Cluny Brown (1946) – film by Ernst Lubitsch

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(Please note that this review contains spoilers for both the film and Margery Sharp’s book)

“I would build you the most beautiful mansion, with the most exquisite and complicated plumbing, I would hand you a hammer, and say “Ladies and Gentlemen, Madame Cluny is about to put the pipes in their place.”

What an enjoyable way to spend a Saturday morning. I read Cluny Brown last week (review and short synopsis here) and was looking forward to seeing how the film compared. I’m pleased to say it stays close enough to the spirit of the book to maintain the essence of ‘Clunyness’, and adapted itself reasonably well within the storyline.

The film is a witty, light comedy with a perfectly fitting cast. Jennifer Jones plays the vivacious Cluny with such charm and lack of guile that, although she is prettier than the book describes, I will always picture her as Cluny. Charles Boyer plays the charming Adam Belinski with a light touch, great lines and a lot of fun.

The film spends more time developing Cluny and Belinski’s relationship than in the book. In fact, they meet in almost the first scene and he is immediately fascinated by her pluck. He encourages her to question the expectations of society by telling her to “give squirrels to the nuts” which becomes her mantra.

Visually the film is a beautiful accompaniment to the book. The characters, Carmel Manor and the village were just as I imagined they would be. I would watch it again just to wander around the gardens of the estate and through the village. Heaven for an Anglophile like me.

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Cluny suggests to a bemused Lord Carmel which piece of mutton is the largest and least fatty.

Peter Lawford and Helen Walker play Andrew and Betty and their love story is developed beautifully also. Lord and Lady Carmel are just as they are in the book…naïve and delightful.

Once Cluny begins ‘walking out’ with Mr Wilson, Mr Belinski’s jealousy is evident and he works on sabotaging their relationship at every step. Every time he walks by Mr Wilson’s shop he opens the door, ringing the bell and then hides, to the annoyance of Mr Wilson. Pure juvenile humour that had me laughing each time.

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Mr Wilson, played by a very young Richard Haydn (Uncle Max from The Sound of Music) stole the show for me. Apart from a slightly weird accent, he played the part of the stuffy, happy with his lot, unambitious, village chemist. He genuinely cares for Cluny and seems touched that she would care for him too. He is a far more caricatured character in the film compared to the book, but he was a delight to watch.

The death knell for Cluny and Mr Wilson’s relationship happens on the night he is to propose to her at a dinner gathering at his home. During the meal, an almighty noise coming from the bathroom indicates a plumbing emergency and, true to nature, Cluny rolls up her sleeves, shimmies under the sink and fixes the problem. Of course, this horrifies Mr Wilson and his guests, who in quiet awkwardness take their leave.

Cluny returns home to find that Mr Belinski has left, having given up on winning her love. She runs to the train station, hops on the carriage when she finds him and they ride off into the New York sunset together.

Cluny Brown wouldn’t be my favourite classic film, but it was warm, cosy and made me smile. It’s worth a watch. Read more here.

The only other Margery Sharp movie adaptation I’ve seen is The Forbidden Street (Britannia Mews) 1949. After a slowish start I ended up loving it. Maureen O’Hara and the ever-watchable Dana Andrews play the leads. I haven’t yet read the book…I’m saving that pleasure for the next Margery Sharp Day. If I can wait that long.

I believe The Nutmeg Tree was also adapted to film as “Julia Misbehaves” with Greer Garson in the lead role.

Have you seen any Margery Sharp film adaptations? What did you think?

Classic Films – Dear Ruth (1947)

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In upstate New York, it’s an ordinary day for the middle-class Wilkins family: unassuming beauty Ruth, Judge father, good humoured and long suffering mother, and political activist teen Miriam who believes that “the game of a man and woman manoeuvring in pursuit of a mate I consider on the mental level of a game of checkers”.

Dear Ruth is a delightful, gentle, witty romantic comedy with sparkling dialogue, a young (and might I say, extremely dishy) William Holden and a supporting cast who lift it to gem status.

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Sixteen year old Miriam has taken it upon herself to keep up the morale of the boys gone off to war by sending off ‘Bundles for the Boys’. Lt. William Seacroft is the lucky recipient and upon request of a photo, Miriam sends one of her older, beautiful sister Ruth, believing it will give him “hope, faith and the will to go on”. Sixty ‘love’ letters and poems later…

Lt. Seacroft returns to the US and arrives out of the blue at the Wilkins’ door to see the girl he’s fallen in love with. What ensues is a wonderfully-written comedy of mis-communication as Ruth reluctantly agrees to go along with the charade, planning to let him down gently. The exasperated parents are left explaining the situation to Ruth’s befuddled and prissy fiancé, Albert, played by the brilliant comedic actor, Billy de Wolfe. He brings a whole extra layer of fun to the story.

Visually it is a very pleasing film. Originally a play – taglined “It had to be a movie…’cause they ran out of theatres to show the play!” – most of the action takes place in a very white picket fence, fresh-cut flowers in every room, lunch on the terrace, middle-class home. If you like reading mid-20th century domestic fiction, as I do, you’ll want to live there. Some of the best scenes however, are in the subway in New York City. The whole thing just makes you smile.

Miriam, played by the under-rated Mona Freeman, is a fascinating character and unlike most other teenagers written in this era. She is astute, pro-active, politically aware and you wonder if, in some alternate ‘Dear Ruth’ universe, she pips Nixon to the post as US President. She gets the best lines in the film, delivers them with deadpan charm and completely steals the show.

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The 1940’s are full of wonderful, well-written comedies. Just think Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn, Rosalind Russell, Spencer Tracy, Jimmy Stewart. But there’s nothing like stumbling across these little-known gems.

It’s the perfect lazy Sunday morning movie!

Have you stumbled across any little-known gems?