 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.
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.