January 25, 2020
Champagne – UK, 1928
While I was watching Alfred Hitchcock’s 1928 film Champagne, I had a sudden flashback of Rhett Butler reuniting with Scarlet O’Hara for the first time in years, peering down at her hands, and proclaiming, “You’ve been working!” It’s a line I’ve never been able to take seriously despite the fact that I understand the sentiments behind it. Sure, she’s a southern belle, but there is a war going on after all. In fact, one of the only ways to interpret the line is that he expected his love’s perfectly untouched hands to forever remain the shade of white that those who apply whitening cream daily obsess over. Roger Ebert was fond of saying that when a movie reminds you of a better movie, that was a indication of a bad film. That is a sentiment I whole-heartedly agree with, yet I have never been a fan of Gone with the Wind, so what exactly does it mean that I thought of it while watching Champagne?
Perhaps that, like Gone with the Wind, which came ten years later than Hitchcock’s film, Champagne seems to operate under the assumption that a woman of wealth should never actually have to do anything resembling manual labor – not even if she finds herself broke and responsible for more than one person’s care. Not that the film doesn’t show her trying – in one scene at least. During that part of the film, we watch as she attempts to make bread, and by the end of the scene, we fully understand why her boyfriend would have his doubts as to her ability to do regular work, while simultaneously wondering why he isn’t more encouraging of her resolve.
I’m getting ahead of myself here, so let me take a step back. Champagne is the bewildering story of an American heiress (Betty Balfour) who is dating a commoner. One reading of that sentence is likely enough for most savvy readers and movie-watchers to surmise what little plot the film has. If you guessed that the heiress’s father disapproves on the grounds that his daughter’s love interest must be after her money, give yourself a million points. If you guessed that said heiress would run off with her love, right again. If you further guessed that she would find herself penniless and have to learn how to fend for herself, well, you’re a bit better at this game than I am. I thought the film would focus on their lives after they get married, which I suppose could be the plot of a sequel, one that thankfully was never made.
So, just why did the image of Clark Gable becoming enraged come into my head? Because about halfway through the film, the Girl (as the opening credits so deem her) realizes the need to seek employment, and having realized her lack of cooking skills, she happens upon an ad for a “tooth” model – you know, one of those people who walk up to you, smile, and then tell you the wondrous product that produced the perfectly white teeth she just showed off. I suppose the point of this is so that she’ll experience – along with the audience – the depravity and sinfulness of the wealthy society she was once part of. This is a world fully explored in such pre-code films as Red-Headed Woman and The Divorcee. Those later films had the guts to fully expose the risks of places where wealthy unscrupulous men, men whose transgressions were often overlooked by the authorities, went to prey on vulnerable women or where greedy women went to find well-to-do suitors. There’s a reason we don’t see any of the women from How to Marry a Millionaire in that kind of establishment. If we did, perhaps we wouldn’t support their efforts, which is the feeling we get for practically every women in the club where the Girl eventually finds a job.
And just why does she feel the need to get that job in the first place? After all, doesn’t she have a boyfriend? The answer is yes. He’s played by Jean Bradin, and referred to in the credits as “The Boy.” And that’s an appropriate moniker actually, for he’s that kind of movie boyfriend. You know, the kind that is emotionally immature, easily envious, and prone to put his foot in his mouth. The kind that silently lowers his head at the suggestion of adversity or disappointment. The kind that passively lets the person he loves walk away from him instead of running after her. In other words, one prone to idiot moments. Interestingly, the character starts out as this joyous, carefree chap, who positively glows in the presence of the one he loves. It’s refreshing to see, and sadly what undoes him are two remarks that he would have already heard a million times – one from his unsupportive potential father-in-law and one that simply reflects the Girl’s strength and resolve. I’d have thought he be used to the first and love the Girl all the more for the second.
Champagne might have been a decent movie had it been about an hour long, for that’s about the length of time it has enough material for. However, the film is stretched to an ungodly length of an hour and forty-six minutes, and much of this time is devoted to creating negative impressions of characters that you’re later asked not to consider to be that bad after all. There’s even a scene in which the Girl finds herself in grave danger, and for a moment, it looks as if the film’s going to go in a rather dramatic direction. Alas, we soon see that the assault was nothing but a flash-forward. Or should I call it a day-nightmare? Whatever you call it, it was one of the only times in the film that I truly cared what happened to the lead character, and that feeling was wasted for no obvious reason.
As I’ve remarked in earlier reviews, there’s a tendency for reviewers to give a pass to films like Champagne, early works by directors who later become regarded as one of the greats. They dismiss it as a minor work and focus instead on brief glimpses of the director who went on to helm movies they love. And while Champagne certainly does have a few of these scenes, such as one in which he makes you feel the motion of the cruise ship as if crosses rough water and another in which he allows the camera to go out of focus as a way of conveying a character’s state of mind. However, giving a film a favorable review as a result of such brief moments is completely disingenuous. A bad movie is a bad movie, and no amount of subsequent excellent films can make a stinker watchable. This is how I feel about Champagne and Hitchcock. It’s true that he made masterpieces later on. However, that fact doesn’t change this one: Despite a noble effort by its leading lady, Champagne is quite the bore. I’ll give you another film critic cliché: This is one for Hitchcock enthusiasts only. (on DVD and Blu-ray as part of Kino’s Hitchcock: British International Pictures Collection)
*Champagne is a silent movie.