Cluny Brown, Downton Abbey, and the British Class System

“It’s 1927. We’re modern folk!” Lady Edith’s husband Bertie (Harry Hadden-Paton) declares in Downton Abbey when he and his wife (Laura Carmichael) arrive at the Crawley family estate without any servants in tow. That’s one of the few nods to changing times in the feature-film continuation of the popular British TV period drama created by Julian Fellowes, which is an unabashed celebration of English aristocracy. In Downton Abbey, the rich are magnanimous and beloved, and their servants are eager and valued partners in upholding the longstanding institutions of English society. The biggest problem that the servants have in the Downton movie is that they aren’t allowed to serve enough: When the King and Queen pay a visit, the royals bring along their own servants, pushing the Downton staff aside. It’s a triumphant moment when the servants band together to sabotage their royal counterparts and take over the dinner service themselves.

Downton’s full-on nostalgia for the rigid class system of British society in the early 20th century is part of its charm, and it’s presented in such a gentle, welcoming manner that it’s hard to dislike. When Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) thanks her lady’s maid Anna (Joanne Froggatt) for being such a good friend to her, and Anna responds that she likes to think that they’re good friends to each other, it’s a warm bonding moment, a culmination of the journey that the characters have been on together over the course of six seasons and a movie (and 15 years of in-continuity time). It’s just best not to think about how much obscene wealth and privilege Lady Mary and her family have compared to Anna and her valet husband Bates (Brendan Coyle). Lady Mary’s children and Anna and Bates’ son will grow up in the same house, but not in the same world.

Classic Hollywood filmmaker Ernst Lubitsch understood all of this back in 1946, less than two decades removed from the actual historical period that Downton depicts. The legendary director’s final completed feature film, Cluny Brown, is a sparkling comedy of manners that savagely skewers the kind of entitled British landowners that Downton celebrates. Newly released in a lavish edition by Criterion after years of home-video unavailability, Cluny Brown is an excellent capper to Lubitsch’s remarkable career, and it stands alone as a refreshingly modern take on romance, gender roles, and class structure thanks to its effervescent title character, brilliantly played by Jennifer Jones.

Set in 1938 (11 years after Downton Abbey), Cluny Brown starts in London, where the naively free-spirited Cluny embarrasses her Uncle Arn (Billy Bevan) for the last time, prompting him to ship her off for a job as a parlor maid at Friars Carmel Manor in the country. Cluny’s great sin is, as Uncle Arn puts it, not knowing her place, and nearly everyone around her is obsessed with propriety, while Cluny wants only to indulge in her abiding passion for plumbing, which she’s inherited from Uncle Arn himself. It’s a demonstration of the movie’s sly wit (from Lubitsch, screenwriters Samuel Hoffenstein and Elizabeth Reinhardt, and author Margery Sharp, who wrote the source novel) that the transgression that most often gets Cluny in trouble is her solidly working-class interest in fixing pipes, which is considered highly inappropriate for a young woman (but would be a respectable trade if she were a man, like Uncle Arn).

At Friars Carmel, Cluny violates class boundaries early and often, arriving in the car of a rich neighbor whom she befriended on the train and being served tea by Lord and Lady Carmel (Reginald Owen and Margaret Bannerman) before they realize that she’s the new maid and not a distinguished guest. The Carmels are less scandalized by Cluny’s behavior than are their head servants, butler Mr. Syrette (Ernest Cossart) and housekeeper Mrs. Maile (Sara Allgood). The equivalent of Downton’s Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) and Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan), Mr. Syrette and Mrs. Maile are dedicated adherents to the class structure, and they resent the blithe ease with which Cluny breaks the rules and yet remains employed. The sunny Cluny bears no ill will toward anyone in the manor, but she also can’t help being her friendly, enthusiastic self, whether that means offering to fix the sink at a birthday party for her uptight would-be beau’s mother, or accepting the offer of tea and crumpets from the lord and lady of the house.

Cluny’s only real ally is Czech intellectual Adam Belinski (Charles Boyer), who’s a guest at Friars Carmel courtesy of heir Andrew Carmel (Peter Lawford). A subversive writer, Belinski is on the run from the Nazis (although he doesn’t seem too concerned about it), and one of the movie’s main themes is the way that the rich are oblivious to the rising threat of fascism. Wars are just minor inconveniences for people like the Carmels and the Crawleys, who once turned their estate into a convalescent home for injured soldiers during World War I, a period that Cora Crawley (Elizabeth McGovern) looks back on as a warm memory in the Downton movie. In Cluny Brown, the lack of concern over the Third Reich is an indictment of upper-class cluelessness; in Downton, Cora’s fond wartime recollections are a sign of her upper-class generosity.

If Cluny Brown had been hired at Downton Abbey, she might have shocked Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes just as much as she shocked Mr. Syrette and Mrs. Maile, but her quirkiness would likely have been assimilated rather than rejected. Carson has just as much reverence for tradition as Syrette (who’s horrified when Belinski speaks to him as an equal), but Downton’s residents, both downstairs and upstairs, are more flexible and more forgiving. That allows for greater harmony in the household, but it also lulls the servants (and any outsiders) into submission. Cluny might have eventually been embraced at Downton, but she never would have fit in.

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Josh Bell is a freelance writer and movie/TV critic based in Las Vegas. He's the former film editor of 'Las Vegas Weekly' and has written about movies and pop culture for Syfy Wire, Polygon, CBR, Film Racket, Uproxx and more. With comedian Jason Harris, he co-hosts the podcast Awesome Movie Year.

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