Beginner’s Guide to Alfred Hitchcock: Champagne (1928)
We just celebrated New Year’s Eve, and I know I drank too much champagne. So I thought it would be appropriate to take a look at Alfred Hitchcock’s silent romantic comedy called, you guessed it, Champagne. The 1928 film is my last silent film during my journey through Hitchcock’s career and thankfully I found it to be a delightful comedy with some inventive filmmaking from the director. Champagne stars English silent film star Betty Balfour, along with Jean Bradin, Ferdinand von Allen, and Gordon Harker. The screenplay, credited to Hitchcock and Eliot Stannard, was based on a story by Walter C. Mycroft.
Betty (Balfour) is a spoiled heiress in love with a man, called “The Boy” (Bradin). Her father Mark (Harker) disapproves of this relationship, especially when Betty steals his plane to visit her boyfriend on a cruise ship. Betty receives a telegram from her father discouraging her from pursuing the relationship further. Betty suggests to her boyfriend that they get married, and he refuses. Upon returning, Mark lies to Betty saying that he has lost his fortune and that she must get a job. She finds work serving champagne at a cabaret but she is mysteriously followed by a strange man (von Allen). Mark then convinces Betty that her boyfriend was only after her fortune.
Champagne has a rather simple story, full of comic misunderstandings and well-intentioned lies. Much like many of Hitchcock’s silent films, it would have translated well into a “talkie.” Hitchcock’s filmmaking here is far more imaginative than some of his duller silent films like The Farmer’s Wife or Downhill. Hitchcock stages the film with some very funny set pieces. The sequence on the cruise is a hoot, playing with drunkenness and the ship swaying. There’s some more physical comedy like Betty struggling with a mattress in her new rundown apartment or cooking for the first time. Hitchcock uses the space of the set and the camera to guide the viewer into the mind of his characters, and mine situations for their comic potential.
Of course, the idea that Mark lies to his daughter to teach her a lesson is problematic, and the movie doesn’t quite justify it. And the man that’s following Betty turns out to be a detective/bodyguard her father hired to keep an eye on her. It’s very paternalistic and does not fly in 2018 eyes. The original concept of the film is even more upsetting. Hitchcock and his producer British International Pictures wanted to make a movie with the title Champagne. Originally, the film followed a worker at a champagne house who never gets to drink it herself. One day, she goes out to a party and gets drunk but returns to work vowing never to drink again. Hitchcock rejected that for being too moralistic, and the final film is softer than that.
Champagne does feature a classic Hitchcock shot. He films the popping of a champagne bottle in extreme close-up, the liquor spraying the camera. The champagne is poured into the flute, and we see the glass emptying from the perspective of a man’s mouth. Through the remaining fizz, we see a couple dancing. The man lowers the glass and watches them, disapprovingly. That is the kind of cinematic invention that Hitchcock is known for. Being able to craft striking imagery without dialogue is part of Hitchcock’s mastery, and one can see that skill developing here.
Even so, Hitchcock considers this to be one of the low points of his early career (I’ve lost count how many times he said that during his interviews with Francois Truffaut). He claimed there isn’t a story in the film. Sure, the movie is pretty light and works best as a charming rom-com with no real world weight. Critics at the time agreed with Hitchcock, and the film suffered poor box office returns. The film holds up to me. It’s certainly not something casual cinephiles should seek out. However due to its game cast and amusing sequences, the film goes down smooth like a flute of bubbly champagne.