Good evening (again)…
Hitchcock had a long time to develop his trademark style. Before the taut mysteries and thrillers we all know and love, he accumulated a sizeable and assorted filmography. One of these was his 1928 British film, Champagne. It’s so unlike what we think of as traditional Hitch that if anyone misses the opening credits, they won’t know they’re watching a Hitchcock film.
We see The Father (Gordon Harker), also known as The Champagne King because that’s his business, reading a newspaper while huffing and puffing his cigar. His daughter has defied him and run off to join her lover on an Atlantic cruise bound for Paris, so Daddy is livid. He is not, however, bereft of options.
(Little side note: None of these characters have names. I don’t know why. Anywhoo…)
On said liner, the joint is jumping and the champagne is flowing. Dancers twirl around the floor. Then the entire dining room of guests runs upstairs and a few of the sailors make a beeline for the lifeboats. And why? The Girl (Betty Balfour) has crashed her plane in the ocean and the sailors row out to rescue her. They have just enough time to get her luggage onboard the lifeboat before the plane sinks. In true diva style, The Girl replaces her pilot’s helmet with a stylish cloche hat and smiles at the passengers despite her dirty face and unconventional entrance.
Once The Girl is all spiffed up, The Boy (Jean Bradin) comes to find her and they have a rapturous reunion. He doesn’t waste any time asking The Girl to marry him, either. It would be perfect except that the ring is much too big, but he slides it on her thumb and everything is hunky-dory.
Well, almost hunky-dory. The Man (Ferdinand Van Alten) persists in hanging around, and he’s got nothing but eyes for The Girl. The Man, who is old enough to be The Girl’s dad, charms The Girl enough that The Boy gets jealous. It’s not just The Man that’s the problem, either–The Boy reads a telegram from The Father accusing him of only wanting to marry The Girl for her money. The Boy is completely aghast. He wants to marry The Girl right away, but she takes offense at the fact that he’s already arranged the ceremony with the captain and storms off.
The liner finally docks in Paris, where The Girl holds court. She buys a whole lot of new dresses and throws a party to model them for all the new friends she’s made. The Boy shows up as well, only to have his standoffish demeanor softened by some sweet talk and winning smiles from The Girl. The two of them go back to the party, where The Boy happily fills a plate with munchies and watches The Girl model yet another dress. It’s all very cheerful until The Boy notices The Man in the middle of the crowd.
Just in case things aren’t crazy enough, The Father shows up and tells The Girl all the family money is gone. He’s been dethroned because Wall Street is mad at him. There’s nothing to do but kick out the party guests and find cheaper lodgings.
Since The Father and The Girl are presumably stuck in Paris, The Girl decides to get a job. She can’t hang around the apartment and watch Dad do his daily calesthenics, because that’s just depressing. The Girl goes to the employment office thinking she’s going to apply for work as a toothpaste model, but the hiring agent sends her to a burlesque house instead. She’ll be selling candy and cigars, presumably by showing off her legs.
It doesn’t take long for The Boy and The Man to show up at the club and for The Boy’s jealousy to flare again. He and The Girl have been sparring with each other since The Girl found out she doesn’t come from money anymore, but The Boy just can’t quit her.
Meanwhile, Dear Old Dad, er, The Father is off to the side watching his daughter juggle these two guys, and he just might have some surprises in store.
It’s not a bad film. It’s a cute litte rom-com. It would be nice if the characters had actual names instead of generic nouns, but the story pretty much makes up for it.
This is a good thing, because the acting is so-so. Betty Balfour careens her way through the movie–she’s vivacious to a fault and can melt The Boy just by smiling at him. Nothing keeps this woman down for long, even when she’s handing out cigarettes and sen sen at a burlesque house.
Jean Bradin, on the other hand, is kind of bland. Grinning and smoldering are his two facial expressions. He’s easily overshadowed by Balfour and her mega-watt smile. The Man, who really ought to be known as Creepy Old Guy, smiles at Betty like he should be twirling his mustache, but there’s more to him than meets the eye. Meanwhile, the Champagne King is a wee bit too twinkly for a bearer of bad news. There’s a reason for that, but I’m not going to spoil it.
When the movie was shown to exhibitors, the studio, British International Pictures, laid on the hyperbole. Betty Balfour, Britain’s “Queen of Happiness” was one of the top actresses in Britain at that time, so they could do that, but they weren’t long on substance. The press packet is little more than a mini-review and a two page plot synopsis interspersed with pictures. A lot of pictures. It refers to Hitchcock as being “the premier British director and one of the finest in the world.”
It didn’t help, though. Variety called Champagne “dire,” and “the kind of wine they sell to boobs in Soho.” Ouch. The years haven’t been kind to the film either, as reels have been lost. The only surviving negative contains second best takes and has a few parts snipped.
Hitchcock considered Champagne his least favorite of his films (I always thought his least favorite was Jamaica Inn, but guess not). He told Francois Truffaut that it was “the lowest ebb in my output,” and had “no story to tell.”
There was probably no reason for Hitch to be so hard on himself. A Companion To Alfred Hitchcock notes Champagne sported a lot of favorite storytelling methods, such as hallucinations, women laughing, dreaming, wry humor and plot twists. Maybe Hitchcock felt out of his element directing a romantic comedy and couldn’t wait to do something more serious.
The other possible reason Hitchcock disliked Champagne was that it probably felt too seat-of-the-pants for him. The story was originally supposed to be about a champagne packer in France who dreams about the places the champagne bottles will travel to, and decides to see where some of them end up. When Betty Balfour signed on, however, the film became a comedy in need of a plot. Hitchcock and screenwriter Eliot Stannard would write scenes the day before they were to be shot, and presented them to the actors onset.
Champagne is slap-happy in more ways than one. It’s not a great film, but it’s not terrible, either. At least it’s got its fun moments and shows Hitch in his early period.
For more of the great Alfred Hitchcock, please see Maddy at Maddy Loves Her Classic Films. Thanks for hosting, Maddy–it’s always fun to celebrate Hitch! Thanks for reading, all, and I hope to see you tomorrow for the Esther Williams Blogathon…
Champagne is available to stream on Amazon Prime.
A Companion To Alfred Hitchcock. Edited by Thomas Leitch and Leland A. Poague. New York: Wiley Publishers, 2011.