The Alfred Hitchcock Project #8: Champagne (1928)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Produced by John Maxwell (6, 7)
Screenplay by Alfred Hitchcock, Eliot Stannard (1-7)
Story by Walter C. Mycroft
Cinematography by Jack E. Cox (7)
Edited by Alfred Hitchcock
British International Pictures
Distributed by Wardour Films
(1:45) Hitchcock: British International Pictures Collection Blu-ray set, Kino Lorber
“Style in directing develops slowly and naturally as it does in everything else. In my case there was much dabbling about in so-called versatility before I found my niche…. Then I began to get more and more interested in developing a suspense technique.” (Hitchcock on Hitchcock, Volume 1: Selected Writings and Interviews, Sidney Gottlieb, ed., p. 115)
Apparently Hitchcock was pleased enough with his previous film The Farmer’s Wife to tackle another comedy, Champagne, about a young heiress named Betty (Betty Balfour) who finds herself in all sorts of shenanigans. How would this second comedic effort turn out?
As the film opens, Betty is so eager to see her boyfriend (Jean Bradin) - and even more eager to anger her overbearing father (Gordon Harker) - that she uses dad’s airplane to meet the boyfriend who’s traveling on an ocean liner headed to France.
Ah, but the unnamed boyfriend isn’t able to enjoy this reunion due to seasickness. Yet the fun’s not over for Betty, oh no. She finds an older man on the ship (Theo von Alten, whose real name was Ferdinand von Alten) who seems to have a thing for Betty.
Up comes Betty’s dad to spoil all her fun, breaking the news to her that the family fortune has been a casualty of the failing stock market. Even worse, Betty’s going to have to earn her own living. Much of the rest of the film chronicles Betty’s attempts to adjust to a life largely absent of leisure.
While I’m not a huge fan of Champagne, I recommend the film, particularly for some of the points I’ll bring out in a moment, but especially for the engaging and informative audio commentary by writer and film historian Farran Smith Nehme, found on the Kino Blu-ray set Hitchcock: British International Pictures Collection. Much of my information I gathered about the film comes from this valuable commentary.
Even after making only his sixth film, The Ring, just one year earlier, Hitchcock was the highest-paid director in England. One might think this distinction would give Hitchcock a fair amount of control over his pictures, but the director would have to wait a bit longer to attain such status. The shooting script for Champagne changed radically from its original conception, so much so that Hitchcock looked upon the project as little more than an exercise, a way to hone his craft. Many of its scenes feel like rehearsals for future pictures. A dream sequence conveying forced sexuality (Marnie) and glamorous scenes of wealth and luxury (To Catch a Thief) come to mind.
From the book Hitchcock/Truffaut, Hitchcock remarks, “What happened, I think, is that someone said, ‘Let’s do a picture with the title Champagne,’ and I thought of beginning it in a certain way, which was rather old-fashioned and a little like that very old picture of Griffith’s Way Down East. The story of a young girl going to the big city… My idea was to show a girl, working in Reims, whose job is to nail down the crates of champagne. And always, the champagne is put on the train. She never drinks any - just looks at it. But eventually she would go to the city herself, and she would follow the route of the champagne - the night clubs, the parties. And naturally she would get to drink some. In the end, thoroughly disillusioned, she would return to her old job at Reims, by then hating champagne. I dropped the whole idea - probably because of the moralizing aspect.” (p. 57, 60)
Walter Mycroft came up with the idea for the film, but Hitchcock quickly realized Champagne's obvious problem: there’s simply not much of a story here. Lack of story can be somewhat forgivable if you have interesting characters doing interesting things, but we soon realize that this also is a problem. Betty's flight to meet her sweetheart on an ocean liner certainly holds promise during the film's opening, but quickly disappoints. As the father, Harker has a couple of good moments (especially in a scene showing him summoning his servants), but Balfour (considered “the British Mary Pickford”) and her performance soon become tiresome. Yet several of the bit players come across as more interesting than the leads, including one of Hitchcock’s “sinister servants,” a short-haired woman in black (possibility suggesting lesbianism), a young woman in complete control of the men gathered around her at a bar, a flashy dancer, and others, none of whom are developed.
Yet the film contains memorable moments, such as the scene in which Betty is stalked by a pursuer and has her purse stolen from her. Using a technique that was employed for decades, Hitchcock chooses to show us only the lower legs and feet of the actors. No one uses this technique anymore, but it’s well done here.
Hitchcock said of the film, “That was probably the lowest ebb in my output."(Hitchcock/Truffaut, p. 57) It’s far too early in this project for me to totally agree with him, but Champagne does contain some good moments and a few laughs, but more importantly we see Hitchcock experimenting with camera placement, interesting choices in composition, pacing, lighting, and much more. Essentially he’s gathering tools for his toolbox, and like any master, he’s going to learn exactly when and how to use each one.
Next up: Hitchcock’s final silent film, The Manxman