The title card introduces our time and place. It’s a lazy Sunday afternoon in England. The year: 1938. Nothing particularly important is going on except a cocktail party and that’s only important to the host, one Mr. Hilary Ames (Reginald Gardiner).
You wouldn’t call this much of a dramatic situation aside from the minor detail: his stopped sink is about to put a catastrophic wrench into his fast-approaching party. The guests will be coming soon! What will they say?
If this feels like an inane dilemma, then you already have a heart and pulse for what Ernst Lubitsch will be doing over the next hour and a half. Because this is his brand of continental comedy of manners, taking particular aim at the British classes.
However, he’s in need of some conduits and they arrive at Mr. Ames’s door in the form of Adam Belinski (Charles Boyer) and Cluny Brown (Jennifer Jones). They couldn’t be more disparate figures.
He is an esteemed professor wanted by Hitler for some abstruse reason that’s never explained. Nevertheless, all the social elites pay him the highest amount of deference. Cluny is one of the lower classes — a chipper young lass — with an affinity for plumbing. Fixing pipes that is. She comes to repair the sink of Mr. Ames on behalf of her surly uncle. Although a crisis is averted, the bubbly girl is soon sent off to the country to be a housemaid — a position of propriety for a girl as herself.
Meanwhile, the party finally commences, and it’s what we expect, full of pretentious, huffy party guests. A trio of stultified mischief seekers, Peter Lawford, Helen Walker, and Michael Dyne are on the hunt for something to bring them out of the doldrums. They finally happen upon something arcane enough to pique their interests — a man sleeping on a bed tucked away in a back room.
What’s hilarious about Boyer is how he’s quite literally an anti-scandal maker. Lawford recognizes him as the esteemed thinker and immediately extends him the highest degree of repute. He’s falling over backward to take him wherever he needs to go and shoveling out pound notes to support his cause against the miserable Nazis.
Boyer doesn’t take advantage of these good graces as he meekly deflects most and then folds to a few. The biggest offer is a place to stay at Andrew’s parents — a lovely estate out in the countryside: Friars Carmel Manor. The very same place our plumbing prodigy is taking up residence.
However, the vivacious Cluny starts off her first day on the job on a dubious foot. She actually makes small-talk with the Lord and Mistress of the manor going so far as to drink tea and eat crumpets in their company! This will never do as far as the other staff is concerned. Her catchphrase of choice, “nuts to the squirrels” is tantamount to public indecency.
The key observation is how she never intends to bawdy; she never is. Her spirit simply sparkles brighter than any of them dare to. Because there is an intrinsic bounce in her step and a winsome demeanor burgeoning with innocence and goodwill. It feels totally at odds with the world she’s gone and got herself immersed in. But she makes a bright-eyed go of it all the same. She knows no other way to tackle life.
It’s easy to view this as a riff off the upstairs-downstairs dramas of Jean Renoir — Diary of a Chambermaid for instance — though this does have a Lubitsch twist. He, like the eminent Frenchmen, is readily poking a wry bit of fun at the lunacy of rigid class structures.
In other words, once it becomes evident who you are, people start treating you with respect or lack thereof. The good professor gets royal treatment. Cluny Brown receives the cold shoulder. And of course, they are the most crucial figures as two people totally out of place in the prim and proper hierarchy of the English countryside.
On her day off, Cluny goes prancing off to the chemist, swinging her purse, and wearing a garden on her head. She shares tea with the punctilious Mr. Wilson (Richard Haydn) and his grunting mother, then treated to harmonium music as the man of the house proudly acknowledges his position in the volunteer fire brigade. A walk in the countryside afterward sounds more rewarding. Mostly because they bump into Mr. Belinski; his candor can more than break up the turgidness of the bespectacled chemist.
On another evening, it’s the birthday celebration for Mrs. Wilson, which becomes a telling proofing ground for why this romance of opposites was destined for failure. As the candles are lit and snooty-voiced Mr. Wilson pontificates once more, the plumbing goes haywire. Cluny Brown does what comes naturally to her; she jumps into action, banging away at the pipes right then and there! It’s immaterial whether she succeeds or not. She has trampled over what is considered sacrosanct in these circles. A female plumber! It just isn’t done, and the party dissolves unceremoniously.
Thankfully, there is more to the story. The movie is blessed by these immaculately arranged character parts placed throughout for the likes of Reginald Gardiner, C. Aubrey Smith, Una O’Connor, and still others.
But the most sublime of the surprises, aside from Jones’s sheer ebullience, is how Boyer constantly feints away from his dashing leading man persona. I’m not sure if other moviegoers assumed the same, but one cannot help think that Boyer hearkens back to Maurice Chevalier in all those saucy operettas from the 20s and 30s. For many, Boyer was heir apparent as the only other cinematic Frenchmen they might have known and a dashing one at that.
In other words, we think he’ll do something — act the rapscallion in such a prim society — but this is never his flaw (or his charm). Instead, he takes a genuine interest in others. He feels more like a matchmaker and a fix-it-man making his way through the story with a perceptive eye. And yet Lubitsch is good enough to give him a moment of romance for the sake of the audience since he sees the light in Cluny no one else appreciates.
Likewise, I don’t think I’ve ever appreciated him a role so much, for the very reason he was allowed to be far more than the stereotypical reputation that proceeds him. This extends to him a power — a new kind of novel flexibility — to be something he was rarely granted the opportunity to be before.
He and Cluny make a fine pair of kindred spirits and resident outsiders. In fact, they take to English society like squirrels take to nuts — a bit baffled but good-willed — adding a strain of much-needed gaiety to otherwise stuffy lives. Bless them.