If Hollywood has made another film with as detailed a depiction of class difference and class coexistence as Cluny Brown, I can't think of it offhand. The social structure of 1938 England serves the filmmakers, director Ernst Lubitsch and his screenwriters Samuel Hoffenstein, Elizabeth Reinhardt and James Hilton, less as a platform for political advocacy than as a diorama of established roles, jobs, and relations that characters inhabit with grace even as their adherence to their functions is turned into comedy. Generally, Lubitsch gives his role-bound characters too much respect and love for Cluny to have political utility, though the satire often becomes scathing. This dichotomy between affection and mockery is most obvious in the film's portrait of the landed gentry, who are plainly depicted as having IQs of approximately 50, and as conservative enough to find Hitler interesting if their reflex devotion to king and country is not invoked regularly. Yet the filmmakers dote on the elegance with which the regal Lady Carmel (Margaret Bannerman) manages and resolves the most difficult social dilemmas. "How beautiful and simple you make everything," says anti-Hitler intellectual and loose cannon Adam Belinsky (Charles Boyer) to Lady Carmel, and the hint of irony in his compliment only highlights his genuine appreciation. Interestingly, the petit bourgeoisie, as embodied in apothecary Wilson (Richard Haydn) and his hilariously inarticulate mother (Una O'Connor), is skewered knowingly yet deprived of the fondness that the filmmakers lavish on both the aristocracy and on the servant and working classes.
Forever underrated, Cluny Brown presents the viewer with an unusual tone that hovers somewhere between romance and satire. Margery Sharp's excellent novel, well worth seeking out, was almost entirely rewritten by the screenwriters—and yet one of the very few scenes that they retained, Belinsky's transgressive invasion of the bedroom of "the Honorable Betty Cream" (Helen Walker), lends disturbing overtones of polyamory and sexual menace to the story. Cluny herself (Jennifer Jones) is a bit of an unreliable narrator, yearning for freedom, yet projecting her own sentimental fantasies onto her oppressors. In an early scene, she hilariously tells her Uncle Arn (Billy Bevan), "You're a man who needs to express himself," prompting even that unimaginative individual to look sideways at her in confusion. Much later, she capitulates to the non-existent charms of Wilson in a troubling, contradictory tableau, with the wheezing of Wilson's off-key harmonium and the snoring of his dyspeptic aunt launching her on a misguided romantic revery that Lubitsch nonetheless honors with loving closeups of her rapture.
For all its strangeness, Cluny achieves an extraordinary delicacy. In what may be the film's most brilliant scene, Cluny is entertained by the puzzled but polite Carmels in their drawing room until they discover that she is their new maid and not a guest. The ensuing change in the atmosphere is managed with Lady Carmel's usual graciousness, and yet a faint but decisive tone of command enters the older woman's voice, and Cluny is rightly devastated by this inobtrusive restoration of class barriers. Though it is a love story, Cluny diverts its romantic plot so that it flows in an almost subterranean course through the satirical terrain. Three separate, soft-pedaled mood pieces are the high-water marks of the love story's inobtrusive advance. First, a set of lyrical outdoor scenes in which Cluny, rushing to a meeting with her suitor Wilson, and characteristically moving as if being blown in a windstorm, is lovingly framed by Lubitsch in a pair of long-shot tracking shots that emphasize not only her willowy eccentricity, but also the geographical and social gap between her and the stationary, admiring Belinsky. Second, the conversations in which the smiling Belinsky tries to convince Cluny that he is happy about her upcoming engagement to Wilson, his diplomacy so taxed at one point that he must take a deep breath and allow his eyes to flash anger beneath his permanent beatific grin. And third, the exaggerated quietude of the romantic climax, with Belinsky's eyes narrowed to slits as he orders Cluny into his departing train car, and her dreamlike puzzlement as she finds herself speeding toward London, still in her maid's cap and apron.