“The lowest ebb of my career,” was how Hitchcock remembered CHAMPAGNE, his penultimate silent movie (sort of). He pitched British International Pictures (which is it? British, or international?) a project about a girl from champagne country who quits her job in the winery and heads for Paris, where she enjoys the high life, tasting champers for the first time, then falls to the low-life, then returns home, sadder and wiser, sickened by the very sight of bubbly. But B.I.P. wanted another comedy in the vein of THE FARMER’S WIFE, which had done rather well, so the film ended up being a rather shambling and insignificant light cham-rom-com. “It had no story,” was Hitchcock’s dismissive verdict.
He’s kind of right, but thanks to the exuberance of star Betty Balfour (a big deal in British silent cinema) and Hitchcock’s inventiveness, the movie is still quite watchable.
The “story” — Betty plays wild child daughter of champagne magnum magnate Gordon Harker, who proves his versatility by wearing a suit and puffing a big cigar, after his lower-class turns in previous Hitchcocks THE RING and THE FARMER’S WIFE. Dad goes broke, forcing Betty to try and make a living on her own. Then there’s a plot twist which everybody gives away but which I won’t. It doesn’t make much sense but it’s there if you want it.
All the story really needs to deliver is this: Betty learns the error of her ways, while struggling to earn a living and cope without servants. After many comic blunders, she shows her fortitude and impresses dad, while also winning the man of her dreams, who realises he cares for more than her money. The trick is to do all this in an amusing manner, but otherwise it seems pleasingly predictable and easy-on-the-mind. Unfortunately, practically none of the above actually happens, or not sharply enough. Betty shows her good nature by sticking by dad, but her life skills don’t really get tested. She certainly never gets good at anything.
(The documentary HITCHCOCK, SELZNICK AND THE DEATH OF HOLLYWOOD suggests that working for Selznick forced Hitchcock to get into his female character’s minds, and thus into the audience’s, ultimately deepening his storytelling and leading to his mature masterpieces. Looking at the silent work seems to suggest that may be at least partially true — the women should be strong, central figures of empathy, but so far it hasn’t happened. EASY VIRTUE is the clearest attempt at that, but it’s so misconceived structurally it hasn’t a chance. THE LODGER is a sensational film and pulls off some good female-centred scenes, but they’re not as centrally placed as they would be in, say, SHADOW OF A DOUBT.)
I quickly decided that the piano score was dragging things down (trying hard for liveliness, but too sparse) so I muted it and ran Joseph Kosma’s soundtracks from Renoir films instead. Since that album also reproduces chunks of dialogue and sound effects from the Renoir movies, the film’s French setting was enhanced considerably. Sometimes it really felt like the voices were issuing from the characters, and since I don’t speak French worth a sous, I could imagine that the dialogue matched the intertitles. When stray bits of audio like train engines came chuffing across the scene, the effect admittedly became rather Bunuelian, although sometimes this too worked, in an odd way. Betty served up a slice of veal, accompanied by the thud of a shoe falling to the floor. The young suitor (described by Dad Harker as both a “boulevard sheik” and a “cake hound”) thrusts his hands into his pockets and there’s a jangling of metallic tools, as if his trousers were stuffed with spanners. And still I maintain that this did not violate Hitchcock’s intentions.
(Everybody try this! DO NOT be satisfied with the music provided. Ken Russell first experienced the joys of mixing images with music when he projected METROPOLIS in 16mm with a gramophone playing Arthur Bliss’s suite from THINGS TO COME. It’s good practice.)
The plot may be shambolic and uninvolving, but Harker and Balfour are good value (I can’t see why Harker dropped out of Hitchcock’s films when sound came in, apart from a bit in ELSTREE CALLING) — both were better known for working class and cockney characterisations, but here they play millionaires, with Betty as a sort of Paris Hilton playgirl, only less appallingly unnecessary. Her extremely lively performance helps jolly the film along from one situation to another, without much help from the script ~
Hitchcock helps in his own way. His preoccupation with food (I guess this was the period when he was transforming from the relatively svelte, mustachioed man-about-town we see in early snaps, to the classic Hitchcockian tub-o-lard) is much to the fore, with a series of lurching shots traversing arrays of luxurious grub, vividly evoking the sea-sick state of the passengers on a luxury liner. And this kind of subjective effect is Hitchcock’s main trope — the film is virtually bracketed by shots from the POV of a champagne drinker, looking through the glass.
Another seasickness effect shows three Betty Balfours, two rocking from side to side in alternating rhythm, while the third swings right at us, then away again, then back… It’s a bizarre, quasi-nightmarish effect that wouldn’t look out of place in VERTIGO. Well, actually, it would look quite seriously out of place in VERTIGO, but you get what I mean.
Hitch also squeezes in several fast tracking shots, straight at, or away from his subject. Sometimes these too are POV shots.
Subjective camera: Betty Balfour withdraws from a paternal kiss. The focus puller gives up in despair and lets the middle of the very fast track-back go completely out of focus.
The casting interests me. Obviously, actors like Lillian Hall-Davis, Betty Balfour and Gordon Harker could slide up and down the class scale in silent cinema far more easily than they could when talkies came in. Even today, a bit of casting like Kathy Burke as Queen Mary in ELIZABETH is rather unusual, and it’s significant that she was cast by an Indian director, I think. It’s accepted and praiseworthy for an English actor like Johnny Lee Miller to assume a regional dialect in TRAINSPOTTING, but for an actor to portray a member of a radically different social class is quite rare.
Hitchcock, in his next film, would cast a Danish man and a Polish-Czech-Austrian-German-French woman in a movie entitled THE MANXMAN, and nobody thought anything of it. That’s silent cinema for you.