I was speculating last time about Hitchcock’s probable reaction to being asked to direct a comedy without jokes- that being my rationale for the workmanlike mediocrity of The Farmer’s Wife. This week, however, he seems to have let loose and had a ball. Champagne is a lot of fun because everyone involved seems to be enjoying themselves. And because the Director appears to be enjoying himself, this is infectious across the cast.
The leads are Betty Balfour, a charming comic actress, as a headstrong heiress and returning Hitchcock favourite Gordon Harker as the father determined to teach her a lesson. After last week’s almost slapstick turn as farmer’s servant Churdles Ash, Harker is much more restrained in the role of well-dressed, respectable billionaire- dressed very similarly to Steve McQueen’s Thomas Crown- restricting himself to a few verbal ticks. It’s the first time that Hitchcock has had a pair of leads with chemistry and they inject a lot of fizz into the while thing. Betty Balfour particularly livens the whole thing up from her opening appearance- covered in soot other than where her goggles protected- to her delightful pricking of her boyfriend’s pomposity (seriously, though, Hitchcock is making it hard for the viewer by consistently making one of his romantic leads such an arse).
There are echoes of past successes in the film, for example, just as Easy Virtue starts and ends with a first-person perspective through a monocle, Champagne repeats this with a champagne glass. Similarly the trick of dispensing with opening exposition by telling the story through newspaper headlines from The Lodger is repeated, though less ostentatiously. There is a bag-snatch shot from below knee-level which recalls a very similar scene in The Pleasure Garden and a nauseating sea voyage filmed with swaying cameras as we saw in Downhill.
There are innovations too, though. In a party scene our view is partly obscured by party-goers near the camera, as though we were in the room looking through a crowd. The party scene is far more successful than similar scenes in The Ring, for example. Similarly, Hitchcock arranges it so that a conversation seated in a nightclub takes place almost within the dancefloor adding energy more successfully than the relatively staid scenes in Downhill.
Champagne is a minor footnote in Hitchcock’s career and is most interesting as an examination of his growing understanding of comic subtlety- aside from a moustache-twirling, hand-rubbing Maître D character who looks like Dr Robotnik on speed- but it’s a lot of fun to watch.