Alfred Hitchcock’s Wasted “Champagne”

7 03 2010

“That was probably the lowest ebb of my output.” — Alfred Hitchcock

British International Pictures released “Champagne,” Alfred Hitchcock’s second to last silent picture, in 1928, a film that should have been bubbly but turned out flat.

Based on a story by Walter Mycroft and adapted for the screen by scenarist Eliot Stannard, “Champagne” starred vivacious Betty Balfour, then reknowned as the British Mary Pickford, with Gordon Harker, back for his third and final film with Hitch, as her father.

Like so many of Hitch’s pictures, “Champagne” opens boldly enough with Harker impatiently flipping through one newspaper after another as he reads the society pages for news of his wayward daughter. The papers report that she is thumbing her nose at her father by disobeying him and flying to sea to meet the cruise ship with her fiance, who her father does not approve of. On board the ship, the bold images continue with closeups of bottles of champagne being opened as one mustached man surveys a crowd of dancers through the stem of a champagne glass.

Balfour’s seaplane reaches the ship, and she is ferried by rowboat between the two vessels, changing into evening clothes on the way, although her face is like a raccoon mask of grime under her aviator’s goggles. Before long, she’s reunited with her boyfriend and causing a sensation on the ship, as everyone wants to be near her, including the mustached man.

The ship arrives in Paris, and Balfour takes up residence near the Eiffel Tower, where she throws a party, during which she keeps disappearing into a back room where two or three servants change her into one fancy outfit after another. Although her guests applaud every time she emerges, her fiance doesn’t appreciate her ostentatious ways. She responds to this by changing into a plain black frock and kerchief and posing like the little match girl.

Balfour’s gaeity is shattered when her father joins the party; he pulls her aside to tell her that he’s lost all their money, and they are ruined. Balfour is stunned by the news, but soon bounces back, deciding to find a job for herself. She winds up a flower girl at a night club, where she continually displeases her boss with her naivete – for example, she gives flowers to the club’s band.

Hitch purposely undercuts a serious conversation by staging a wild dance behind it.

Our mustached friend finds Balfour at the club and invites her to join him for dinner. Despite her misgivings over sitting with this mysterious character, Balfour goes ahead anyway. But when her fiance shows up as well, the situation becomes tense. The fiance leaves, then returns with Balfour’s father, who is incensed that she has taken such a job. Balfour is angry with both her father and fiance, and finds the mustached man. He is getting ready to leave for the United States, and Balfour begs him to take her with him.

On the train, Balfour’s fiance finds her alone in the other man’s cabin. He says that he would have taken care of both Balfour and her father; just then, the father and the mustached man enter the cabin, and the father admits that it was all a hoax (one worthy of a Lois Lane comic): They were never broke after all, but the father said they were to teach Balfour the value of money. He’s also pleased at the boyfriend’s loyalty, and now approves of their marriage. Oh, and the man with the mustache had been hired by Balfour’s father to stop her from eloping with her fiance. Somehow none of this upsets Balfour, who laughs with relief that they’re no longer broke.

“Champagne” was poorly received on release; it was billed as a comedy, but it wasn’t very funny; the story was thin, the situations unbelievable, and the characters one-note. Balfour is charming, and Harker is as funny as he can be given the limitations of the story, but there really isn’t much for him to work with.

Hitch revisted the shot through the stem of a champagne glass from the start of the movie in its final moments.

What almost saves the film is Hitchcock’s continued visual inventiveness, such as the great sequences on the ship where he uses camera movement to express motion sickness, followed by blurry multiple images to put the viewer in the head of someone experiencing motion sickness. Later, in a rundown Parisian apartment, there are lovely moments where Harker attempts to lecture his daughter while doing knee bends. After that, there’s a nice moment where Balfour is making a bed; she lifts the flat sheet up so that all you can see is the sheet; when it comes down, it’s a checked tablecloth that she’s using to set the table.

“Champagne” also suffers from what I’m starting to think of as “silent movie syndrome.” The characters barely have names, let alone back stories or motivations – they’re types more than anything else. They don’t behave like real people, either. Betty Balfour’s character’s reaction to the awful way in which her father has manipulated her is simply not believable. Hitch was always more interested in technical challenges than character, and sometimes he seems to just let the latter slide, as though hoping that his technical virtuosity and instinct for plot would carry the film. But without believable characters, neither plot nor flashy camera tricks count for much.

That said, “Champagne” also feels more modern than any other of Hitch’s silent films; its costumes would work in a 1930s musical, as would the art deco sets, particularly on the ship.

By the time “Champagne” was released it had been ten months since the opening of “The Jazz Singer” in the U.S. The British film industry was abuzz about it. The two major questions were: Would talkies be a fad or actually catch on, and how could the relatively small British business pay to outfit theaters and film studios with sound equipment? The question had to be looming large in Hitch’s mind as he worked on his 1928 films. His next movie, “The Manxman,” would be his final silent picture. We’ll look at that film next Sunday, March 14.




2 responses

8 12 2010
A Hitchcock Rarity: “Elstree Calling” « Hitchcock and Me

[…] a man attempts to tune into the show on that new invention, the television. In about half a dozen brief sketches, the man tries to tune in his set, but he only succeeds in making things worse – as well as giving himself shocks and setting off an explosion. The man is played by Gordon Harker, who had only recently appeared in Hitchcock’s films “The Ring,” “The Farmer’s Wife” and “Champagne.” […]

19 08 2011
Saving the Hitchcock 9 | ABC Art Gallery

[…] technology has transformed, and continues to transform, film restoration. In three cases – Champagne (1928), The Manxman (1929), and the silent version of Blackmail – the BFI has the fons et origo, […]

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