Cluny Brown ★★★★

A few years ago, I wrote the following about a monologue delivered by Greta Garbo in Ninotchka: "[I]t deftly combines pathos and humor, but doesn’t compromise either of them. It’s just as funny as it is sad, and it’s very sad." I added that Garbo "takes her role just as seriously as if she were playing Camille or Anna Karenina." Well, many of the same observations apply just as readily to Lubitsch's Cluny Brown. Star Jennifer Jones may have effervescence where Garbo had gravitas, but her character's internal life is allotted just as much respect by both actress and director as Ninotchka's was. Cluny's passions may be ridiculous, but they're still her passions, and the film takes them seriously even if they double as jokes.

All of this startles me, admittedly, because how can a film caricature its satirical targets as uncompromisingly as Cluny Brown, yet still extend a bounty of empathy toward its characters? The cast that surrounds Jones and her romantic co-lead Charles Boyer comprises mostly pompous cartoons. They're all stiff Brits, ranging from a rich couple and their idealistic son to the servants that staff their estate to a local pharmacist (Cluny's beau) and his laconic mother. Each of them is invested in the class system that the film so incisively ridicules. Each one, however, is also given a grain of personality by the filmmakers and a dollop of affection by the big-hearted Cluny. It's a soft comedy, one you could label with my beloved adjective "cute," but (in a delectably Lubitschian paradox) sharp as a knife, too.

The responsibility for this multitude of tones lies largely with the film's dialogue, which is practically symphonic. (While I'm highlighting individual elements, I may as well cite the editing too. It makes a wordless, 10-second shot of Boyer opening and closing a pharmacy door into a perfectly timed visual gag.) The actors' voices work together to achieve this sustained fireworks display of verbal comedy. Certain motifs—squirrels and nuts, knowing one's place, the phrase "sits a horse well"—recur and swell in comic power, while the film's soundscape supplements the jokes with the click of teacups against saucers, the clang of a dropped platter, the groan of a harmonium, and the rattle of defective pipes. I'm in awe of the compactness with which Cluny Brown was built, the understatement of its sociopolitical acumen, and the sweet daintiness of its romance.