Champagne is a romantic comedy about a millionaire’s decision to teach his frivolous ’flapper’ daughter (played by the effervescent comedy actress Betty Balfour) a lesson by feigning bankruptcy.
Hitchcock saw it as a rags-to-riches story about a poor girl working in a Reims champagne factory and seeing the bottles go off to Paris for rich bons-viveurs. Finding her way to the big city, she would mix with the champagne drinkers as a paid nightclub hostess, but her virtue would be put at risk. Eventually, she would return home, older and wiser, and renounce her champagne lifestyle forever. In the end, though, Walter Mycroft rewrote the script, reversing the direction of travel, making Balfour’s character an irresponsible young ‘modern’ who infuriates her rich Daddy with her frivolous, champagne lifestyle (she arrives flying her own aeroplane in true ‘roaring twenties’ style) and her relationship with a young man who her father believes is a gold-digger. In fact the young man has a very sound moral compass, but can’t help preaching to her – which only pushes her into ever more reckless behaviour – when in fact, she, like ‘Thoroughly Modern Millie’, is actually a nice old-fashioned girl at heart.
Whatever Hitchcock thought about the story, he did introduce the usual pleasing experimental touches, including a glorious opening shot filmed through a raised champagne glass and some entertaining effects to convey sea sickness on the part of the girl’s fiancé (played by French matinée idol Jean Bradin). Most recognisably Hitchcockian are the scenes between Betty and ‘the man’, a sinister ‘cosmopolitan’ man of the world, who crops up with disturbing regularity and whose motives she suspects. She even imagines herself sexually assaulted by him in the cabaret where, in the search for employment, she is fast discovering the sordid flipside of her former clubbing lifestyle. Surprisingly, the scene made it past the censor, perhaps precisely because it was revealed as fantasy, but throughout his filmmaking career Hitchcock would continue to pursue his interest in male sexual violence and to push at the boundaries of what was acceptable to show on screen.
(Bryony Dixon – Curator of silent film, BFI National Archive)