Monday, February 4, 2019

Champagne (1928)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock                               Writers: Alfred Hitchcock & Walter Mycroft
Art Direction: Wilfred Arnold                           Cinematography: Jack E. Cox
Starring: Betty Balfour, Jean Bradin, Ferdinand Von Alten and Gordon Harker

In a fascinating interview with Anthony Perkins, the actor once said that Hitchcock’s Psycho was really a comedy. After watching initial showings Hitch even wanted to go back and punch up the dialogue in places because audiences were laughing over the top of it. While the director had already experimented with the form in Mr. and Mrs. Smith in 1941, and generally mixed a little humor in with even his most serious films, his comedy roots go back to the silent era in England. Champagne, from 1928, is moderately entertaining riches-to-rags story starring Betty Balfour, the most popular actress in Britain at the time. Film critic Walter Mycroft’s original story concerned a woman who worked in a wine cellar in Reims and wondered where all of the bottles of Champagne wound up. She travels to Paris and is horrified by what the overconsumption of alcohol causes people to do and just manages to make it back home safely. But Balfour didn’t like the story and so Hitchcock quickly wrote another about a rich flapper who goes to Paris on a lark. In this version the girl’s father makes and sells Champagne for a living, but that and the frequent recurrence of the beverage in the film seems more like a gimmick than anything meaningful to do with the plot.

The film opens with Gordon Harker as the father, angrily looking through newspapers. Turns out he’s a Wall Street magnate whose daughter, Betty Balfour, has flown a seaplane to the middle of the Atlantic to meet her lover onboard an ocean liner. But after that standard setup, suddenly Hitchcock’s mastery of visuals leaps to the fore. A close up of a Champagne cork exploding and a glass being filled and drunk, reveals an energetic pair of dancers through the bottom of the empty glass. The glass belongs to Ferdinand Von Alten. Angry? Jealous? It’s difficult to tell at this point. Then everyone rushes out of the ballroom and up the stairs, and Von Alten joins them. They are all there to watch the sailors who have just been sent out on a launch to pick up Betty Balfour from the plane. Once onboard, Balfour spies her lover, Jean Bradin, in the crowd, but is curiously circumspect and refuses to openly acknowledge him. Von Alten is there as well, glowering, and follows her down to her room where he sees Bradin go in a minute later. Back in Harker’s office he is still fuming, and reporters don’t make things better, but on the ship Balfour is the celebrity of the moment, and is formerly introduced to both Von Alten and Bradin, feigning ignorance with the latter.

Bradin gives her an engagement ring, which doesn’t fit, and Balfour sticks it on her thumb. Hitchcock tilts the camera back and forth to indicate rough seas during lunch, where Von Alten joins her. Then a seasick Bradin gets jealous but the sight of food makes him sicker and he retreats to his room. The rocking boat gag continues and Hitchcock does some nice moving triple exposure to replicate Bradin’s point of view. The two have a spat over wedding plans specifically, but Balfour’s extroverted personality in general. After docking they take the train to Paris where Balfour embraces the wild life, much to Bradin’s disappointment, especially after one of her new friends turns out to be Von Alten. That’s nothing, however, compared to the discomfiture when Balfour’s father shows up. What he’s come to tell her, however, has nothing to do with her escapades, but instead that the stock market crash has wiped them out. And that’s where the real plot begins. The two are forced to move to a one-room flat in Paris, but all is not as it first seems. While Hitchcock had been successful with his previous comedy, The Farmer’s Wife, critics were not impressed with this film. Hitchcock himself called it the lowest ebb of his career and never liked it because of the lack of any real story.

As in most silent films, the acting is conspicuously broad, but Betty Balfour takes it to an uncomfortable extreme. Unlike the confident but subdued style of someone like Clara Bow, Balfour practically chews the scenery and one wishes Hitchcock had reined her in a little more. But since she was so well known and beloved, there was probably little he felt he could do about it. The same goes for Gordon Harker and the exaggerated twitch of his mouth that was probably supposed to be funny at the time but doesn’t have quite the same effect nearly a century later. Though Hitchcock does steal a few bits from other silent comedians, there are some nice sight gags that made me laugh out loud. But they are few and far between. And again, while there is some nice camera work it’s not enough on its own to overcome a ponderous plot and some equally unsavory acting. Viewers today seem to be mixed, with some critics praising Hitchcock’s visual style and camera work--much as contemporary critics did in his day--while others can’t get past the lack of story and failure to entertain. But Champagne has its charms and, while arguably the worst of Hitchcock’s silent films . . . it’s still Hitchcock.

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