It’s lucky number seven at Weekly Hitch, as I continue my quest to watch pretty much all of Alfred Hitchcock’s movies in chronological order and with a violent and angry panther gnawing on my leg. Except without the panther.
This week we watch one of the oddest and most curious instalments in Hitch’s body of work, and one which he would later remember as, “the lowest ebb of my output.” But does the film deserve such harsh reflection, or is it just a bubbly and frothy cocktail of joy? We shall find out, with Hitchcock’s 1928 silent comedic-drama – Champagne.
Champagne follows along in the late-twenties style of moralistic tales set against exotic or fashionable backdrops, a sort of companion piece to Hitch’s earlier works Downhill and Easy Virtue. But where those films were stern and occasionally heavy-handed, Champagne is something decidedly different.
The film begins with a wealthy Wall Street investor reading a newspaper headline about his daughter crashing a plane in the ocean just so she could catch an ocean liner which happens to be carrying her boyfriend. The father (played by surprisingly versatile character actor Gordon Harker – in his third and last Hitchcock film) is obviously none too pleased.
We then cut to a glass of champagne being poured… bubbly and crisp, and then the glass tilts and through the bottom of the glass we see a couple dancing on the cruise ship itself.
In the ship’s ballroom, an elegant but mysterious man with a mysterious moustache drinks the champagne and then everyone hurries out of the ballroom and up to the deck.
Out on the ship, the life rafts are lowered and who should be retrieved from a slowly sinking aeroplane? Why, it’s Betty! The Wall Street tycoon’s daughter.
Betty is played by English film star and flapper-girl of the age Betty Balfour. The character is a frivolous sort who doesn’t care about losing a plane or running off to marry her boyfriend on the ocean or causing a scandal for her father. Back in New York, however, her father decides to do something about it.
Betty comes on board making quite the entrance and is greeted by her handsome, Jason Segal look-alike boyfriend, the dashing… “Boy.” Which is all his credit reads. He is played by French actor, Jean Bradin.
Soon, Betty and the Boy are having a lovely dinner on board the ship, but rough seas are ahead! Metaphor Ahoy! The boyfriend gets seasick and Betty is left alone… with the mysterious stranger! He is referred to as either “The Man” or “The Continental” (played by Ferdinand von Alten). The Man and Betty share a table and he looks at her with his moustache.
At dinner, Betty receives a telegram from Daddy warning her that the boyfriend is nothing more than a corrupt gold-digger and that she’s not to marry him. A fight then ensues with the boyfriend and Betty ends up running off to Paris at the end of the voyage to buy some dresses.
In Paris, Betty is entertaining lots of friends and showing off the latest fashions and dances and cocktails, and even the moustache is there watching over things. Then, Betty is shocked to find that her father has come to see her… and he bring with him some terrible news.
The family is broke!
Soon the two of them are living in relative squalor (i.e., a fairly small apartment) and Betty has to learn to cook and clean and do all that poor people stuff.
Left with no choice, Betty heads out to sell her jewels, but – in a very cleverly staged shot – she is set upon by ruffians and mugged. Left with nothing else, Betty sets out to find a job – first attempting to land a gig demonstrating toothpaste, but ultimately winding up working in a nightclub. Yet one more Hitchcockian/Faustian tale of descent.
In the seedy club, Betty sees dancers and drinking and all manner of debauchery that she used to enjoy – and she longs for the life she once lived. Then the Mustache turns up and offers her his address in case she needs refuge.
It’s right about here that we discover that the father wasn’t broke after all, but just pretended to be so that he could teach his daughter a lesson about living like a snotty princess. Though, it’s a lesson I’m not sure she learned all that well.
Betty then runs off in anger at her father and goes to see the Continental Moustache, whom she uncovers was a friend of her fathers all along, sent to keep an eye on her. Is there no-one she can trust?!
Now that all the strings are tied up, the boyfriend is given permission to marry Betty and it all ends well. The moustache pours some champagne, and we see the happy couple through the bottom of the glass.
So what should we think about Champagne? Alright, from a purely film-reviewish stand point, I’ll say this;
Champagne is a bad movie, but like many bad movies, it is not without its charm.
So first up, the good – because I’m feeling optimistic this week. The film looks great, even the crappy video I saw. This is Hitchcock at the prime of his silent era mastery, and while the story may be weak and meandering, his technique is wonderful. British International clearly gave him all the money he wanted, because the sets and costumes are lavish, and Hitch’s cutesy camera tricks (something which he would soon get over) are just as amusing as ever.
And then there’s Betty Balfour. Hitchcock hated her (more on that below), but there is no denying that she was insanely charming and lovely and endearing. Just watching her eyes and her smile is a delight. In truth, even with such a bad movie around her, she nearly carries it off just by being marvellous. There’s also a pretty scandalous shot of her changing dresses in which you can see her whole naked back – and I’ll bet in the twenties that was probably the sexiest scene in film history.
The rest of the cast are all serviceable, although the Continental Moustache is filmed in such a sinister and evil way that his performance almost becomes parody. Blame that one on Hitch.
So; great shots, inventive cinematic storytelling, charming actress, beautiful sets and costumes, and Hitchcock behind the lens. Where did it all go wrong?
Walter Mycroft. That’s where.
The story is ludicrous and awful and confusing. Like the drink it’s named after, Champagne just gets less and less fizzy and fun the more you let it sit.
We’ll go more into the script and its formation in a moment, but basically Hitchcock wanted to make a serious drama about the effects of drink on society, and BIP’s head of production and development, Walter Mycroft, wanted a fun silly comedic romp for their international movie star, Balfour. So Mycroft came up with a crappy story and then Hitchcock and his faithful writer, Eliot Stannard, wrote the script. And then kept re-writing it all the way through production.
It’s a mess. A pretty, charming, fun, and interesting mess. It’s like the me of movies, I guess.
Champagne began, like so many of Hollywood’s worst movies, as an attempt by business people to cash in on something popular.
Walter Mycroft and John Maxwell (head of British International) had noticed that champagne, the drink that is, was very popular with young people of the roaring twenties, and so they decided that they should basically just make a movie with that title. Hitchcock, still under contract to BIP and required to take certain assignments from time to time (as he would be until 1932) was selected as the director best suited to bring the beverage to the big screen.
This might seem like something Hitchcock would hate, and the older man certainly would have, but I think there was something of a cocky bastard in Hitch back then – something that would relish the challenge of turning a drink into a movie. I get the sense that he took the job with every intention of knocking its socks off.
Initially the project was envision by Hitchcock and Stannard as a serious drama. He imagined the story of a young woman working at a winery in France where champagne is made, watching cases going off on a truck. Then, through certain twists of fate she goes on a journey, at first fun and then increasingly darker… all the while seeing the debauchery and drunkenness and lurid awful things caused by the drink as she travels. In time, champagne even threatens her own well-being and so she returns to the winery. But now, her view has changed as she watches each case full of the drink go out the door. With each one, she imagines another life being ruined.
I mean, seriously? Dark damn stuff. And certainly not the bubbly, frothy fun that Maxwell and Mycroft were hoping for – especially not after they decided to put Betty Balfour in the lead.
Betty Balfour was known as England’s “Mary Pickford” and “The Queen of Happiness” (really), and she was most famous for playing jolly fun-time girls who smiled a lot and had fun and wore nice things and didn’t get messed up in drunken Paris prostitution rings or whatever Hitch had in mind.
No, if Balfour was to be involved then Maxwell wanted a fun comedy, and Hitch was suddenly saddled with a story he didn’t care about and an actress he claims to have detested.
“A piece of suburban obscenity.” That’s how Hitchcock described Betty Balfour to his stills photographer (and future incredible filmmaker,) Michael Powell. There is some thinking that he took such a dislike to Balfour because he had been very keen to cast another actress by the name of Anny Ondry (who would star in Hitch’s next two films) and as such found himself saddled with Balfour and a story he disliked.
In truth, Hitchcock was a petulant and occasionally bullying figure, and odds are that Balfour’s mere presence served as a constant reminder that he was not the true captain of his own ship – and this very well could have led to his distain for her.
So, with the help of his usual writer, Stannard, Hitchcock rewrote a comedy story put forth by Walter Mycroft and started production – even though the script wasn’t finished. Camera assistants and actors would recall Hitch and Stannard going off with Jack Cox (cinematographer) and writing the day’s scenes or rewriting others, and the crew going along with it – trusting in Hitchcock’s now famous talents.
And yet, even with all this chaos, Hitchcock still managed to be a flipping genius. An early shot looking through a champagne glass at a dancing couple on the ship required a special-made giant champagne glass to be made, and then to have a lens actually fitted into it so the camera could get the shot – apparently this was Hitch’s idea, and it works like a charm.
The film also features the first ever “freeze-frame” in cinema, wherein the girl remembers her fun life on the cruise ship, the action freezes, and the camera then pulls out to reveal that the frozen image has become a picture. Old hat now, but revolution then.
Hitchcock also did Balfour a very good service, seemingly in spite of his disdain. She looks gorgeous, gets tons of lovely close ups, and the whole movie has a sense of fun and silliness that Hitchcock would never have allowed himself if he’d made his original idea.
Production wrapped in July of 1928 – just in time for the birth of Hitchcock’s first and only child, Patricia. Champagne was screened for the press in September… and was basically a failure.
Most reviews hated the story, but gave credit to the film’s star and its director. But in the end, Champagne was another flop by Britain’s best director – and certainly not his last.
This won’t take long.
Let’s be honest, Champagne is an amusing blip on the Hitchcock radar. In later years, Hitchcock wouldn’t even deign to speak about the film. He saw the picture as a low point in his early years – years spent working at the whims of others and stuck in a contract that he thought would give him more money and power, but made his use that power on less ambitious projects.
There are certainly elements of violence and sexuality in Champagne, there’s deceit and some very light suspense. But, in the end, Hitchcock wasn’t making a Hitchcock picture.
One thing to take away from the film is Hitchcock’s increasing ease with large sets and lavish productions. We’re not talking about the entire city block he would construct for Rear Window, but there is a good deal of spectacle here, and it’s something that Hitch would come to rely on in later years.
This also marks the first time that Hitchcock would openly dislike a leading lady, and not the last. Others have written whole books about Hitch and his blondes, and I’m not about to guess as to his feelings for Balfour, but he definitely had an occasional hate on for some ladies.
So legacy-wise, there’s just not much here for us. It’s at best a slight glimpse at what might have become of Hitchcock if he’d wound up just another average director – churning out bad ideas for rich people, and denying the actual artist and the auteur inside himself.
Maybe it’s all a warning then. Tell your own stories, because other peoples are probably nothing but fizz and bubbles and very little substance.
Don’t forget to come back next week, when I’ll be looking at Hitch’s very last silent film, The Manxman, and preparing to celebrate my return to actual sound in a movie. I can’t wait. See you then.