Friday, June 22, 2012

Hitchcock silent movie is light and bubbly,
like name-sake

Champagne (1928)
Starring: Betty Balfour, Gordon Harker, Jean Bradin, and Ferdinand von Alten
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

A headstrong, spoiled heiress (Balfour) violates the wishes of her Wall Street-tycoon father (Harker) and runs off to Paris to be with the man she wishes to marry (Bradin). When her father later tracks her down, he brings the bad news that the market crash had cost them both their fortunes. When her paramour appears to turn his back on her once she is poor, the girl decides that she will earn money to support both her and her father. But will her dangerous combination of over-exuberance and naivete lead her to disgrace--or possibly worse at the hands of a vaguely sinister mustachioed man who keeps entering her life (Von Alten)?

"Champagne" is a fun little comedy with a central character that is either too unfamiliar with how miserable life can get, or too full of energy, to let down-turns deter her from being happy and trying to make a go at whatever she sets her mind to. Watching Betty Balfour's Poor Little Rich Girl earnestly bumbling her way through an attempt at making a living is both funny and charming, and this character makes an otherwise fairly uneventful story and film lots of fun to watch.

Another very entertaining aspect of the film are simply the performances of some of the actors. Ferdinand von Alten as the mysterious stranger who may or may not be a danger to our heroine is particularly fascinating, because while he does all the scowling and gesturing of your standard melodramatic silent movie villain, there's something about the way he carries himself and some of his actions that makes the viewer wonder exactly what he is about as the film unfolds. (And this "who is that guy, and what is he after?" is set up very nicely with a bit of business near the beginning where both he and the girl receive telegrams while on-board a trans-Atlantic liner. He is visibly annoyed by whatever his telegram says, but we don't learn what the message was until much later. But we can see that his interest in the girl seemed to increase after they both got their telegrams. It's a nice mystery that remains in play until nearly the very end of the film.)

It is easy to observe that Alfred Hitchcock went on to make many movies far better than this one, but not many comedies as fun as this. Fans of Hitchcock should check it out--especially if you see it in some of those low-cost DVD budget packs along with some of his other early films--as contains a number of interesting visual flourishes. I hope the version you end up watching has a better music track than the one I viewed... my copy has randomly selected classical marches and waltzes that are very inappropriate and mood-destroying on more than one occasion. However, once I muted the TV and put on Mike Oldfield's "Ommadawn" and "Five Miles Out," I had a soundtrack that worked much better.

Another reason to watch the film, particularly for those of you who may be politically minded and prone to buy into some of the oh-so-clever and edgy caricatures that left-leaning politicians and pundits are drawing of certain American politicians and business people, is for a look into exactly how old and tired that caricature is. Hitchcock uses the Shifty, Manipulative Wall Street Tycoon stereotype in this nearly 85 year old film... and it had been around for a few decades even then. And if you still don't recognize how lame it is to be trotting out that old horse at this late date, maybe you can at least learn from a guy who used it in a creative and intelligent fashion and one-up the cleverness of the not-so-terribly-clever who keep reposting the same captioned photos to Facebook over and over with something that's truly witty. (Seriously. I wouldn't mind the hoary old class-warfare tropes of the 1920s and 1930s if someone would be clever about it. Please... someone save my Facebook account from drowning in banal and rehashed cliches.)

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