I.

At his best, it’s not that Charles Boyer seemed placid, or impassive, or lazy, or even exactly relaxed. Before satiation, consummation’s needed, and Boyer’s moments of bliss were kept tastefully rare and brief. (Stunned, his eyes dim over a bubba-toothed leer: ugly, naked, defenceless.)

Neither affectless nor inexpressive, Boyer’s gift was to be transfixable. Expression seemed not just inadequate to, but incommensurable with, his discernment and desire. Trapped in mere body, trapped in mere “character”, he nudged flesh into gestures of frustration or fellowship, and then again sunk into immobile contemplation of that gap.

Charles Boyer, age 47, alone with a beautiful young woman in her bedroom.

Dedicating heart, mind and soul to one true love, he doesn’t fuck; hating his spouse, he doesn’t strangle; and in a political cause …?

I call it a gift, of course, because it supported so gracefully, so easily, so profitably the look-laden language of movie romance. A deferential leading man! Such a value!

More generally, though, such transfixture might be described as irony – heavy, well-forged, wall-embedded irony.

In Boyer’s eerily beautiful youth, this pained distance deepened whatever show of ebullience or viciousness he could muster.

In his late 40s, its attraction (like the feral intelligence of Humphrey Bogart and Bette Davis) became more apparent for having survived and surfaced beauty’s wreckage.

Later still, he iced his stock grimaces, got dental work and became a polished husk.

But during ripest melancholy, he starred in two meditations on the place of the intellectual in interesting times: Confidential Agent (Herman Shumlin, 1945) and Cluny Brown (Ernst Lubitsch, 1946).

II.

A passionate, observant and transfixed man would seem like a catch for earthbound martyrologist Frank Borzage. And Boyer was, perfectly caught as the quintessential transcendent Head Waiter in Borzage’s History Is Made at Night (1937).

Less tritely, he was perfect for Ernst Lubitsch, who often focused frivolity through a dark lens. Has any bedroom farce been graced by more tragic eyes? To shorten the formula: have there been better bedroom eyes than those of Herbert Marshall and Kay Francis (in Trouble in Paradise, 1932)?

Trouble in Paradise
It could’ve been marvellous.
– Wonderful.
– Divine.

Then there are the ever-collapsing-or-flipping brave starched fronts of The Shop Around the Corner (Lubitsch, 1940) – whose stars, again, worked beautifully for Borzage.

And there’s Greta Garbo (in Ninotchka, 1939), who seems in such alarmingly genuine pain when she laughs. … Too bad Melvyn Douglas (as Count Leon d’Algout) leaks energy like a bilge pump: Keep it shallow! For God’s sake, keep it shallow! Ideally deployed, Garbo would have been the one who knows the score, as she was in Queen Christina (Rouben Mamoulian, 1933) – Lubitsch’s Forbidden Paradise (1924) gone moral.

A great Lubitsch comedy requires both sincere engagement and self-awareness, and a lopsided split – as in Ninotchka (1939), Monte Carlo (1930) and his previous attempt at a swansong, Heaven Can Wait (1943) – that turns the irony unpleasantly smug and brings the ironist uncomfortably close to simple villainy.

III.

When your favourite stars meet in your favourite best-seller!

Margery Sharp’s source novel had been a recent best-seller and most of the film’s changes improve rather than transform it.

Scenes carry heavier loads more lightly. Speeches do triple duty. When we’re told that a clogged drain is “an analog of human frustration”, we’re also told that the speaker is oddly bookish and (more surreptitiously) someone who might take special interest in a plumber. A newly introduced young woman reassures her supervisor, “Maybe she got onto the wrong train, Mrs. Maile. Maybe she run off with an handsome stranger. Things like this have happened before. And might happen again.” This introduces the dreamy speaker well, with a nicely skewed gag (the difficulty is instead that “she” got off the right train with a not-at-all-handsome non-stranger) and (more surreptitiously) prepares us for future possibilities.

With one notable exception, Lubitsch’s team deepens Sharp’s characterizations. The novel’s Cluny Brown, for example, is an abstraction of Clunyness without motivation of her own. The movie gives her an enthusiasm as well as a personality, and the strengthened character repays the script with better plot devices and crasser jokes.

(The casting of Cluny Brown’s a bit more suspect. According to at least one source, Sharp herself insisted the title role go to Jennifer Jones, who had a lock on what we’d later think of as Giulietta Masina or Emily Watson parts. And I suppose Jones’ streetwalker make-up and affected American accent reinforce Cluny’s eccentricity. But she seems awfully frail holding a pipe-wrench and, when she claims she “doesn’t put stuff on her face”, we fear she’s become certifiable – particularly set against the complacent glow of Helen Walker’s “sufficient unto the day is the flesh thereof” Betty Cream.)

Then there are changes necessitated by the translation to a new form. It’s a shaggy-dog novel: eventual male lead Adam Belinski doesn’t appear till fairly late in the game, and he and Cluny Brown take little explicit interest in each other until the surprise resolution. This is amusing enough to get by, given the reader’s opportunity to re-flip for clues, but would be awfully disconcerting in a theatre. And with Charles Boyer in the titles, the pseudo-suspense of a long wait for Belinski would undercut Cluny’s introduction. Instead, the screenwriters position him at each destination before she arrives, as if guiding us through the film, as if waiting for her. The sequence of scenes stays roughly the same, but their meaning shifts.

Most of all, Adam Belinski is changed. Sharp’s Belinski is an irksome, horny and often mean-spirited artiste, a Polish relation of Larry Baker (Burgess Meredith) in That Uncertain Feeling (Lubitsch, 1941), a refugee along Nabokovian lines.

I am an artist, not a political figure. That is the trouble in Poland: there are not enough distinguished Poles to go round; every one must do double duty. Look at Paderewski – the greatest musician in the world, we had to make him President as well. If you win a motor race, you are made Secretary to the Board of Trade. I have a success with my writings, so I must become a lecturer. Thank heaven they did not give me the Police Force.

Book Belinski launches his proposal the moment he (at last) recognises his inclination. Movie Belinski recognises it at first sight, but then delays like a Charlotte Brontë heroine. Wary of the final insult of rejection, he’s also kept in check by his melancholy allegiance to the right of self-determination. The careful nervous dance of his rhetoric is a beautiful thing to behold: laying suggestions, letting slip, barely pulling back from the bullying of actual debate.

With this new personality came a new profession. Lubitsch made his final hero a philosopher, played by perhaps the only Hollywood star with a degree in philosophy from the Sorbonne.

IV.

Not that Lubitsch needed big souls or IQs to amuse himself. Less celestially, there’s Monte Blue in his monkey suit, clumsily scrambling to surmount an avalanche of temptation.

What mattered to Lubitsch isn’t that Blue be witty or attractive. What matters is that he fail, that he be force-fed the fruit of knowledge and find it good – as, in a Lubitsch movie, all experience is good.

Trouble in Paradise begins with a gondolier singing over a garbage pile, Cluny Brown with a backed-up sink at a glamorous cocktail party.

Cluny Brown
Ames: Frightful stench, isn’t it? Just too awful for words.

Although deflationary, in neither case does the intent seem exactly satirical. Instead of Stroheim’s or Sternberg’s sadomasochistic disgust, there’s an oddly sympathetic engagement.

Cluny Brown
Belinski: Yes, but it looks interesting. Very.

A Lubitsch comedy ends not in a wedding or overnight success, but in knowing. Although that knowingness may be scented with melancholy, it’s never burdened by anguish or despair – those are the discarded comic attributes and drivers of education. The romantic leads of Trouble in Paradise each “confess” to having seen through the other, and this isn’t just a gag: they’re truly confessions and the foundation of true (fallible) love. Design for Living (Lubitsch, 1933) resolves in a dynamic group awareness, competitive gaze in place of superego. In The Shop Around the Corner, the memory of humiliations and slights becomes just another sweet contribution to humane maturity – a pride which can be humbled is only neurosis.

Most of all, Lubitsch exults in teaching the foolishness of passion: postponed, inadmissible, but as ineradicable as any other form of foolishness. In the bedroom of his disciple’s, friend’s and benefactor’s love, Belinski shows frank pleasure in recognising his own mixed motives. In another bedroom, he declares that “Pacts are made for two reasons: one, to be kept, and two, to be broken”, and, despite being a Czech refugee, he seems eager to investigate both sides. What Lubitsch couldn’t show, he coded: his double entendres (“roll down my stockings, loosen the joint, and then – bang! bang! bang!”) are as extended and embarrassing as an erection or an odour. “I could smell you a mile off”, Cluny Brown avers with satisfaction.

The unresolvable tension between desire and dignity is cause for celebration: it’s life’s most glorious aspect, as the balanced awareness of other and self is love’s. Lubitsch pretends no despair when looking at the stars from the gutter. What more efficient way to learn both?

Even so sacred a hierarchy as that separating squirrels from nuts can be effaced.

V.

Style is a matter of exclusion as well as markers. A tragic hero’s pratfalls and flatulence occur offstage. To make a Lubitsch comedy, you take a block of life and carve away anything that doesn’t look like a Lubitsch comedy.

I’ve written that the Lubitsch film celebrates “all” experience, but there are limits to permissible expression. For example, we rarely see his lovers kiss. A true Lubitsch love scene would require explicit negotiation of every Slot A to Tab B step and, since he knows he won’t be allowed to go there, he prefers the suggestively closed door. (Sadly, so far as I know, this opening has not been taken up by porn producers, although I am one guaranteed renter of any video labelled Design for Living: The Next 48 Hours.)

There are also limits to conceivable celebration, pace Roberto Begnini – pace, per favoresta’ zitto! We trust Adam Belinski when he assures us he’s out of danger in England. However, we also have no reason to doubt young Andrew Carmel (Peter Lawford) when he tells us Belinski suffered on the Continent. Of those horrors Belinski remains silent, although, in the novel, his wrists are described as broken and badly set. In the movie, Boyer’s mien suggests some experience even worse – something along the lines of the ineffective intellectual in Confidential Agent, who brandishes the untrivialisable memory of his wife’s death and his child’s death whenever he needs another lash across his flanks, trying to flog a draft horse into racing form.

In Cluny Brown, the whip’s laid aside. There’s no need for it in Belinski’s present time and place and story. Only trivial activity fits a Lubitsch movie. When a character considers an action (an infidelity, a scandal, a big sale, God’s wrath) non-trivial, disabusal is sure to come.

In To Be or Not to Be (1942), when concentration camp’s Colonel Ehrhardt (Sig Ruman) says, “What he did to Shakespeare, we are now doing to Poland”, it’s not funny. But that’s not because it’s tasteless or shocking. Plenty of tasteless shocking things are funny. The problem is that Lubitsch characters shouldn’t be doing anything at all. Oh, with inversely varying sincerity and success, they might make a brave pretence of raping Poland, as Gaston Monescu (Herbert Marshall) pretends to manage a parfumerie (in Trouble in Paradise), or they might have mistaken someone else for Poland, as Ninotchka deludes herself that she’s serving the proletariat. But what’s at risk in To Be or Not to Be is nothing that imaginatively engages its makers.

Belinski’s (and Lubitsch’s) world is not a world in which important things get done. It’s a world of refugees, not resistance workers, and Belinski knows the difference between chatter and war. When others too insistently ignore that difference, his affable detachment wears thin:

Belinski: So you see, there is a lull, as far as danger is concerned. Now why don’t we take advantage of the lull and relax, shall we?

Andrew Carmel: No. I won’t relax. I’m going to write another letter to the Times.

Belinski: … good.

Cluny Brown

There are a number of reasons such confusion might irk a socially-yet-self-conscious philosopher. This more approving exchange with Sir Henry Carmel (Reginald Owen) indicates one:

Belinski: I know Hitler.

Sir Henry: Oh, yes, he’s written a book, hasn’t he?

Belinski: Yes.

Sir Henry: Big success, isn’t it?

Belinski: Very big.

Sir Henry: Well, what else does he want? Why doesn’t he lie down and keep quiet?

VI.

I’ve said that Lubitsch’s screenwriters (Samuel Hoffenstein, Elizabeth Reinhardt), unlike the source novelist, stationed Adam Belinksi at each destination on Cluny Brown’s progress. And, like most things I say, that’s not completely true.

A plot is a sequence of exceptions. That’s why self-consciously told stories rely on threes so heavily: two points to set a baseline, three to advance. One, the apartment of Hilary Ames (Reginald Gardiner); two, Carmel’s estate; three, the pharmacy of Mr. Jonathan Wilson (Richard Haydn) – and Belinski says, fidgeting like Rodney Dangerfield, “I wouldn’t go.” And, indeed, though he compulsively returns to Wilson’s threshold, he never crosses.

Belinski refuses all invitations to pontificate or propagandise (and none to dine or drink), and parlays his rhetorical skill only to advise tolerance, simple tolerance. First for himself; then for Cluny Brown; thirdly, and faced with Mr. Wilson, his multifarious acceptance sneers shut.

Cluny Brown
Belinski: We understand each other, don’t we, Mr. Wilson?.

One reason for Belinski’s pre-emptive rejection is that he has nothing to gain from a thrifty tradesman. Compassionate but not at all altruistic, Belinski wants to live and wants to live with himself, more or less in that order. Lubitsch disapproved of Communism for leaving clever people with no one to take advantage of, and Belinski, no matter what his (unspoken) economic theories might be, is a master of the Lubitsch touch – £20 here, £50 there, four shillings from the pocket of a borrowed jacket … “There’s no use in murdering a poor man” comes close to being the director’s final message.

But more viciousness than disinterest is displayed towards Mr. Wilson, by Lubitsch as well as Belinski. He’s the one character caricatured in the move from book to screen.

And this isn’t the first time Lubitsch refused to extend his sympathy to good god-fearing middle-class folk: Design for Living takes a downright Chekhovian turn when it reached the suburbs. Edward Everett Horton’s Max Plunkett at first seems the expected ineffectual clown, but, with effectiveness, he becomes something worse than a vampire. A vampire at least gains nourishment from the blood of the living; in Plunkett’s home, it’s simply drained, until his unmaidenly Lucy is rescued by the magic combination of hysteria and irony. It’s an undeath Lubitsch clearly knew: The Shop Around the Corner remains Hollywood’s most accurate depiction of retail work.

In Lubitsch’s moral world, the repression of sexual and financial irresponsibility is more truly horrific than talk of Nazi atrocities could be; Belinski reacts more vehemently to Mr. Wilson than to the red flag of Hitler – and for good reason. By the time we recognise our need to “fight the Nazis”, it’s too late: they’ve won and our “fight” is bluster. Mr. Wilson, like Belinski, is considered a thinking man. But, as definitely opposed to Belinski’s delight in contrariness, Mr. Wilson’s is that gated knowingness which relies on conformance to the “already known”, the impulse that preserves faith by destroying evidence and comforts the faithful with a heretic roast and advances hour by hour, household by household, unchallenged claim by unchallenged ditto …

VII.

Despite his manifest grasp of reality, Adam Belinski rarely succeeds in putting people at ease. For disconcerting knowingness, he meets only one match: Betty Cream.

Intelligent, handsome, healthy, manipulative and dispassionate, she might seem a match for him in other contexts. The source novel spends many pages hypothesizing romance. But Lubitsch’s Belinski acknowledges their innate antagonism the moment they’re introduced: “I know you. You are honorable and you don’t go everywhere.”

Her look makes plain it’s not his place to know her, but she’s left with no denial. It’s true: she does not go everywhere.

She does not go, for example, where she doesn’t belong. However, through a pleasantly co-operative arrangement of the universe, it happens that everywhere she wants to go is where she should be. That is what being “honorable” means.

She invades Belinski’s bedroom without fear of rudeness; she’s indignant when he invades hers; they’re both purportedly no more than guests, but they both know the hollowness of that purport. Belinski would acknowledge that he has no right to his bed; events fully justify Betty Cream’s proprietary attitude.

Betty Cream is knowing, but what she knows best is her place. By movie’s end, she’s been firmly tucked into it.

VIII.

While Betty Cream finds her place obligingly underfoot wherever she walks, other characters feel the need to adhere to one spot, enclosed by a protective shell of station. Mr. Wilson, more æsthetically aware than most, decorates his walls with reminders of immobility. Fair to his vision, the camera gives Mr. Wilson’s hand-painted objet and inspirational map the focused attention classic Hollywood usually only gave fetishistic portraits.

Cluny Brown
Cluny Brown: Poor little sheep. It hasn’t much future, has it?

Cluny Brown
Mr. Wilson: This is where I was born. And this is where we are this very moment.

The first thing we’re told about Cluny Brown is that she “doesn’t know her place”. And then we’re immediately retold that she doesn’t know her place. And then we’re told again. Not long after that, she’s forced to accept a position because (we’re told) she doesn’t know her place. And later we’re told again …

No more do places know her: she attempts and is expelled from five, at least, before finding shelter in transport.

For his part, Boyer’s Belinski is, as a securely fastened domestic describes him, “a foreigner who isn’t even in the diplomatic service”. As a refugee without career, family or country, “General Delivery” his only address and destination, he’s had displacement explicitly imposed. As an intellectual, he’s presumably been placeless by disposition far longer. But what Belinski does know, better than any other character, is his times. Using them as guide, he’s able to switch co-ordinate systems at will.

In summary, Adam Belinski and Cluny Brown belong to what Wyndham Lewis decried as the Time Cult, a species-sapping breed of individualistic, relativistic, traditionless, 20th Century decadents like Henri Bergson, Albert Einstein, James Joyce and Pablo Picasso. In a depraved enough society, they can do very well for themselves. In a society built on good solid conservative Spatial values, though, they’re a pernicious disease. Young Andrew Carmel calls Professor Belinski “one of Hitler’s worst enemies”, and Lewis, a strong Fascist sympathiser, would have agreed.

Belinski has long since resigned himself to this divide in homo sapiens and only rarely shows hostility towards his competition. When he recites his encomium to olde England, he’s clearly (and clumsily) seeking to ingratiate himself, but he’s also in some sense sincere (and therefore content to be clumsy). He depends on the securely positioned, not just as handholds in an alien land, but as defenders of what he hopes is a shared civilization.

Not that Belinski explicitly warmongers. He knows – intimately – the weakness of rational argument against a fixed position, and how few unfixed positions he’ll encounter. His anti-Fascism is expressed only in a few brief firm encouragements after others have tentatively taken a new position. When a phlegmatic aristocrat shows offence at that Hitler fellow’s presumption, Belinski advises he hold the pose: “Stay angry. And everything will be all right.” And, in a Wyndham-Lewis-like four-dimensional figure, he agrees with another’s plan: “Join the R.A.F. Rise above the times.”

So placed people have their place. Even Albert Einstein needed reference-molluscs. That doesn’t mean they know the mobile person’s best interest. Most of Cluny Brown‘s ensemble would describe its stars as displaced people: one self-conscious and reconciled, one un-self-conscious and in need of forcible placement before it’s too late. They describe themselves as castaways on a desert island of relativity.

Andrew: We never do the wrong thing at the right time. What England needs is more Belinskis!

Betty Cream: I think one is quite enough.

IX.

I am not so blind that I cannot see that you, my fellow citizens, have come to the end of your patience with my discussions and conversations. You have found them too irksome and irritating, and now you are trying to get rid of them. Will any other people find them easy to put up with? That is most unlikely, gentlemen. A fine life I should have if I left this country at my age and spent the rest of my days trying one city after another and being turned out every time!

Although we never learn Belinski’s philosophical allegiances, his technique is Socratic. He draws others out rather than arguing a position of his own, ascribes statements elsewhere when possible, frequently proceeds by self-interrogation and prefers loans to salary.

An unpoisoned Socrates, though. One who survived to see the destruction of his polis. A Socrates with self-knowledge but no mission.

“Knowledge” generally connotes acceptance, whether enthusiastic, placid or ironically begrudging. When that connotation snaps like elastic into our eyes – when we’re prompted “You do realize you’re driving the wrong way?” or “This relationship isn’t working out” or “Haven’t you figured out that a single presidential election can’t reverse 30 years of well-organized richly funded propaganda and activism?” and we keen an unexpectedly anguished “I know!” – it’s cause for embarrassment.

Philosophically resigned to his lull, Belinski finds, to his embarrassment, Cluny Brown.

Like most people who meet her, as the initial stun wears off, he’s eager to instruct. She’s so open, so enthusiastic, so clearly without a clue! Despite her oddity, drawn by her oddity, everyone is delighted to educate Cluny Brown – until she figures she’s waited long enough and it’s her turn to contribute.

Cluny Brown
Addressing the community

How quickly and smoothly the positioned pivot against the out-of-place – as if you weren’t even human.

Cluny Brown
Addressing the threat

Over and over, that’s the most definite lesson Cluny Brown is taught, and yet it never takes; she’s caught by surprise each time. What happened to change them? Aren’t I the same person? Unable to grasp social contexts, she can think only of individuals.

Or, to be plainer, she thinks mostly of herself. Nowhere could a philosopher find a pupil so content with the Delphic curriculum. Belinski interprets the ways of Cluny Brown to Cluny Brown. “You do make one see things”, she says, and is as pleased with the view as he is. Lubitsch endorsed partnerships of irony and passion in earlier movies – calm Gaston and fierce Lily (Miriam Hopkins); critical Gilda Farrell (Miriam Hopkins) and show-offs Thomas B. Chambers (Fredric March) and George Curtis (Gary Cooper) – but here it’s a vocation.

A Lubitsch film ends in knowledge and a Lubitsch hero’s most heroic act is the dropping of pretence. Having relinquished the hope of making a real difference, Belinski is then forced to drop the pretence of harmlessness. He can’t fix entropy, but he can’t withdraw from the process; observation interferes, but he’s compelled to incur that debt.

How else can a 20th Century thinker resolve? Non-interference is sacrificed, along with any claim to depth, to a spring shallow but rapid, refreshing, unemptying and never the same twice – mutual lifetime reflection on Cluny Brown.

About The Author

Since 1991, Ray Davis has written almost exclusively for a self-published web journal, first titled The Hotsy Totsy Club, and then Bellona Times. His chronicles can be found at www.pseudopodium.org.