Week 7: ‘Champagne’ – 1928

This is a funny little film, not bad, just a bit odd. Spoilt little rich girl Betty (Betty Balfour) lives it up around the world as her father Mark (Gordon Harker) disapproves from afar, he then feigning bankruptcy to bring her down to earth and back to him. The rather mysterious figure of ‘The Man’ (the grandly named Ferdinand von Alten) weaves his way throughout the plot also and it transpires he works for Daddy and is trailing around after Betty as protection in case any misfortunes should befall her.

The girl is introduced having flown in a private plane to meet her fella (‘The Boy’ played by Jean Bradin) who is having a holiday on a cruise ship. When we first meet Betty there is a nice visual joke – she attempting to clean her face of plane-soot before raising her goggles to reveal still present panda eyes but smiling regardless – a good and bold way to introduce a glamorous leading lady.

I like the way the characters are described so simply, a title card at the film’s opening naming them as ‘The Girl’, ‘The Boy’, ‘The Man’, The Father’.

The film has a rather seamy side to it. I’m always caught by surprise by how suggestive certain scenes are in these silent movies. When Betty goes to audition for a tooth commercial, it is clear that they’re only after her legs – one of the guys suggestively lifting her skirt with his foot.

Later, when she secures a job at a nightclub selling flowers and cigarettes, it is clearly some kind of brothel/escort venue – kissing rooms and a sweaty, hand-rubbing, pervy proprietor abound. Betty, upon spotting The Man in this nightclub (in a great dolly/crane shot), imagines his seedy intentions as he takes her into one of the kissing alcoves – before coming back to present reality. She has a great naivete about her and can’t resist living it up, even when she is supposed to be working. As The Boy sits staring at her she dances in her chair like a crazy person – observed from a distance by The Man. It did seem slightly dubious that The Boy was even in this questionable emporium of sin in the first place, he doesn’t know Betty is working there so why is he frequenting such a place himself?

Hitchcock keeps the champagne imagery pretty minimal, The Man observing Betty through his glass at the outset of the plot (he looking vaguely sinister) and then repeating this p.o.v. shot at the end (although it still feels pretty sinister even when his motivation is understood). It’s a good effect and obvious, but executed well. The Man has many, many close ups where he just eyes Betty up in a vaguely suggestive way, an eyebrow cheekily raised at all times, a wry smile on the edge of his mouth. Von Alten seems to have this one stock expression and goes for it every time – but it’s a good one so at least he’s ploughing a successful facial-furrow.

Hitchcock does a neat thing when Mark turns up unexpectedly at his daughter’s party – the camera adopting his p.o.v. as she approaches to kiss the camera in huge close-up, then cutting to Father doing the same to-camera kiss, tracking back to reveal it is him.

The humbled scenes (where The Father and Betty move in together in relative poverty) are really sweet – she meeting the challenge of looking after dad as he (falsely) hits hard times. She is baking up a storm with some inedible cookies, Father making his excuses and adjourning for a slap up meal attended by various groveling waiters.

I have to say that after his comedy turns in ‘The Ring’ and ‘The Farmer’s Wife’ (neither of which tickled me one iota) Gordon Harker is really good here, playing Betty’s father with just the right amount of love and disapproval. The repeated calling of all his staff by pressing all the call buttons on his desk is funny, them trooping in eager to help their irate boss. Once I realized he was the same guy who appeared in the earlier movies, I started to like him even more for his adaptability here – he has a really good face to play the severe father figure. His exercise routine as the family hit the skids, he in his pyjamas doing some pretty basic warm ups, is nicely done and a good comedy moment – not overplayed or hammy in this case.

Betty Balfour is good also – she’s not that attractive in the traditional leading lady sense, but has a real little-girl’s-dimpled-joy at moments throughout and is perfect as both the flighty party girl and the more serious devoted daughter when needs must.

There’s a really nice edit in the down-at-heel sequence when Betty is changing the bedsheets,  They flap towards the camera and Hitchcock does a match frame edit to a table cloth also filling the frame, then being laid on the breakfast table – neat, quick, simple and works really well. There’s also a neat moment when Betty is kneading bread – the flour clears to show a cruise liner advertisement and, above it, the tooth commercial. Betty looks wistful and realizes a way to get back to her indulgent lifestyle. We cut to footage of cruise ship dancing which then freezes, the camera dollying back to reveal the freeze as a photograph in a shop window, with Betty en route to her interview. It’s a good idea a bit clunkily executed, I suppose with the limitations of the technology at the time. The lilting of the cruise ship is also nicely done, resulting in The Boy’s seasick sojourn in bed. Hitchcock seems to mix moving, swaying sets with camera sways here – the actors all really good at conveying the motion of the ocean. The director also does a really good multi image of Betty from The Boy’s bed-ridden p.o.v. – again, simple but pretty cool.

‘Champagne’ has some nice moments and performances but it does feel – forgive the cliché – a bit bubbly and inconsequential.

Miscellaneous notes

The version I watched (on the el cheapo Mill Creek label) had some astonishingly random music – literally making no sense and being distracting to the plot. One of my notes says ‘whoever put this music on is either braindead or just didn’t care’ as ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ blasts out inappropriately (the party scene at approx 21’00”).

Staircases galore here – very grand on the cruise liner, a smaller deco style one in the nightclub where Betty works.

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