Darryl Zanuck bought the novel as part of a deal with David Selznick aimed at widening the box-office appeal of Jennifer Jones, whom Selznick was about to marry. She had never played comedy and the role of Cluny looked suitable for a first attempt. John Cromwell was set to direct with Ernst Lubitsch as producer but when James Hilton’s script proved disappointing, Selznick moved on to his epic western Duel in the Sun, leaving Lubitsch and Samuel Hoffenstein to rewrite the story yet again, making it less a farce and more a comedy of manners with Belinsky rather than Cluny as its protagonist. Lubitsch also agreed to direct, ensuring a mittel Europeen treatment of the material.
|Jennifer Jones, Charles Boyer|
Charles Boyer, who had proved his comedy skills in Tovarich, was an obvious choice to play Belinsky. At fifty, he had reached a difficult point in his career. For Clark Gable and Gary Cooper, grey hair and wrinkles enhanced their authenticity as men of action. But for romantic leading men, particularly if they were foreign, the tendency was to cast them as priests, maitres d’ and the occasional head of state. Boyer would play all these in time, but for the moment he was ready to fight to keep his name above the title.
He already knew the novel. Sharp was a favorite writer of his British wife, and they had read it together when it ran as a magazine serial. Belinski was a character he had played before in Arch of Triumph andHold Back the Dawn. He and Lubitsch spent the war helping many such people find new homes in the United States. Men and women of heightened sensibility, they pined for a return to their former life, while knowing privately that it no longer existed.
Plumbing is only a minor theme in the novel but Lubitsch turns it into yet another means of mocking the class system. Cluny is eager to make plumbing her life, to the embarrassment of her uncle and others of her class, including the village pharmacist (a repeat by Richard Haydn of his strangulated-voice role in Ball of Fire), who sees her as a potential wife. The afternoon tea he arranges to introduce her to his censorious family ends in disaster when a blockage in the pipes tempts Cluny to demonstrate her skills in the toilet.
The film’s release in June 1946 was a train wreck, beginning with a tepid reception in the United States. Audiences that wept for brave little Britain in Mrs. Miniver were puzzled to see the same society viewed obliquely from the perspective of Vienna, Berlin and Paris.
Film-goers in the UK, still in an uproar over such Hollywood productions as Objective Burma!, which placed an Americanized Errol Flynn at the heart of the almost entirely British and Australian Burmese campaign, found the mocking tone particularly offensive. One paper compared its view of class distinctions to “kippers fried in cream, an anchovy laid across a strawberry ice [or] any other simile that conveys complete and awful wrongness.” Another complained of “caricatured aristocrats and adenoidal chemists and self-conscious ‘characters’ and upper classes all seen as amiable half-wits, while the lower orders are smugly servile morons.” C. Aubrey Smith, doyen of Hollywood’s British contingent, published a formal apology for having taken part, and the film was pulled from cinemas after a week.
Cluny Brown offers a snapshot of that moment in contemporary history when, having fought a war to preserve traditional values, the winners became increasingly doubtful that those values had any place in a post-war world. Within a few years, what the prologue to The Third Man would call “the old Vienna, with its Strauss waltzes and easy charm” – the world of Lubitsch, in fact – would be engulfed by the cynicism of that film and Billy Wilder’s black market Berlin in A Foreign Affair.Belinsky and Cluny might have been welcomed by a pre-war United States, as in the novel, but one fears for them in the wised-up world of 1946.
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Editor's Note:John Baxter's most recent book is a biography of Charles Boyer John is an Australian-born all-round writer, scholar, critic and film-maker who has lived in Paris since 1989 with his wife Marie-Dominque Montel and daughter Louise. His Wikipedia entry details the many books he has written which include the first ever critical volume devoted to the Australian cinema as well as studies of Ken Russell, Josef von Sternberg, Stanley Kubrick, Woody Allen, Federico Fellini, George Lucas, Robert De Niro and Luis Bunuel. His most recent book, one of a number of studies of Paris is A Year in Paris, described by the New York Times thus "In “A Year in Paris,” (Baxter) strings together the beautiful beads of the French everyday, all held together by the invisible act of imagination that makes a country cohere and endure."