Cluny Brown…with asides about character actors

19 Mar

1946 – Directed by Ernst Lubitsch – Written by Samuel Hoffenstein and Elizabeth Reinhardt – Starring Charles Boyer, Jennifer Jones, and Peter Lawford

Cluny_Brown[1]In Cluny Brown, Una O’Connor proves that you can run away with a movie and never speak a word. All she does is cough.

O’Connor was a character actor from Ireland. She began as a stage actor and then moved to film, though she never completely stopped work in the theater. She was in films such as The Invisible Man, the Bride of Frankenstein, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Bells of Saint Mary, Christmas in Connecticut, and Witness for the Prosecution (which was a reprisal of her stage role), often as the comic relief, always with her strong Irish accent, wonderful facial expressions, and usual disapproval of things.

Una O'Connor

Una O’Connor

Character acting is a funny thing. During the golden era of Hollywood (that period of time when the studio system was dominate, roughly up to the 1950s), character actors were rarely chameleons, but just as idiosyncratic as any leads. When one casts Fred Astaire or Greta Garbo, you have a rough idea of what kind of character you are getting and it was the same with someone like Una O’Connor or Eric Blore or Thelma Ritter. If you wanted a particular character for a movie, you went looking for a particular character actor. Eric Blore, very British, seemed always to be a butler or a waiter, and Thelma Ritter always had her a wry and trenchant, but hilarious, way with words.

Cluny Brown seems to me to be somewhat unusually endowed with wonderful character actors including, Reginald Gardiner, Reginald Owen, C. Aubrey Smith, Richard Haydn, Margaret Bannerman, and Sara Allgood. And they’re all wonderful.

Of course, the character actors aren’t the only reason to see Cluny Brown – though Una O’Connor alone would be worth anything. The film is set just before WWII begins and stars Charles Boyer, Jennifer Jones as the eponymous Cluny Brown, and Peter Lawford. Cluny loves plumbing, and Adam Belinksi (Boyer), an expatriate from Poland who fled when the Nazis came in, is completely charmed by her naïve enthusiasm and lack of social pretense. However, her uncle is scandalized when he finds her fixing the plumbing of one of his clients and sends her away to become a maid to Lord and Lady Carmel.

She tries very hard to be a good maid, but she just can’t seem to get the hang of it…or lose her passion for fixing a clogged sink. Meanwhile, the son, Andrew Carmel (Lawford) invites Adam to stay with his family because he is convinced that Adam is in great danger from Nazis and needs to get out of London. Once there, Adam proceeds to meddle in everyone’s lives, including Cluny’s, who has struck up a friendship with a stuffy chemist who wants to marry her.

Jennifer Jones, Charles Boyer, and Reginald Gardner looking at...actually, I don't want to know what they're looking at

Jennifer Jones, Charles Boyer, and Reginald Gardiner looking at…actually, I don’t want to know what they’re looking at

The chemist’s mother is Una O’Connor. She never seems to look at people and she never utters a word, though it is always obvious exactly what she’s thinking.

I realize I’m giving a slightly one-sided account of this movie. There are actually many more characters that are even more important than Una O’Connor; it’s just that she’s the character most lodged in my memory. There is a butler and housekeeper who are dedicated, almost to the point of a spiritual calling, to being house servants and doing everything correctly and according to tradition. There is Miss Cream, Andrew Carmel’s tantalizingly provoking friend who he wants to marry. There is the completely clueless Lord Carmel, who only seems dimly aware that there is a Hitler out there, somewhere, bringing war to Europe.

The movie was well received in America, but British critics were offended at the portrayal of British aristocrats as clueless and rather stuffy. According to the article on Cluny Brown on TCM, the ire was quite great and British actor C. Aubrey Smith, who appeared in the film, felt the need to apologize to his countrymen for the movie.

Despite these jabs at the British aristocracy, everyone comes across as rather endearing. There really isn’t anyone I dislike. And though it’s not what I would call uproariously funny, it is whimsical and delightful. It is what I call giggle-inducing. I giggled all the way through and now want to try and get my hands on the book that it is based on, by Margery Sharp (who, I learned, also wrote The Rescuers that the Disney movie The Rescuers is based on), and see if the book is as delightful as the movie.

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Posted by on March 19, 2014 in Movies


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