Monday, January 20, 2020

Alfred Hitchcock | Champagne

never safe from ourselves
by Douglas Messerli

Alfred Hitchcock and Eliot Stannard (screenplay, based on a story by Walter C. Mycroft), Alfred Hitchcock (director) Champagne / 1928

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1928 silent romantic comedy, Champagne, is often described as one his very few forays into the comic mode. Yet, if you carefully look at Hitchcock’s oeuvre you’ll perceive highly comic moments in nearly all of his films, including his own appearance carrying an ear-horn in Vertigo and even the wisecracks of his daughter Patricia in Strangers on a Train. Hitchcock was apparently delighted to discover that his writer for Rope, Arthur Laurents, was having a brief fling with the film’s handsome actor, Farley Granger. He surely loved the irony of the creator and his villain jumping into bed together.

      Champagne also is not all comedy. Once the wealthy heiress, Betty (Betty Balfour) absconds with her father’s airplane to elope with her lover (Jean Bradin), her father (Gordon Harker) angrily sets his agents against her, including a somewhat suave but even more menacing Theo von Alten (Ferdinand von Alten), who attempts to woo the strong-headed beauty, Betty, away from her apparently kind and loving boyfriend.
       Her father is certain that The Boy is attempting to marry Betty simply to get her (and his) great wealth. But, in fact, the Bradin character disparages her money which seems to privilege her to make all the decisions, including a demand for an immediate marriage aboard the ship she has flown to.
       Betty, herself, moreover, is presented as a selfish, strong-willed woman—more interested in drinking and dresses than her future husband’s sense of independence.
       When The Boy finally visits her apartment in Paris, flowers in hand for forgiveness, he finds it filled with empty-minded partyers, a stern maid who obviously does not approve of him, and female dresser—both of whom, attired in black, are subtly identified by the director as lesbians, the first quietly allowing her fingers to remain longer than usual upon Betty’s shoulder and the second of whom quietly picks up her employer’s previous dress before she folds it up and in a quick shot kisses the gown, as if it were a kind of holy shroud. In 1928, attentive audiences knew what that meant: this was a den of perversions.

     Even more seriously, Betty arrives in Paris to announce to her that he has lost his fortune and can no longer support her luxurious life. Betty takes up cooking, although she has not had any experience or gift for the culinary art. The old man’s sneaking out to a Paris bistro where he orders up a big steak and even larger dessert makes it clear that he lying. He can still afford a life of high-living.
      Convinced she must acquire a job to support herself and her father, Betty goes to work as a kind of waitress-performer in a large restaurant, run by Maitre d’Hotel (Marcel Vibert) who quietly indicates that her job might include flirting with the male customers and, if willing, to follow them into their rooms as a kind of early version of a call-girl.
      The several floors of this extravagant dining establishment already show Hitchcock’s brilliant use of his camera, presenting the place as an elegant version of Dante’s Hell, with layer upon layer of heavily drinking and testosterone-driven men plying the women with whom they sit with, as the title suggests, Champagne.
      In another attempt at reconciliation, the boyfriend visits her, appalled by what he sees. To spite him she wildly dances, not the first time in this often-frenzied film.
      The Boy returns with Betty’s father, who is equally shocked by what he sees, and admits his lie, inviting her to return home and marry the man he now realizes loves her and not her money. But not before she is carried off and locked in her room the Mysterious Man, only to be saved by her younger suitor.
      So, indeed, the film ends as a kind of comedy. Yet, I’d argue that the great director has this early in his career far more serious issues on his mind—a licentious world inhabited by young rich women such as Betty, and the ability of the males around them to manipulate and sexually abuse them. If Champagne is truly a romantic comedy, then Vertigo is not a psychological tragedy. Hitchcock knew always that human beings encompassed both the potential for deep love and dangerous behavior.
     Eve Kendall, in North by Northwest, was both a sexy siren, a kind of version of the original Eve who might easily lure the confused Roger Thornhill out of the protection of his office-building world, or a kirk-loving member of the Cumbria area in England—the original source of her last name.
     The Wikipedia Urban Dictionary quite precisely describes the word “Kendall” presumably long after Hitchcock’s film.

A beautiful girl with many friends. She is often crazy, but once you get to know her she is the most lovable people you will ever meet. Her funny attitude gives her countless friends. But don't be fooled by this witty personality, she can be the most romantic person ever. I seriously think I'm in love with this girl.

     That is exactly what Betty (a kind Betty Boop of the day) is in this 1928 early Hitchcock film. But the dichotomy of the two is essential to nearly all of his movies—whether it is a loving wife who turns quite mad in The Wrong Man, a sexy dress-seller who is absolutely ready to take on any adventure she encounters in Rear Window, or even a beloved uncle Charlie who turns out to be a murderer of wealthy widows in Shadow of a Doubt. Even a nice-looking Norman Bates, seeking the love of an on-the-run secretary, might turn out to be a psychological-freak with murderous intentions. In Hitchcock’s films no one ever gets off free from their inner-demons. We are never safe from ourselves.

Los Angeles, January 20, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (January 2020).

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