Criterion Blu-ray Review: Ernst Lubitsch’s ‘Cluny Brown’

Jennifer Jones was a tough nut to crack, for both directors and audiences. Someone as great as William Wyler could find it impossible to get a great performance from her, even in a dramatic role she was expected to perform well in. On the other hand, Ernst Lubitsch dug in deep to bring out her incredible skill at comedy, something Jones’ husband/overseer David O. Selznick unfortunately tried to suppress.

Jones got a rare opportunity to show off her skills in Cluny Brown (1946), which turned out to be Lubitsch’s last completed film. It was unfortunately long unavailable on home video until it surfaced on the dearly departed FilmStruck. Criterion finally released the first physical edition in September 2019, produced using a new 4K digital restoration.

Based on the best-selling 1944 novel by Margery Sharp, Cluny Brown is about two misfits finding their happy place in an unlikely location – themselves. It is set in 1938 England, where plumber’s niece Cluny (Jones) meets Professor Adam Belinski (Charles Boyer), a Czech refugee on the run from the Nazis. The two meet at an upper-class chap’s (Reginald Garner) apartment, as Cluny steps in for her uncle to fix the man’s sink before his other party guests arrive. After she fixes the sink, it seems the two are unlikely to ever meet again. But thanks to a series of odd coincidences, the two are magnets with an undeniable attraction.

Cluny Brown is not one of Lubitsch’s best films, but it is unmistakably a Lubitsch picture. Together with screenwriters Sam Hoffenstein and Elizabeth Reinhardt (who both worked on Laura), Lubitsch crafts another fine romantic comedy in line with his other late greats, like Ninotckha and The Shop Around the Corner. It’s impressive how those two and Cluny were credited to different writers, but they are all crafted to please Lubitsch’s sensibilities. The supporting characters in Cluny could have been torn from any number of the director’s films, from the haughty youths who don’t know as much as they think (including one played by a perfectly cast young Peter Lawford), to the Eastern European searching for a better life.

The Blu-Ray

As previously noted, this is the first-ever home video release of Cluny Brown, and fans of the film might believe this was worth the wait. Criteiron’s transfer was made using a new 4K restoration 20th Century Fox completed. It looks marvelous, but it is not exactly perfect. I agree with the CriterionForum.org review that it can look a bit waxy at times, as if the restoration work was a little heavy-handed when it came to grain removal. It’s certainly not as bad as some of the worst grain-wiped transfers out there though. But the fact that it looks so damage-free makes it even more frustrating that the film fell through the home video cracks before 2019.

The extras are also a bit slim here, probably because this is not Criterion’s first Ernst Lubitsch release. What we do get mostly focuses on the film itself.

  • Squirrels to the Nuts – This is an engaging conversation between film critics Molly Haskell and Farran Smith Nehme, focusing on the female characters in Lubitsch’s movies, particularly the unconventional Cluny.
  • Kristin Thompson provides a 15-minute look at the comic timing of Cluny Brown, and how Lubitsch’s effective use of reaction shots help draw out his humor without oppressing the audience.
  • The Lubitsch Touch – This is a 14-minute interview with scholar Bernard Eisenschitz that dates back to 2004. It’s a crash course through Lubitsch’s career. There’s nothing new for longtime fans here, but if you’re just getting into Lubitsch, it is an effective primer.
  • Screen Directors Playhouse – What’s a classic movie release without a radio adaptation? As usual, this is another fun one. Dorothy McGuire replaces Jones in this 1950 episode, while Boyer reprises his role from the film.
  • “The Joys of Plumbing” – Siri Hustvedt provided the essay for this release, and it’s one of my favorite essays for a Criterion disc in a long time. Her love of the movie is just bursting at the seams, and it’s a wonderful appreciation of the movie.

Cluny Brown is a fun romantic comedy, filled with the kind of humor only Lubitsch could succeed at bringing to the screen. While it is not personally one of my favorite Lubitsch films (it’s really hard for me to pick anything over Design For Living, To Be Or Not To Be and The Shop Around The Corner), but it holds up upon revisits. Criterion’s loving release of the movie – bland black and white cover notwithstanding – is nuts to the squirrels.

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