A spoilt rich girl leads a life of luxury on the profits from her father's champagne business. To bring her back down to earth he tells her that all the money has been lost so she goes to seek her fortune. Written by
Col Needham <firstname.lastname@example.org>
The recent BFI restoration of the Hitchcock silents brought to light the unhappy truth that the negative of "Champagne" held in the National Archive -- which on research proved to be the ultimate source of every other surviving print around the world -- is explicitly labelled as the studio's 'second negative', in other words a substandard back-up copy assembled from the shots that weren't quite good enough for the distribution print. The digitally restored version looks good, and some improvements have been made where shots were obviously spliced out of sequence, but since we now know that there are specific problems in this negative with poor editing/pacing (e.g. shots being held a little too long) and the use of reaction shots that didn't originally make the grade, it's hard to be sure how many of the film's issues are due to this fact and how many to an actually weak storyline. Given that the major problems are the complaint that the film seems to drag and that characters' reactions just don't seem to make sense, I'm afraid that "Champagne" as originally released may well have been substantially superior to the only version that we will ever be able to see :-(
This was apparently a case of a film where the title and star were decided upon in advance, and then a scenario had to be constructed around them! Hitchcock's original plan was for a rags-to-riches-to rags plot (as opposed to the riches-to-rags-to-riches version ultimately used) in which a girl working at a rural champagne plant would go up to Paris and see for herself how the drink fuelled dissipated night-life, only to return disgusted to her poor but honest job. However, it was felt that the great British public would much prefer to see glamour celebrated on the screen rather than have their illusions popped -- cinema was an escapist medium for those whose life was hard -- and so a completely different scenario was developed. (It is interesting to wonder, however, how much of the cabaret sequence derives from this original concept.)
Like most of Hitchcock's early films, this is not a typical "Hitchcock" production -- the director was expected to do his job as paid by the studio rather than provide his own material -- and is of interest to those who enjoy films of the era rather than to those who are looking for traces of "The Master of Suspense". Betty Balfour is the quintessential Twenties Girl here: wilful and bubbly with a Cupid's-bow pout, cropped curls and the ambition to dictate her own life rather than acquiesce to the plans of the male half of the population. The plot is thin and in places rather contrived, but as this is by no means rare in comedies of the period (or later ones...) I think the problem is with the handling of the material rather than with the storyline per se.
The beginning is good (I particularly liked the description of the young man as a 'cake-hound'. a wonderfully period insult), and the wordless comedy of sea-sickness is very well handled without being merely crude: I love the way the Boy veers between outraged determination to confront his supposed rival and qualms from his uncertain stomach.
The concept of forcing the spoilt flapper to fend for herself (echoing Buster Keaton's hapless couple on board the "Navigator") is obviously intended as a major comedy hook for the plot, although it's not played intensively for laughs. I have to say that this is the first time I've ever seen a director actually get comic business out of the actual process of cooking (as opposed to simply miming that the rock-cakes are rock-hard) and did wonder if it reflected an impressive degree of domestication on Mr Hitchcock's (or Mr Stannard's) part!
The main problem with the film is I think the cabaret sequence, and I do wonder if this is a left-over from the original scenario. Instead of developing the comedy inherent in a girl who 'makes a mess of everything she gets her hands on' (including the back of her lover's jacket...!) looking for a job, we are plunged into what turns out to be a rather confusing and portentous sequence of events, as her 'job' at the cabaret seems to get forgotten in favour of sexual innuendo: the prostitutes, the lesbians, the would-be rapist... The plot becomes muddled (not helped by what turns out to be an interpolated dream/nightmare sequence) and ends up with the girl running off to throw herself on the mercy of a man she has previously -- and soon again subsequently -- seemed to be afraid of. Considered dispassionately, much of this section seems to be a digression that neither develops the comedy nor furthers the plot mechanics (although it is probably the most 'Hitchcockian' part of the picture!)
Having contorted the characters into the required situation to create the final comic set-up -- the showdown of mistaken intentions on board the returning liner -- the film concludes fairly happily with some genuine laughter through unforced farce. The acting is by and large good -- save for those moments when it is simply totally confusing! -- and the basic plot is a promising set-up for a typical light comedy of the period, complete with showy costumes for the leading lady and a hint of slapstick. The pacing is just a bit off; and, knowing what we now know, I do wonder if there is missing material -- intertitles, for instance! -- or even excess shots where alternate takes/ideas were *both* included in the compiled negative for a decision at some future point...
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