Week 7: Champagne (1928)

champagneposter.jpg“You’d better hurry, Miss, before she sinks.”
“I’ve always understood that simplicity was the keynote of good taste.”
“I baked these myself, Daddy.”
“You can’t live on pride.”
“We’re only interested in legs here.”
“I’m sorry, I thought you were a gentleman.”
“But what are you doing here?”


Hitchcock’s 8th film, Champagne, was rushed into (and through) production shortly after he completed The Farmer’s Wife, and, in fact, was completed before Patricia Alma Hitchcock was born in early July. The finished product invites inevitable comparisons with the beverage for which it is named: a light, breezy concoction with little depth and no lasting impression. Small wonder considering the circumstances under which it was conceived. It started off as simply a title, suggested by studio writer Walter Mycroft. The idea, apparently, was to build an entire film around champagne somehow, presumably a popular-enough concept during the Roaring Twenties.

bettybalfour.jpgWorking with Eliot Stannard, Hitch came up with an idea that was very much in the same vein as some of his earlier melodramas: a girl who works in the cellars of a major French champagne producer daydreams about the glamour surrounding the outgoing shipments. Eventually she goes to the city herself and loses her innocence amidst the iniquities of alcohol consumption before finally returning to her old job. Now, every time she sees a shipment of champagne going out, she knows the trouble it is likely to bring with it. While Hitchcock and Stannard were concocting this idea, the head of the studio had already signed a girl to play the lead: Betty Balfour. Balfour was one of the major British stars of the day, known as “the English Mary Pickford.” However, like Pickford, she was most known for her roles in light, upbeat fare, and Hitch’s idea simply wouldn’t do.

Of course, this wasn’t the first or the last time that Hitch would find his creative control of a project subverted by the image of one of his actors. While his original idea hardly sounds terribly compelling, the more upbeat story Mycroft presented them with is truly devoid of any reason to exist. Stannard and Hitchcock (who took a writing credit on this film) were still struggling to piece the script together when shooting began, apparently staying just ahead of filming as production continued. Unfortunately, it shows. Aside from a few virtuoso visual touches, the film is rather dull and completely fails to engage the viewer with any reason to invest in the characters or their circumstances.

gordonharker.jpgChampagne takes place amidst the rich but shallow oeuvre of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, with the characters bouncing back and forth between New York and Paris, hitting every high-rolling party along the way. Betty Balfour essentially plays the Paris Hilton of the 1920s, a wealthy American heiress whose father (played with twitchy irritability by Gordon Harker in his third major Hitchcock role) is a big cheese in the champagne business.

When she steals one of his aeroplanes and crashes it in the middle of the Atlantic in order to catch a cruise ship carrying an “unsuitable” young man she plans to elope with, her father decides he’s had enough. He comes to meet her in Paris (where she has yet to tie the knot, thanks to her frequent quarrels with her beau) and claims that he’s been wiped out on the stock market and they are now penniless.

creepyguy.jpgHis lesson fails to have the desired effect when his daughter winds up getting a questionable job in a shady cabaret and nearly puts her virtue in question. Through it all floats a mysterious and extremely creepy older man with a sinister moustache, who seems to dog Betty’s steps from the moment she sets foot on board the cruise ship. It is as though he is simply waiting to catch her in favorable circumstances so that he can take advantage of her, and every clue points in this direction.

These suspicions seem to be confirmed when she rushes to his side in a fit of pique after her father reveals his ruse, only to have him lock her up. However, as the viewer may have at least half-suspected all along, this lascivious-looking character proves to be an old friend of her father’s who has been watching out for her all along. Everyone has a good laugh, the two young lovers are reconciled, and we all applaud the end of a blessedly brief 85 minutes.

champagne1.jpgAlthough Champagne is ostensibly a comedy, and Hitchcock had previously shown a certain aptitude for filming humor, this movie is only rarely funny. The occasionaly guffaw aside,it is unlikely to inspire any mirth. The flat nature of the film only serves to draw attention to some of the interesting visual techniques used to tell its story. The film opens and closes with a shot of the room filmed through achampagne2.jpg champagne glass being held by the creepy-moustache guy (played by German actor Theo von Alten, listed as simply “The Man”). The effect was devised specifically for the film by Hitch himself using a special lens (despite being told that the focus effect he wanted was impossible), but he doesn’t make the mistake of overusing it. It simply bookends the film.

Moustache guy lowers his glass and we see that he is at some sort of party with a great deal of dancing and food. Suddenly, something catches the attention of the crowd, and they all rush out, practically stampeding the exits. Soon we see that they are on a ship, and at first we wonder if the ship is sinking, particularly when we see sailors clamber aboard a lifeboat. However, just that boat is lowered to the ocean below, and it seems that perhaps someone has fallen overboard.

powderpuff.jpgThe reality is far more bizarre, of course, as they row out to meet Betty’s plane and rescue her and her pilot. She immediately reveals a great deal about her character when she appears, dressed in a leather pilot outfit, and immediately pulls a puff out of her slick and powders her nose. Here is a character who is always ready to party, and even when circumstances are at their worst, she seems to think that the best approach is to greet the situation with forced good-cheer.

seasick.jpgBetty is joyfully reunited with her fella (played by French actor Jean Bradin, simply called “The Boy”), and the voyage proceeds. A few days later, the ship sails into rough waters and everything on board is shown swaying violently back and forth. Betty makes her way into the nearly empty dining room, staggering entertainingly between tables, and is joined by moustache guy. The boy happens in shortly thereafter and is most put-out when he sees her with the man, but he is overcome by seasickness, particularly at the sight of fully-garnished dish containing the head of a pig. He turns and stumbles back out. Betty visits him later in his cabin, and we are treated to a camera effect that attempts to communicate his condition. It is quite successful, threatening to sicken the viewer as Betty’s image splits into three and sways blurrily in all directions.

The boy wanders in and out the film haphazardly from this point on, usually only walking on long enough to quarrel briefly with Betty before leaving in a huff. After each of these little spats, both of them have brief second thoughts, and turn to after the other to kiss and make-up, only to allow pride to overwhelm these reconciliatory instincts (a pattern that bodes ill for their future happiness, but does allow the plot to advance).

snatch1.jpgAfter Betty’s father delivers the bad news about their change of fortune, Betty resolves to sell her jewelry for money to live on. What follows is a true Hitchcockian sequence: Betty walks along the sidewalk, swinging her jewelry box at her side. She passes someone leaning against the wall, who quickly moves to follow her and snatches the jewels. She stops and looks after the retreating person, seemingly at a loss as to what to do, then walks back and picks up the box from the ground, only to find it empty. The entire scene is filmed from the waists of the characters down, using only their legs and feet to convey the action.


skirt.jpgSome largely unfunny shenanigans follow as Betty struggles to adjust to her new station in life, learning to make a bed and so on. She tries her hand at baking for her father, and he makes a courageous attempt to eat what she’s made, but ultimately declares he isn’t hungry and sneaks out to order a large meal at a fancy restaurant. Sitting dejectedly back in their apartment, Betty notices an ad calling for beautiful teeth to demonstrate the effectiveness of “Minto” Tooth Paste. She rushes downtown, but goes to the wrong place. While the man behind the desk explains her mistake, the guy behind her reaches out with the toe of his shoe and carefully lifts her skirt to inspect her legs. He likes what he sees, and they offer her the cabaret job, which she accepts.

cabaret.jpgThe cabaret sequence is easily the longest and most elaborate scene in the movie (hogging probably a good quarter of the total runtime). The set is striking and elaborate: an ornate, two-story room full of arches and boxes that frame everything in sight. Betty is given exotic costume and put to work as a flower girl, providing complimentary buttonholes to the gentlemen customers. As she goes back to change, she spots one of several dark alcoves in the building, occupied by a couple passionately making out. The sight seems to shock her (although she has already proved adept at tonsil hockey herself).maitre.jpg From the moment she begins her new job, she seems destined to arouse the ire of the maitre d’hotel, an odious fat man who constantly dry-washes his hands. Of course, it’s no wonder he’s annoyed: First she gives flowers out to all of the musicians in the band, and then she spends most of the evening sitting at one of the tables, first with moustache guy, then with her boy.

dream1.jpgAs she talks with moustache guy, who is looking as menacing as ever, the camera zooms in on her face, regarding him intently. He motions to her to get up, and together they leave the main dance floor and slip into one of the dark alcoves she noticed earlier. It takes on a very sinister outlook, and as they sit down, portentous shadows (foreshadows?) linger menacingly throughout the frame. He quickly forces himself on her, scoring a prolonged kiss despite her struggle to get free. As their lips remain locked together, the scene fades back to the close-up of Betty’s face and we realize that she just imagineddream2.jpg a possible outcome of the evening. The episode is vaguely reminiscent of the short story “Gas” that Hitchcock had written a decade before, and this tactic allows Hitchcock to have his cake and eat it too. He can inject a little suspense and terror into the scene and taking the heroine into darker territory without any narrative consequences to force him out of the light comedy genre.


What actually happens is that the man spots the boy on the second floor and motions him to join them, then takes his leave. Betty and the boy quarrel (yes, again) and he leaves, only to return with her father and the news that she has been tricked. The remainder of the film I have already described, but it is particularly notable that throughout the cabaret scene, there is more dynamic cinematography than in any previous Hitchcock film.

It is as though the camera is invigorated by the kinetic energy of the thick crowd of dancers on the floor as it takes us through several notable moving shots. There are multiple tracking shots which follow a character through the crowd, around the edges of the room, and up or down the stairs. One difficult shot swoops all the way across the room to zero in on an extreme close-up. All of this anticipates some of the increasingly elaborate camerawork that Hitch would require of his cameramen in upcoming features.

In terms of overall quality, Champagne is likely the least of Hitchcock’s silent pictures to this point, certainly among the worst of his career. As the director himself would later tell François Truffaut, “The film had no story to tell.” Audiences and critics at the time generally agreed. Nevertheless, as the rise of “talkies” drew near, Hitch continued to strengthen his talent for relaying narrative through visuals, even those that hardly seem worth the telling.

harker.jpgAs for Gordon Harker (because I know you’re dying to know), he worked with Hitchcock only once more, on the 1930 film Elstree Calling. This was the British movie industry’s version of Hollywood’s highly successful vaudeville “revues,” featuring a variety of comedy sketches and musical numbers strung loosely together by a thin narrative device. In this case, the “connective tissue” scenes were directed by Hitchcock and featured an inventor (played by Harker) struggling to watch the revue on his primitive television set, but continually losing the signal due to his obsessive tinkering. Harker went on to star in his own film franchise, as the humorous Inspector Hornleigh, in the late 1930s, and continued to appear in movies until 1959. He never worked with Hitchcock again, though, presumably because the director simply stopped making comedies almost entirely.


Next Week: Hitchcock directs his last silent picture (sort of)

~ by Jared on February 13, 2008.

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