Dir: Alfred Hitchcock, 1928, UK, 86 mins
Cast: Betty Balfour, Jean Bradin, Theo Von Alten
Out-and-out comedies aren’t normally associated with Hitchcock, but then again his Hollywood chillers are far more familiar than his British silent films from the 1920s. And so Optimum’s box-set, Hitchcock: The Early Years, is a welcome edition to any completist’s collection.
The Trouble with Harry (1955) was a notable comedy outing for Hitchcock, but Champagne – here fully remastered (although not demonstrating the pristine image quality of fellow box-set companion The Manxman (1929)) – is also played for outright laughs. Film historian Noël Simsolo’s illuminating introduction on Optimum’s DVD fills in the film’s genesis: Hitchcock wanted to adhere to the dark themes of Walter C. Mycroft’s original story, but his producers, to whom he was under contract, wanted a more humorous product like his two previous successes, The Ring (1927) and The Farmer’s Wife (1928). Unwillingly towing the line, Hitchcock made a straight forward comedy about the daughter (Balfour) of a rich American businessman, who reportedly plans to elope with her lover (Bradin) to Paris. But during their Atlantic voyage she receives the unwanted attention of an older gentleman (Von Alten). Driving a wedge between her and her beau, they all cross paths again in a Parisian Cabaret bar.
What is most striking about Champagne is just how funny it is! Given that Hitchcock became synonymous with – more or less – the (psychological) thriller, Champagne is all the more successful, therefore, in mining such a consistent seam of humour. Except for the part preceding its conclusion – when the heroine begins to act somewhat disturbingly, which is evidently supposed to induce laughter – the film contains many riotous set pieces that attest to Hitchcock’s natural capacity for directing comedy.
However, the film is let down by a plot that careens from one seemingly random event to another and so lacks the much needed narrative clarity that maintains a spectator’s comprehension of a screwball narrative. Without ever wanting to make excuses for an admired film-maker’s lesser works, it must be remembered that Hitchcock was not in favour of his producers’ vision of the material. Nevertheless, he certainly fulfilled their wishes by downplaying the original story’s theme of moral degradation in favour of a lighter mood.
From a film history perspective, Champagne is a shining example of Hitchcock’s interest in formal elaboration. He believed that cinema was a medium that offered the possibility of all formal expression, and Champagne is a very early translation of those technical ambitions. His exploitation of camera and set design as tools to furnish the story with vicarious insight into characters’ physical sensations or else just with technical virtuosity (such as the shot from the point of view of a mouth as it gulps down the contents of a glass of the titular bubbly) is well practised here. For even by today’s overtly stylistic standards, Hitchcock’s was a unique vision that demonstrated maturity and flair as early as 1928.