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An introduction to silent Hitchcock: Champagne

June 22, 2012
Betty Balfour in Champagne (1928)

Betty Balfour in Champagne (1928)

With The Farmer’s Wife Hitchcock proved that he could excel at comedy, but Champagne (1928) unhappily revealed that froth was far from safe territory for the director. The critics were hardly impressed, with Close-Up crowing about: “champagne that had been left out in the rain all night”. Looking back, Hitchcock tended to agree, saying: “That was probably the lowest ebb of my output.”

Champagne (1928)

Champagne (1928)

Hitchcock wasn’t happy at the time either, no fan of the source novel and uncertain how to proceed. What Champagne does have is a promising cast: Betty Balfour (the “British Mary Pickford”) takes the lead role and one of Hitchcock’s favourite character actors, Gordon Harker, plays her millionaire father. Balfour, who had made her name playing cockney sweetheart Squibs, does her best, but her likable screen persona fares much better in the second half of the film, when her character (The Girl) develops a touch more vulnerability and sweetness.

In the earlier stages of the film, The Girl is a spoiled, grandstanding heiress, but a combination of Balfour’s hard-to-repress charm and Hitchcock’s steely gaze means she’s very hard to hate. She invokes her father’s displeasure by commandeering a plane to catch up with her boyfriend’s cruise liner. For this, he wants to teach her a lesson. But Hitchcock gets in first, shooting Balfour triumphant in a ballgown after her dramatic entrance, but with her face covered in soot from the flight. I was rooting for her from that moment on. Further humiliations are in store, but it’s a blessed relief when she reaches the point of redemption.

That said, there are some hugely enjoyable glimpses of Hitchcock on top form here: including a cynical street robbery (shades of a similar scene in The Pleasure Garden, maybe even a nod to Graham Cutts), and some bold subjective camerawork.

Champagne is also of considerable interest as film that is utterly of its own time – a cocktail-swigging flapper, her father with his fortunes balanced precariously on Wall Street, her straitlaced fiance with his old-fashioned views – and a reflection of our own. Mira Calix, who will be scoring the film for its gala screening later this year, points out that Champagne attacks a continuing 21st-century obsesssion with celebrities who, just like The Girl, behave atrociously and are famous off the back of their parents’ success. It also, she hopes, will chime with supporters of the Occupy movement: a front-row seat to watch the 1%ers behaving badly and meeting their icky comeuppance.

A minor work, but not without its charms, Champagne maybe largely a waste of Balfour’s talents, but it’s a showcase for the director’s style and his mean streak both.

Synopsis: 

Disapproving of her love affair, a millionaire sets out to teach his irresponsible daughter a lesson by pretending to lose all his money.  (BFI Screenonline)

Hitchcock moment: Our heroine is attacked by a creep (7:25). Pure Hitchcock. But not entirely what it seems.

Watch out for: Those alarmingly close subjective shots, most notably some tricksy ones through the bottom of a champagne glass.

Links worth clicking:

Champagne screens in September with a new sccore from Mira Calix as part of the BFI’s Genius of Hitchcock season. More information here.

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