Hitchmania: Champagne (1928)
Somewhere in Alfred Hitchcock’s Champagne is a good film. It is buried under a mountain of twists and turns, but it’s in there somewhere scratching at the walls. This 1928 silent feature is, like The Farmer’s Wife, a romantic comedy of sorts. But where The Farmer’s Wife was a relatively forthright fiction, Champagne bubbles over and sputters to a stop.
This picture is apparently based on a novel by Walter C. Mycroft. It is not among Hitch’s favourites, as is revealed in Truffaut’s Hitchcock book. The filmmaker considered it the “low ebb” of his career and noted its lack of story among the aspects for its derision, but Truffaut tries to make a case for it by pointing to some of its more inventive passages.
We’re introduced to the girl (Betty Balfour), a pre-Paris Hilton heiress who loses her father’s plane in an effort to board a ship where her beau (Jean Braden) is. The girl’s father (Gordon Harker) does not approve of the relationship, which pushes the girl to want to marry the boy aboard the ship. The boy has some reservations about the girl’s wild attitude, though, and this buys the father some time.
One day, the girl learns to her horror that her father has lost all his money thanks to the stock market. She and her dad move in to a small apartment together and she desperately tries to cope, fearful of losing her boyfriend in the process. She eventually settles on a job at a cabaret, but the recurrent appearances of a moustached man (Ferdinand van Alten) makes things more interesting.
Had Champagne stuck to its relevant riches to rags tale, it would have told a captivating story. But the irony here is that Hitch overreaches. This movie has too much plot, bending from one pothole to another in hopes of eventually landing somewhere. When the father reveals the truth at the end of the pic, all groans and eye-rolls are absolved.
That doesn’t mean this is an insignificant jaunt by any means. Hitchcock astutely starts and finishes his movie with a well-ordered establishing shot of the inside of a champagne glass. This icon of opulence, apparently the business daddy is in prior to the crash landing, sets up the theme of excess and merriment.
Hitchcock makes use of a number of compelling techniques to go with the champagne motif. He sways the camera back and forth to exemplify the motion of the ocean liner and picks up the action of a purse-snatching by only shooting his characters below the waist. Unfortunately, the framing in a lot of these shots is negligible and a lot of the more elaborate tricks ring hollow.
Champagne has a lot of humour, which is a plus. Balfour is a magnetic and funny lead, offering quickly-changing expressions to reflect the whirlwind of concepts moving through her head. She communicates well and showcases her wit with glee. One amusing moment has her verifying her nose after seeing a woman with a giant honker in the employment centre.
Regrettably, Champagne’s moments of magic aren’t enough to save this movie from itself. For every winning scene, like the one with Balfour’s character entranced by operations at the cabaret, there is a terrible moment, like the big reveal. Hitchcock’s “low ebb” is still better than many films, but it’s certainly a lesser light by his standards.