Skip to main content
Updated date:

Cluny Brown - A Beautiful Plumber Looking to Find Her Place

Author:

Dusty is an avid classic movie fan who wants to share movie stories and evoke conversation about them.

Movie Poster

Charles Boyer and Jennifer Jones

Charles Boyer and Jennifer Jones

Cast

Cluny Brown

1 hr. 40 mins Comedy, Romance 1946 7.5 stars

Director: Ernst Lubitsch

Cast: Charles Boyer - Prof. Adam Belinski

Jennifer Jones - Cluny Brown

Peter Lawford - Andrew Carmel

Helen Walker - Betty Cream

Reginald Gardiner - Hilary Ames

Reginald Owen - Sir Henry Carmel

C. Aubrey Smith - Col. Charles Duff Graham

Richard Haydn - Jonathan Wilson

Margaret Bannerman - Lady Alice Carmel

Sara Algood - Mrs. Maile

Ernest Cossart - Syrette

Una O’Connor - Mrs. Wilson

Billy Bevan - Uncle Arn Porrit

Note: Spoiler alert. This review reveals the outcome of the movie

Cluny Brown is Fascinated with Plumbing

Jennifer Jones as Cluny Brown with hammer in hand ready to unclog a drain

Jennifer Jones as Cluny Brown with hammer in hand ready to unclog a drain

Synopsis Part I

It all started with a stopped up kitchen sink, on a Sunday in the home of Hilary Ames (played by Reginald Gardiner), a well to do man in London. He is in the midst of a dilemma since he is hosting a party very shortly and his stopped up sink stinks. He is in a panic because he can’t locate a plumber being as it’s a Sunday and no one is working, but he has left a message for one who might possibly help.

Suddenly there is a knock at the door and Hilary lets in a man who he quite naturally assumes is that plumber. He shows the problem sink to the man and asks him what he thinks. The man suggests that what Hilary needs is a plumber. The visitor, it turns out is not a plumber at all but a distinguished professor from Czechoslovakia who is on the run from Nazis on the continent. This man has come by to see his friend in hopes of finding shelter. The man’s name is Adam Belinski (played by Charles Boyer). Unfortunately for him the friend he has come to visit and stay with is Hilary’s absentee landlord. Unfortunately for Hilary Adam is not a plumber and his guests are due to arrive soon!

Then there is another knock at the door and a young woman named Cluny Brown (played by Jennifer Jones) is there. She is the niece of a plumber and is in fact the one who took Hilary’s earlier message. She is fascinated by the plumbing trade. Hilary, though reluctant, lets her work on the clogged sink. While working on the sink Cluny and Adam get involved in a deep conversation. During this conversation Cluny is complaining that her Uncle Arn, is always deriding her for not ‘knowing her place’. Adam counters that it’s no one else’s business to say where her place is. “In Hyde Park for instance, some people like to feed nuts to the squirrels, but if it makes you happy to feed squirrels to the nuts who am I to say nuts to the squirrels?” Cluny was very impressed with his reasoning. In fact they are quite taken with each other. In no time the clog is fixed, the drain is drained and Hilary is delighted. Everything is accomplished before his guests arrive, which includes as he states repeatedly, “The Honorable Betty Cream”. He is excited that she has accepted his invitation because, he claims, she “doesn’t go everywhere”.

Hilary rewards Cluny with a martini or more. Cluny has no tolerance for alcohol and grows quite tipsy and tired. She relaxes on the sofa just as her Uncle Arn, the actual plumber arrives. He has raised Cluny and is angry that she has played the plumber and has gotten drunk. He takes her out of there immediately and sends her off to train to be a domestic for a wealthy lord in rural England.

In the meantime Hilary’s party went off without a hitch and Adam got to meet The Honorable Betty Cream (played by Helen Walker) and Andrew (played by Peter Lawford). Andrew immediately recognizes Adam as a professor and author he has studied and idolizes. The movie takes place just prior to Britain’s involvement in World War II and Andrew is sure that Adam is on the run from assassins due to his rhetoric so he devises a plan to protect him. He decides that he will send Adam to his parents, Lord Henry and Lady Carmel at their country estate. Adam accepts the invitation and relocates to their estate.

Cluny Having Tea with Lord and Lady Carmel

Reginald Owen, Jennifer Jones and Margaret Bannerman

Reginald Owen, Jennifer Jones and Margaret Bannerman

Nuts to the Squirrels

Charles Boyer, Jennifer Jones, Margaret Bannerman.  In this scene Cluny will drop the tray and yell, "Nuts to the Squirrels"

Charles Boyer, Jennifer Jones, Margaret Bannerman. In this scene Cluny will drop the tray and yell, "Nuts to the Squirrels"

Synopsis Part 2

At the same time, Cluny is hired by Lord and Lady Carmel to serve at their estate. On the train ride out to the estate Cluny meets Col. Charles Duff Graham (played by C. Aubrey Smith). He is so taken with Cluny that he accompanies her and introduces her to the Carmels, personal friends of his. With that introduction they immediately have tea with Cluny not realizing that she was hired as a domestic servant. The mixing of the classes is never done in English society, but I’ve seen more than one movie poking fun at just that. When Cluny explains who she is and why she’s there Lord and Lady Carmel leave very quickly, but cordially.

Cluny is instructed by Mrs. Maile (played by Sara Algood) and Mr. Syrette (played by Ernest Cossart) as to what her duties shall be and, very importantly, what her behaviors should be.

In the next scene Adam is seated for dinner and Cluny comes in to serve. She speaks to Lord Carmel, a major faux pas, but when she sees Adam she is so startled that she drops the serving plate and quotes to him, “nuts to the squirrels”. This is so far against whatever code of conduct exists that she is certain to be fired that very night. Adam speaks up for her and her job is saved. Later, Adam visits her and is seen coming out of her room by Mrs. Maile and Syrette. Cluny is on thin ice. Adam and Cluny agree not to become romantically interested in each other.

Days later Cluny meets and falls in love with the village druggist, Jonathan Wilson (played by Richard Haydn). Jonathan is an extreme example of the proper English professional and is strongly taken with himself. He brings Cluny to meet his mother (played by Una O’Connor). She shows no interest in Cluny or anything else for that matter.

The Honorable Betty Cream arrives at the estate and stays as a guest. There is a budding romance between her and Andrew Carmel, but it is not progressing. Adam determines to intervene.

First there is a problem. Cluny has been assigned to be the personal maid for Betty, but Cluny has also been invited by Jonathan to attend his mother’s birthday party so Adam requests that Betty do without Cluny’s services for the evening and let her attend the party. Betty agrees. At the birthday party there is a disturbingly audible problem with the drain of the kitchen sink. Cluny gives in to her fascination with plumbing and volunteers to fix the problem and she is successful. Jonathan and the other guests at the party are aghast that Cluny should stoop so low as to do menial labor and enjoy it. The guests all leave and Jonathan doubts whether there can be a relationship with such a woman.

Meanwhile back at the Carmel estate Andrew has come for a visit. Adam visits Betty in her bedroom at night to try to persuade her to stop playing hard to get with Andrew. He threatens to pursue her himself since he has already lost Cluny, or so he thinks. His advances toward Betty cause her to scream which awakens the entire household. Adam never at a loss for words for words manages to effectively explain his presence in Betty’s room. The next day Adam feeling he has lost Cluny to Jonathan, not aware of the events at the party, decides to leave the Carmel Estate much to the consternation of Lord Carmel who relishes his company. He says his goodbyes and starts for the train station. He has gotten gifts for everyone but Cluny is not there to receive hers. She is depressed because of the calamity with Jonathan. When Cluny learns of Adam’s departure she runs after him to the station. There she meets up with him just before the train departs. She boards the train and the two decide to marry and live happily ever after.

Adam writes books to support himself and Cluny and the final scene is of the two of them looking at a bookstore window with a display of his books in New York City.

Adam Asking the Honorable Betty Cream to Let Cluny Have the Night Off

Charles Boyer and Helen Walker

Charles Boyer and Helen Walker

Cluny Introduces Adam to Jonathan

Charles Boyer, Jennifer Jones and Richard Haydn

Charles Boyer, Jennifer Jones and Richard Haydn

Analysis

This is another screwball comedy like two of my previous reviews, “Bringing Up Baby” and, “Arsenic and Old Lace”, which means that every character is a little eccentric. In this movie, however, the eccentricities are arranged into two camps, the upper class and the lower class. The majority of the comic effect stems from the interaction of the two classes and the confused roles each plays. This sort of comedy is best pulled off in an English setting. In America this wouldn’t be as funny and may even wander into racial or ethnic problems. But happily there is none of that here, no it’s merely a contrast between, “thems that have and thems that have not”.

The two leads in this movie are also very central to the plot. They both break the molds of conventionality and they are contrasted very strikingly to the rest of the people who retain the ridged conformity of English provincialism. And herein lies the humor of the story.

Cluny Brown and Adam Belinski are free spirits and, very much also, kindred spirits. Cluny is constantly berated by her Uncle Arn for not knowing her ‘place’. Uncle Arn is a plumber, Cluny wants to be a plumber, but that society doesn’t tolerate women as plumbers. Yet plumbing is a passion with Cluny and it causes her problems when her uncle catches her after unclogging a customer’s sink (then getting drunk). This resulted in Uncle Arn packing her off to be a domestic at Carmel Estate. Later she is dismissed from a dinner party when she excitedly unclogs a drain in Jonathan’s kitchen, just as he was to announce to his guests that he would ask her to marry him. Instead he informed her that he could not live with a woman given to such impulses. Both of these instances looked bad for her at the outset, but really turned out to facilitate good results in the long term.

Adam is the ultimate good result for Cluny. There is an obvious chemistry between them from the moment they meet. Perhaps they both realize this from the start, but it seems that Cluny in particular doesn’t want to admit it. She makes a pact with Adam that if either one of them develops romantic feeling for the other they will kick themselves until that feeling goes away. The life Adam would offer her would not comply with the conventionalities she has been taught to respect and pursue. A life with Adam would not lead her into ‘knowing her place’ which is what she’s so desperately trying to learn. But her nature is contrary to that of one finding one’s place at least in the narrow confines of that society. She has a fight within herself between her will trying to fit in and her nature trying to be free. So along comes Adam, not conflicted at all about whom he is and he sees it as his goal to win Cluny over not just to himself for romance, but for her to experience the freedom she inwardly longs for. He wants her to realize that her place is wherever she is. She is her place.

There is another romance in the movie hiding away from the center of the plot. This is the romance between Betty and Andrew. Adam helps them as well. His faux pursuit of Betty brings to a head her decision to stop playing coy with Andrew and agree to marry him. But Adam’s method there remains unconventional. Adam’s unconventional ways impress Sir Henry Carmel who is taken in by Adam’s point of view on things. He is stimulated by Adam’s conversation and new way of thinking. When Cluny commits the offense of recommending a particular piece of mutton to Sir Henry, while serving him she is rushed out of the dining room by her boss, Mr. Syrette. Adam, however, rushes to her defense. He pointed out that the recommendation was a good one. Sir Henry’s response was a weak one, “but it’s just not done” - referring to a servant addressing him directly. Adam replies, “It should have been done long ago. Does it occur to you that for generations the lords of Carmel have probably eaten the wrong pieces of mutton?”

In the scene during Hilary’s party while Adam is sleeping in a guest room, “The Honorable Betty Cream” as she is referred to by Hilary, is present when Adam wakes up. When she introduces herself to Adam he responds by saying, “you are honorable and you don’t go everywhere”. This statement sums up his view of English aristocracy and it is evident throughout the movie as he acts in ways to counteract that epithet.

“Nuts to the squirrels”. Early on in the movie Adam has a conversation with Cluny about her place and what that means and he says, “If it makes you happy to feed squirrels to the nuts who am I to say nuts to the squirrels”? This is the first instance when Cluny hears the freeing thoughts of Adam and she is more impressed than she knows. When she sees Adam again –mentioned earlier with her advising Sir Henry on his mutton selection – she repeats the line, “nuts to the squirrels” when she sees Adam.

Sir Henry himself is portrayed as being sheltered from the outside world. He has an awareness that war is brewing with Germany, but has no notion that it will affect England. This is the movie’s way of portraying the nobility as being insulated within their own world. This is illustrated when he tells Adam that Hitler must be an outdoor enthusiast having written a book called, “My Camp”.

Jonathan and his mother are interesting characters who, though middle class, are nevertheless stuck within the confines of what society defines as their place. Their place happens to be much less wealthy than the upper class yet still retaining a strong semblance of propriety. Here again, though she tries, Cluny and her free spirited ways just doesn’t fit in. Jonathan’s mother is in two scenes and never utters a word, but spends her entire screen time clearing her throat.

The movie is indeed comedic, but it also makes good points and has a lot of say about the ruts a society can get into by overly accentuating class distinctions, and by muzzling those with the ‘gifts of go” the creative and free type.

Lady Carmel to Betty Cream - It's Time to Marry Andrew

Margaret Bannerman and Helen Walker

Margaret Bannerman and Helen Walker

Movie Trailer

Nuts to the Squirrels

Entire Movie

Related Articles