Friday, August 16, 2013

Champagne























CHAMPAGNE           B                     
Great Britain  (86 mi)  1928  d:  Alfred Hitchcock

Hitchcock admittedly was not happy with this film, believing it was a trifling matter with no story to speak of, describing his feelings, “That was probably the lowest ebb in my output.”  And while this is not a great film, it is one of his funniest, even if somewhat uneven, proving how difficult it is to make successful comedies, as it is filled with highly inventive camera work by Jack E. Cox and lowbrow comedy bearing a resemblance to Buster Keaton and D.W. Griffith, where the movie is filled with sight gags and delightfully inventive little moments.  The star of the film is Betty Balfour, the so-called Queen of Happiness, considered the Mary Pickford of Britain, where no British female during the silent era achieved the international status of Betty Balfour, where Film Historian Rachael Low comments that Betty Balfour was “able to register on screen a charm and expression unequalled among the actresses in British film.”  There is no denying Balfour’s energetic talent and her flair for comedy, but she doesn’t fit the profile of a Hitchcock woman, a sophisticated blonde with hidden sexual interests, what Truffaut in his interviews with Hitchcock called “the paradox between the inner fire and the cool surface.”  In fact, Balfour is closer to the girl next door, displaying no sex drive whatsoever, remaining too young and naïve, closer to an innocent little girl than a real woman.  And while there isn’t much of a story, adapted from a cliché’d Walter C. Mycroft novel, a British novelist that went on to run a rival British movie studio, British International Pictures, Hitchcock turned it into a variation on D.W. Griffith’s WAY DOWN EAST (1920), the story of a young girl going to the big city and having to find her way.  But while Lillian Gish comes from a dirt poor country farm, Betty Balfour, in a role known only as “The Girl,” has her heart belong to Daddy, Gordon Harker, so hilarious in The Farmer's Wife (1928), and his millions of dollars in riches.  The film has an interesting way of anticipating the Great Depression, where the rich were forced to join the working poor.        
  
Opening and closing with a refracted shot seen through a champagne glass, where the living resemble life inside a miniature snow globe, the movie follows Betty Balfour as a spoiled rich socialite, emblematic of the superficial exploits of the filthy rich who live their lives like there’s no tomorrow, a buoyant reminder of the freewheeling Jazz Age during the Roaring 20’s when every night was an unending party of music, drinking, and dancing.  Betty draws the ire of her father when she steals his private plane and flies it into the Atlantic only to ditch it at sea after she successfully joins up with her boyfriend, known as The Boy (Jean Bradin), onboard a luxury ocean liner traveling from New York City to France.  This publicity stunt draws headlines, revealed as a millionaire heiress’s mysterious ocean liner romance, whereupon she arranges to get married by the ship’s captain, all of which is too much and too fast for the befuddled boyfriend, where they have a fight instead.  Hitchcock humorously expresses the suddenly disappearing emotional equilibrium with a sight gag, as a drunk onboard the ship is seen staggering down the ship’s corridor, swaying from side to side even though the ship is perfectly steady, but when the waves roll the ship into a naturally swaying rhythm, all the passengers have a hard time keeping their balance except the drunk, who suddenly walks in a straight line.  Left all alone, Betty is met by a mysterious man with a mustache, known only as The Man (Ferdinand von Alten), perhaps the most interesting character in the film, as we never know anything about him, given almost no dialogue to speak of, but he goes eyeball to eyeball with the Boy, both vying for the Girl, where the Man seems to take an interest in her welfare, but quickly disappears once they dock and Betty winds up in Paris living with a group of party revelers where champagne is as free flowing as a water fountain.  Honestly, there’s no difference whatsoever from the frivolity displayed on the ocean liner and in Paris, as it all runs together in a continuous blur.  But when her father arrives in Paris, we learn he has made his millions in the champagne business, but he reports they have lost their entire fortune, leaving them with nothing.  Forced to fend for themselves, living in a dilapidated hotel room, her Dad puts up with her horrible cooking, where she makes nothing but inedible food, while later he’s seen ordering a full-course meal in a luxurious restaurant, where we learn he’s only pretending to be poor in order to teach his daughter a lesson in frugality.  But Betty’s not in on the joke, where her father was against her getting married, claiming the Boy was nothing but a gold digger, and he split as soon as he learned she lost her inheritance. 

Actually Jean Bradin as the Boy is the weakest link, as while he plays Betty’s love interest, he’s little more than a matinee idol’s pretty face, as he has no warmth, charm, or personality, and constantly bickers with her, seemingly threatened by her overcontrolling manner, where she likes to do as she pleases, which contradicts his view towards women, apparently, as he’d prefer to be the dominant force.  This incompatibility issue is never resolved, but simply overlooked for the sake of the story.  When Betty tries to get a job to help out her father, she has few qualifications, but responds to an ad looking for “young girls with beautiful teeth,” but when she arrives, she’s told “We’re only looking for legs.” They do give her a written reference for a job at a swanky restaurant that also offers an extravagant floor show that looks like it might have inspired Fellini.  Though she runs into neverending trouble from the Maître D’ (Marcel Vibert), as she hasn’t a clue how to follow instructions, but she’s given the job of a flower girl selling flowers for men’s lapels, where it’s expected that she’d provide a certain flirtatiousness for the customers, but she simply wanders around as she pleases, until the Man and the Boy arrive unexpectedly, each wondering why a girl like Betty is working in a joint like this, where in their eyes a bustling joint with a packed dance floor (turned into a herd of sheep in a surrealist Buñuelian image before Buñuel thought to use it) is suddenly a dive.  The film does use an unusual device to show the sordid side of Betty’s carefree party lifestyle, where she imagines herself being sexually assaulted, a violent sequence that abruptly interrupts the comedic moments, throwing the audience for a surprise, as it’s not initially known to be a daydream.  It’s something of a confounding film, as none of the characters really click, where it’s a throwback to an earlier era of physical and slapstick comedy, and it’s altogether surprising that Hitchcock is at the helm of such a loosely fit together comedy that has a tendency to ramble on, often incoherently, not making much sense.  But it seems to fit the scatterbrained mindset of Betty, who never really comes of age, even after her father confesses he made the whole thing up, again expressed in a newspaper headline, “Father Tries to Teach Spoiled Daughter a Lesson,” complete with an accompanying article.  You never know what kind of reportage you’ll find in the 1920’s, where apparently no one heard of Babe Ruth and the New York Yankees, but the fake stock market fall is quite prescient.  While the entire film is something of a parody on the foibles of the filthy rich, a subject that always fascinated Hitchcock, it’s also a comment on celebrity worship, as the public becomes obsessed with this kind of high styled, champagne lifestyle, but this is an uneven effort known for having some clever touches, hilarious in one moment and melancholy in the next, where there is no one with such a likable screen persona as Betty Balfour in the entire Hitchcock repertoire, but it’s also a film that got away from Hitchcock and never really captured his full attention.            

Note – there is no Hitchcock cameo

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