Posted by davidkalat on March 26, 2011
Where are the Nazis in CLUNY BROWN?
I know this isn’t a question that’s probably been burning inside much of anyone else besides me, but I recently suffered me way through the awkward and disappointing biography of Ernst Lubitsch by Scott Eyman, a book I’d only bought because I wanted to see how a scholar steeped in Lubitsch would address this very question. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a question that cuts to the very heart of what Lubitsch was all about. And Eyman missed the point entirely.
I could build a time machine and travel back to 1993 to write an angry letter to Eyman, but that seems a misuse of resources. Once I finish work on my time machine the first thing I want to do is go back to the 1920s and collect some prints of films like HEART TROUBLE and HATS OFF, so I’m not wasting any of my time machine’s battery power just to berate some poor biographer, even if he did fluff the shot something awful. So, instead I’ll just unload my rant here—and maybe we can have some fun digesting what made Lubitsch the genius that he was.
First things first. CLUNY BROWN isn’t on DVD in this country, and so while those of you in New York got to see this at the Film Forum on Christmas Eve, and anyone with a region-free DVD player and a willingness to sift through amazon.de’s listings may be conversant with this film, it’s worthwhile to catch everyone else up so we’re on the same page.
Lubitsch was riding the crest of a creative wave that is almost incomprehensible. If we forgive the aberration of THAT UNCERTAIN FEELING sandwiched in the middle, from 1939 to 1943 Lubitsch was making hit after hit: NINOTCHKA, THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER, TO BE OR NOT TO BE, and HEAVEN CAN WAIT. It’s even more astounding to us now in retrospect because we can appreciate TO BE OR NOT TO BE as a masterpiece, whereas audiences in 1942 were too horrified to get it.
And then this wave came crashing down, with Lubitsch’s abrupt heart attack in 1943. At the very height of his creative powers, he was forbidden by his doctors to work. At best, he was permitted to produce—only to watch feebly from the sidelines as his inept protégés Otto Preminger and Joseph Mankiewicz fumbled A ROYAL SCANDAL and DRAGONWYCK, respectively.
Preminger never understood Lubitsch’s comedy at all, and while Mank was a better student, his work on DRAGONWYCK was so far off the mark Lubitsch had his name removed from the film. Which was awkward, seeing that the posters had already been made: the studio had to affix stickers over his name to redact it from the one-sheets. (So, picture the image below with a piece of tape slapped over Ernie’s name).
Finally, he gets the go-ahead from his doctors that he can get back to work. Naturally, he jumps hungrily at the first available project—CLUNY BROWN, adapted from Margery Sharp’s 1944 novel of the same name.
The Fox writers had already hashed out a couple of screenplay treatments of the book, none of which Lubitsch liked. He started anew, and wrote the script exceedingly quickly (for Ernie, that is) and got it approved by the studio with almost no changes or notes (for Zanuck, that is).
Speaking of anomalies—I’ve been told that Lubitsch made fairly few alterations to the source. The man who dared rewrite Noel Coward’s DESIGN FOR LIVING (“I was only interested in the premise of it,” sniffed Lubitsch) didn’t see much in Sharp’s novel he needed to change—that, or he was in such a rush to make it, he didn’t feel like wasting time.
Before we proceed to talk about the movie itself, one more note about its origins: when the studio bought the rights to the book, it was with a stipulation that Jennifer Jones play the lead (What was Sharp thinking?). She would eventually join the production straight from the embattled set of David O. Selznick’s DUEL IN THE SUN. How embattled was it? So embattled that DUEL IN THE SUN didn’t even make it to theaters until after CLUNY BROWN.
So, we have a recovering and weakened Lubitsch, desperate to get back on top after losing three of his best years to his heart troubles. And it’s built around a miscast star arriving in a flurry of distraction.
OK, well, I don’t really mean “miscast,” and that’s one of the Essential Traits of Lubitsch (ETL for short) that I wanted to discuss here. If you were going to argue that Jones was miscast as Cluny Brown, you might point up that the role calls for a rowdy, brash, assertive young woman—the kind of role that typically went to Betty Grable. But Lubitsch cast Betty Grable in the next film, THAT LADY IN ERMINE, as a Queen—the kind of role that Jennifer Jones should’ve gotten. It seems backwards.
Instead, we get Jones, full of neurotic energy and frostiness, in a role written for a Betty Grable—and thus she infuses it with an additional dimension, a layer of inner life that the film does not make explicit. Grable would’ve played a cartoon—Jones turns the cartoon into a woman. And then, THAT LADY IN ERMINE reverses the trick—with Grable providing an unexpected degree of earthiness and tawdriness to a role that could otherwise seem too aloof.
So ETL #1 is a deliberate and consistent policy of “miscasting.” In his day, critics accused him of not understanding American accents properly, and seemed to believe that if Ernie really knew what connotations these actors brought with them, he wouldn’t be casting them as Kings and Queens and society folk. Balderdash! Meanwhile, Eyman, my bête noir, occasionally makes excuses for Lubitsch’s odd casting choices by saying these were the only people he could get access to at this studio or that. Again, who says you need to make excuses?
Consistently, Lubitsch made the most of actors and actresses who seemed profoundly out of place in what he asked them to do: Miriam Hopkins, Gary Cooper, Greta Garbo–Jack Benny for crissakes! Not for nothing did these performers reminisce about their work with Lubitsch as having been their best. . .
But we’re not here to talk about where CLUNY BROWN came from, but rather what’s in it—and what’s conspicuously missing—and what conclusions we can draw from that odd recipe.
There are two concurrent parallel storylines to this film.
The first one follows the titular Miss Brown, who has the misfortune to want, to dearly want most in all the world, to be a plumber. But she lives in 1938 England, where rigid class roles and gender restrictions have placed that aspiration permanently out of her reach.
“I wish I could roll up my sleeves and roll down my stockings and unloosen the joint. BANG BANG BANG!”
Jokes about plumbing=sex are already familiar double entendres, but by the time this absurd scene is over, that surface layer of entendre has been sufficiently battered to leave just the single dirty entendre underneath.
Note to readers: WordPress has been deleting our YouTube links as these posts are published, so I can’t embed video this week. I’d hoped the tech issue was resolved, but that’s what I get for assuming. So here’s a link to the first of my 3 video clips–it’s a clunky kludgy workaround, but at least this way you can see the video clips I pulled for you this week.
“You wouldn’t have thought I was out of place.” Poor Cluny is perpetually out of place—in large part because she doesn’t care, and her desired place is (allegedly) unattainable. (Let’s be clear that being a “plumber” is a metaphor—what she wants is to be free, sexually and spiritually, in a world that allows for no such thing).
It is instead her fate to be employed as a parlor maid in the English countryside. Thanks to some complications upon her arrival at her new post, the family mistakes her for a guest, instead of their new maid. And they proceed to treat her as a guest, until the shattering truth is discovered. The breach of etiquette is unimaginable. As the new maid, she has no right to sit at their table, to eat their scones, to speak to them at all.
This scene may be the most significant in the entire picture—it’s certainly the linchpin of my analysis. So here it is:
The house is pretty, the family is decent and kind, the village is quaint—it’s not a bad fate, as these things go. But as pretty as the house is, it will never be her home. As decent as the family is, they will never be her friends (nor her family). And the village—well, here’s the thing about the village: Cluny gets one day off every week, and that day is the one day the village cinema is closed. She can look forward to never seeing a movie. Ever.
It is a suffocating life. There is only one escape route for her: to marry some nice boy and quit. But she can’t just grab any eligible male. The house she works in is full of handsome strapping young lads, smart and rich, full of energy and passion (we’ll come to them in just a bit), but they’re off-limits. She’s a servant, and can only go shopping for a mate among other working class blokes, which does limit her options severely.
Well, there’s this guy. Mr. Wilson, the local chemist. There are scarecrows with more personality, there are executioners who are more humane, there are trolls who are more attractive.
And then there’s his mother—
Suffice to say, Cluny’s romance with Mr. Wilson is short-lived. She has the audacity to fix his plumbing—in the presence of his mother!—and that as they say is that.
And before you grumble that plumbing doesn’t have anything to do with hammering violently on pipes (BANG BANG BANG! indeed), let me just say that this is, like ETL #1, all part of the joke. Realistic depictions of plumbing aren’t as funny as slapstick, so Ernie opts for the funnier version. This is where Otto Preminger goes wrong in his Lubitsch-lite efforts—given the choice, Otto would go for a realistic depiction of plumbing, and lose most of the laughs.
Now, you’re probably wondering what any of this has to do with Nazis. Indeed—that’s why we’re here.
So, let’s meet protagonist #2, played by Charles Boyer. He is a fugitive Czech humanist fleeing the Nazis. It is said the power of his ideas and his eloquence in expressing them is a greater threat to fascism than any weapon. He’s skulking around incognito, until Andrew Carmel, John Fruin and the luscious Betty Cream recognize him and sweep him away into hiding at the Carmel estate (the same place where Cluny is working).
Yup. Betty Cream. That’s her name. It’s like she was supposed to be a Bond girl but ended up on the wrong set. As played by Helen Walker, she’s a potent concoction of sexpot packaged inside a deeply intellectual and hard-headed activist. She’s the female equivalent of a Swiss Army Knife—12 different women in one. She’s more woman than Andrew can handle—but he’s not even going to get a chance to try as long as the two of them are too busy being Earnest with a capital E to get their freak on. It takes some sly (and utterly unasked for) interference by Belinski to hook them up properly.
Now wait a minute. What exactly is going on here? Belinski has been secreted away to the Carmel estate because he’s a prominent anti-Nazi. But he consistently misses opportunities to engage his hosts on political discussions. If they’re expecting to experience the gifted oratory and wisdom of a Great Man, he’s sorely letting down his side. He spends most of time tinkering with people’s love lives and making caustic ironic comments.
The first time I saw this, I assumed the story was heading to a third act twist in which it would be revealed that “Belinski” was in fact a conman posing as the Czech dissident in order to bum lodgings, food, and cash off of unsuspecting do-gooders. I felt justified in this assumption because throughout the film he acts like a conman—and I do mean throughout. I don’t wish to spoil the final punchline, but let me just say that at no point does he behave like similar figures in other movies.
As a foil for contrast, consider Jacques Tourneur’s BERLIN EXPRESS a couple of years later. That film’s Dr. Bernhardt is also described as a great moralist and influential thinker whose intellectual and ethical ideas pose a threat to the post-war neo-Nazi resurgence. He too is on the run for his life—but Bernhardt spends the entirety of his movie trying to ennoble the people around him. He would gladly die if he could change just one mind—the only change Charles Boyer’s Adam Belinski really seems to care about is spare change.
Had CLUNY BROWN been building to this unmasking of the conman “Belinski,” it would have been a clever duplication of that scene I showed above, in which Cluny was mistaken for a guest. You’d have had a grand satirical theme of how society treats people not for who they are but for who they appear to be. If you think a charming young lady is a house guest, you feed her tea and crumpets. If you think she’s a servant, you expect her to vanish into the background and shut her yap. If you think a handsome foreigner is a fugitive philosopher, you feed and house him. If he turns out to be some schmo with a silver tongue. . . then what?
Of course, this isn’t where the movie is headed. But we’re talking about Ernst Lubitsch—the poet of subtlety and implication. He could say more with closed doors and silence than anyone else could with all the words and images imaginable. His films are sexier than porn. There’s no reason that Ernst Lubitsch needs to come out and say that Adam Belinski is a conman to have that possibility floating around in our heads as a viable interpretation of the film. There is an unaccountable gap between what we are told about Belinski, and how he actually behaves.
Taking the movie at its word, though, that this man is the legendary anti-fascist scholar Adam Belinski, then we really do have to ask, “where are the Nazis?” The movie spends all this time telling us that he’s threatened by Nazis—yet not once does anything happen to verify this. It’s set in 1938, with England on the verge of going to war with Germany—yet nothing happens to put this in context. Not only don’t we see any Nazis or see any of their cruel handiwork, but Belinski then never talks about any of it, either.
Scott Eyman writes, “Belinski’s achievements—which we have to take on faith—seem incidental to the simple sybaritic pleasure he takes in his own company.”
Yes. This is true. C’mon, Eyman, ask why this is true. Please, it matters—
Eyman also notes, “the obliviousness of the English is never really germane to the story; neither is Belinski’s anti-Nazi past.”
Oh, sorry, Eyman, you were getting hot there for a moment, and now you went cold again. Don’t you get it, man? The two are the same thing.
What are Nazis? Don’t say German fascists in the 1930s and 40s—that’s too specific. Belinski is an intellectual, a philosopher—he’s opposed to ideologies, not to individual people. The ideology of Nazism is one that elevated a certain class of people as legitimate and desirable, and considered everyone else below them, worthy of persecution or even annihilation. People were consigned to concentration camps or gas chambers based not on their actions but on accidents of their birth—and this inhuman system was defended as the natural order of things.
There are “Nazis” in this film. They are the Carmels, they are the Wilsons. Ordinary Englishmen and women who reflexively accept the idea that social caste defines a person’s fate. Lubitsch implies an analogy between the English class system and German concentration camps. It’s enough to make your jaw drop.
English audiences took it as a slap in the face. The English press excoriated the film—and while their reviews tended to be couched in terms of how the details of the movie were inauthentic, this was hollow deflection. Seriously, are you going to complain that the clothes worn by the characters seemed like Hollywood approximations of English garb, in a movie where Jennifer Jones fixes toilets by hammering on them? Those critics were stung by the fact they had just sat through a 96-minute-long sustained assault on basic English assumptions about society, and they lashed out at the nearest target, which was Ernie’s inauthenticity.
(Some UK critics noted the film’s credits were full of German names and scoffed that the only thing Germans knew about England was how to bomb it.)
I mentioned TO BE OR NOT TO BE above, and that film scandalized audiences in its day because it had the audacity to treat Nazis as human beings, to give them humanizing traits and even jokes. To give the Nazis good jokes! This was unheard of—filmmakers were expected to depict Nazis as irredeemable monsters. Hitchcock’s LIFEBOAT is a perfect case in point—the thrust of the film is that there is something so fundamentally wrong about Nazis as people that the rest of the world should show them no mercy. Such films posit that the Allies’ greatest weakness was their sense of democratic tolerance and forgiveness—attributes that the Nazis would exploit against us.
Lubitsch never bought that line. He wasn’t for Nazis—the Nazis very nearly killed his daughter, they did kill members of his family, and if he’d ever been stupid enough to return to his homeland they’d have happily killed him too. He knew all that, but he just wasn’t the kind of person capable of writing anyone off as irredeemable. Twice he tried to make promotional WHY WE FIGHT or KNOW YOUR ENEMY films for the war effort—and both times they were rejected as unusable. Propaganda wasn’t in his nature.
Anyone who saw THE MAN I KILLED already knew this. Smack in the middle of his run of early-30s musical comedies—between THE SMILING LIEUTENANT and ONE HOUR WITH YOU—he made this bitter drama about a WWI vet plagued by guilt over having killed a man in the war. The rest of society doesn’t know how to console him, because they don’t recognize it as a crime. If anything, they’d like to pin medals on him as a hero. But he—and Lubitsch, and the film—make no distinction between wartime activity and murder, so he trundles off into enemy territory to meet his victim’s family and try to make amends.
Audiences stayed away from THE MAN I KILLED in droves (really? it has such a marketable title!). It belongs on a triple bill with Harry Langdon’s THREE’S A CROWD and Leo McCarey’s MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW as a film that uses the tools of comedy to present a soul-crushing tragedy. It’s got ETL #1 in full force—you don’t cast Lionel Barrymore as a German if you care about verisimilitude. But what matters to us here is its philosophy of tolerance. Lubitsch doesn’t believe in enemies, he doesn’t believe in Nazis. His films can’t muster enough hatred to come up with real villains—the only thing he finds unforgivable is cruelty, and in CLUNY BROWN the cruel ones are the ordinary English folk that most viewers probably assumed were the good guys.
Sorry, Eyman. CLUNY BROWN is an extraordinary film, rich and dense and demanding of viewer attention. The obliviousness of the English is absolutely germane to the story, and so is Belinski’s anti-Nazi past. Lubitsch does nothing by accident. When the man so renowned for directing by indirection leaves something out, all your attention should be on the missing piece.
Now, how come this movie isn’t on US DVD yet?
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