A Few Bubbles

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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Hitch also squeezes in several fast tracking shots, straight at, or away from his subject. Sometimes these too are POV shots.

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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.

17 Responses to “A Few Bubbles”

  1. —————————————–
    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.
    ——————————————

    And I suppose BLACKMAIL and SABOTAGE just popped out of nowhere or for that matter THE LADY VANISHES. These films are sharp, detailed portraits of female subjectivity which anticipate masterpieces like SUSPICION, NOTORIOUS and MARNIE. SABOTAGE is especially interesting because Winnie Verloc is more developed in the film than in the book.

    Selznick may have gotten him more interested in psychology but as such many of what became some of Hitchcock’s riches was already on display in the British films. The other thing of course is that Selznick allowed Hitchcock to work with Joan Fontaine and Ingrid Bergman, actresses who are central to his concerns with women. What’s more interesting is that while he started with these ladies with Selznick he went his own way with them outside. Like SUSPICION is a more richer, more darker logical expansion of Fontaine’s work in REBECCA.

    He worked with Bergman first on SPELLBOUND where she’s more like Margaret Lockwood in THE LADY VANISHES but with NOTORIOUS and UNDER CAPRICORN she’s in line with Anny Ondra in Blackmail or Sidney in SABOTAGE.

    But where Hitchcockian women get more interesting is the 50s. Here they are still in the suffering or persecuted women current of 19th Century melodramas. With Grace Kelly you have the so-called “cool blonde”(which by the way I’ve never understood) who’s an elegant creature who’s more enigmatic than the man would give credit for but also someone who we don’t identify with unlike Fontaine and Bergman.

    The key film where we identify with strong compassionate women who are often in tension with their male companions is the second MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH with Doris Day’s pop singer turned housewife being underestimated by her husband. Then you had Vera Miles in THE WRONG MAN, of course Kim Novak in VERTIGO right upto MARNIE where the character is harsh, bitter and not very likable but we still identify with her.

  2. Betty Balfour’s seated shimmying is most entertaining.

    Off-topic: It’s my Birthday. Bill got me three Ozus: Record of a Tenement Gentleman, Tokyo Twilight and The Only Son

  3. Happy birthday David…Sixty years old. And you don’t write a bit like an old-timer. It’s kind of weird though because you’re born in 1947 and I was born almost 40 years later and yet we are chatting here like we are the same age or something. You survived the entire second half of the 20th Century which saw the most seismic social changes in over a hundred years. Does that make you feel special?

    Anyways…THE ONLY SON is perhaps my favourite Ozu. While TOKYO TWILIGHT is one of Ozu’s most underrated films but one of his best. It was a rare box-office failure for him and it seemed to dissappoint him very much and critics have generally neglected it, even David Bordwell wrote it off. It’s actually closer to a more realistic style than what Ozu was doing otherwise. It’s closest relative being A HEN IN THE WIND. It’s a very harsh film. Kind of like what Sirk was doing simultaneously in Hollywood, like IMITATION OF LIFE.

  4. Sorry I meant to write sixty-two but I forgot to type two by mistake. Anyways I hope you don’t mind me making you two years younger.

  5. Happy Birthday David E!

    Arthur, you are a mere boy! How did you get so incredibly smart? Your thoughts on Hitch are as always fascinating. My impression with the silent Hitchcock’s I’ve been running are that Hitch at this point is working with narratives that divide our sympathies and our POV in a way that’s not always conducive to his interest in subjective states and emotions. I think that may still be the case in Sabotage, although the high points of that film centre on Oscar and Sylvia, to the exclusion of the detective and the kid, who get maybe too much screen time. But I haven’t seen it in a few years and we’ll see what I think when I come to it in a month or two.

    Fiona said I had to post Betty Balfour’s gyrations, so I did.

  6. ———————–
    Arthur, you are a mere boy! How did you get so incredibly smart?
    ————————

    Well one, I have time on my hands which I fill it by watching doubloons upon doubloons of movies whenever I get a chance. Being profoundly unfortunate in my love life I have to have something. If not sex then cinema. Second because of the recent availability of making-of books, DVD extras, magazines and whole cornucopia of info, it probably takes 2months of careful self-education to become “film literate” whereas earlier your generation probably had to struggle to get access to all this information whereas we get it handed to us on a silver platter.

    In the 50s when Hitchcock was at his most active phase of film-making when his films played first run in theatres you couldn’t talk about Hitchcock like the way I casually do so but you had him at work making movies which was far more valuable. And besides I can look at Hitchcock at a whole when most Americans who saw his films likely didn’t follow his career from ”The Pleasure Garden” on-wards.

  7. It’s inspiring to see someone really using the wealth of movies available now — it’s easier than ever to become film literate, but fewer people seem to be attempting it. Partly due to a lack of film education in schools, and television no longer doing a good job of introducing people to the classics. So well done on realising the riches of what’s out there.

    I sympathise re the love life thing — I was alone for a long time before I found Fiona. If I can do it, anybody can, so I feel sure things will improve for you.

  8. I would tend to agree that there’s something in the Selznick thesis–although of course, as Arthur points out, some of the 1930s films do show at least some interest in a female character’s perspective… still, there’s nothing in those films that even comes close to the tortured subjectivity of Joan Fontaine’s roles, or Teresa Wright’s astonishing performance in Shadow of a Doubt (in which the actress dares to look the Hitchcockian camera in the eye), or, later, Vera Miles’ deeply affecting progression in The Wrong Man…

    I’ll have to take a look at that book!

  9. It’s a feature-length documentary, although I suspect there’s an accompanying book.

    Hitchcock was always interested in subjectivity. The memorable tropes in all his silent films depend on it. But often the narratives break up the POVs among a whole range of characters and the drama is diffused. This continues somewhat in the talkies, although the best of them achieve a good amount of focus.

    In America, Hitch pushes the subjectivity further, building on what he’d already achieved and refusing to let himself get distracted. He also starts to take structure more seriously, avoiding the diversions of the 30s British thrillers, and attaining a narrative mastery that allows him to experiment with alternative structures in Psycho and Vertigo. At least, that’s my impression at present. We are still in the early stages of this journey…

  10. Happy birthday Mr E!

    In a strange coincidence this week I picked up Those Who Love Me Can Take The Train (based on your vociferous recommendations!), and the Ozu set of Record of a Tenement Gentleman and Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice!

  11. I think a lot of Hitchcock’s attitude towards women were affected by his daughter Pat. She’s unforgettable in both Strangers on a Train and Psycho but it’s clear that Thersa Wright’s character “Young Charlie” in Shadow of a Doubt is a version of her. Of course Joseph Cotton’s Uncle Charlie is far more than merely “sinister” like Hitch, but in many ways he’s a nightmare version of “The Master” himself.

  12. Alma and Pat both exert a massive influence. And then he puts a lot of himself into those characters.

    And then there’s Hitchcock’s fantasy of women, the repository for his sexual side. And his interest in movie stars.

    The combination of all those influences makes for a rich and fascinating approach to female characters, certainly far deeper than the “misogynist” tag, which is mostly inaccurate and grossly reductive.

    Quite a few weird viewing coincidences going about — my blogging about The Head coincided with Matt Wand’s watching it. Just ran Le Corbeau for students. Anyone else been looking at that lately?

  13. Alma Reville Hitchcock is by most accounts Hitchcock’s closest collaborator, who perhaps knew more about Hitchcock’s film-making than her husband did but who was very insistent about not doing interviews and staying behind the scenes.

    I have never understood how people came to see Hitchcock as a kind of misogynist. If you see his films you find example after example of three-dimensional complex women in that period. Even his “cool blondes” were totally subversive of the 50s Blonde Bombshell stereotype where blonde women were dumb and seen as vulgar tarts. Hitchcock makes them impossibly elegant and refined and full of great humour and wit.

    A good example is Eva Marie Saint in ”North by Northwest”, on the surface it’s a conventional role of a sexy blonde spy lady but Hitchcock’s generosity allows you to see past that into deeper layers. Like that amazing brief scene when Cary Grant returns to her hotel room and she crosses over and hugs him tightly. It’s simple but very suggestive. She was supposed to follow protocol of being a double agent and let him die(perhaps as she did earlier) but seeing him alive gets her off-balance.

    And in the scene where Cary Grant humiliates her at the auction, you have that shattering close-up of her face as tears drop from her eyes like glass shards.

  14. I can sort of see how Psycho shocked people into taking a surface view of the violence in Hitchcock. Even more so with Frenzy, where he does seem conflicted somewhat between character sympathy and prurience.

    But obviously the women in his films are a rich and interesting bunch, and mostly they have his complete sympathy. One could as well call Ophuls a misogynist for giving his heroines a hard time.

    Hitch is clearly not interested in dumb women — a “Hitchcock blonde” is smart (and sophisticated), whether an elegant socialite or a humble secretry. And he identifies with them, so if he tortures them in the narrative, it’s largely to explore his own anxieties.

  15. Re Betty Balfour seat dancing – This had me in hysterics, but what about her partner’s response to it? What’s going on there? Fear? Concern? Arousal? It’s hard to tell. Any thoughts?

  16. I think our reaction is of more interest to Hitchcock than his.

  17. There are one or two moments in these early Hitch comedies — the “sex challenge” is another — where the films are at their funniest but the actual meaning and narrative and character movement is not at all clear. Such confusion would be anathema to Hitchcock later on, but it’s quite an interesting element at this stage.

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