Alfred Hitchcock Collectors’ Guide: Champagne (1928)

  • The Master’s second comedy features Betty Balfour, Britain’s biggest star of the 1920s
  • But even her effervescent charms can’t keep it from occasionally falling a little flat
  • Its mostly hit but a little miss; the frothy surface belies very dark source material
  • What does remain are many of the director’s trademark touches
  • It’s critical to see it in its best light, and not via dull, muddy bootlegs
  • Every official, good quality DVD and digital release is detailed

Champagne is often not rated very highly, but it’s actually better than its reputation allows and let’s face it, how could it fail completely when it leans so heavily on the irrepressible talents of bubbly Betty Balfour (1903–1977), our biggest homegrown star of the 1920s? Admittedly though, its plot is paper thin and even if it lost a couple of reels could still be conveyed with room to spare.

Note: this is one of 50-odd Hitchcock articles coming over the next few months. Any dead links are to those not yet published. Subscribe to the email list to be notified when new ones appear.

Champagne (1928, dir. Alfred Hitchcock) UK Kine Weekly trade magazine ad, 16.8.1928

Kine Weekly trade magazine ad, 16.8.1928

Little wonder Champagne is so slight, when the meaty original story it’s based on was thoroughly bowdlerised at the behest of the studio. In that version, the main character is a Champagne factory worker who sees all the bottles being packed up and sent off to Paris, and daydreams about their glamorous destination. One day, she decides to see for herself, so she quits her job and heads for the capital. Initially, she has a high old time, spent in a heady whirl of parties and fancy nightclubs, but it’s unsustainable and eventually she falls into a life of poverty and prostitution. Once at rock bottom, she manages to escape and return to her former home and job. In the end she’s back where she started, but now when she sees the crates of Champagne being sent off, she imagines all the innocent lives they’re going to ruin.

A story ripe with melodrama then, and one that obviously appealed greatly to the young director. We can only wonder at what marvel he would have fashioned from such clay, but it was not to be. Hitch’s studio, British International Pictures, were only too aware that all his films to date had been angsty dramas. They’d also noted that even when their dramatic elements hadn’t gone over particularly well, audiences still responded favourably to the films’ humorous touches. It also didn’t help that the original story bore more than a passing resemblance to Downhill. Therefore, the studio mandated that Hitch’s next film be an outright comedy, which was fair enough, but unfortunately Hitch and his co-writer Eliot Stannard still based it on Walter Mycroft’s dark tale. The poor factory worker was transformed into a spoiled heiress, who scandalises her father by flying off in his private aeroplane to join her lover on a cruise liner in the mid-Atlantic. Bang goes all the original story’s inherent dramatic tension. What little of it remains revolves around the fact that Betty’s father kater fools her into thinking his wealth has been wiped out, forcing her to drop her lover and wanton ways. From there it’s simply a trudge towards the inevitable happy conclusion.

Champagne with Betty Balfour (1928, dir. Alfred Hitchcock) press photo

You cheeky bugger… Betty gets her skirt lifted in a potential early #MeToo moment.

The script’s shortcomings were exacerbated by the fact that much of it was written on the fly, with Hitch and Stannard often racing to polish up scenes immediately prior to each day’s shooting. The gorgeous original pressbook is, like the film itself, a thing of style and beauty rather than substance. Nonetheless, it strives to impart a sense of abundant fun, romance and drama that is, unfortunately, not always to be had.

Champagne was the third Hitchcock in a row for character actor Gordon Harker, on his way to a fourth in Elstree Calling. Here he plays Betty’s millionaire father, a huge promotion after his previous lowly, subservient roles in The Ring and The Farmer’s Wife. Betty went on to also star in director Geza von Bolvary’s Champagner (1929), an Austro-British quasi-remake often confused with the original. Champagner was retitled Bright Eyes in English-speaking territories and Palace de luxe in French ones.

Ultimately, Champagne is worth a sup, though perhaps only once you’ve worked your way through the bulk of Hitchcock’s other, more substantial British films.

Betty Balfour in Champagne (1928, dir. Alfred Hitchcock)

Gorgeous. The eyes have IT.

At the time of the original release, at least two separate negatives were prepared. The first consisted of the best takes and the second of alternate takes, for foreign distribution or simply as a back-up. Unfortunately the “A” negative is now lost, so all existing prints – and the restoration – derive from the B neg. If you know of any copy with alternate takes, get in touch! Once again, the 2012 restoration (20fps, 105min), with its new Mira Calix score, hasn’t made it to home video yet…

“The restoration team were able to work from an original negative on the restoration of Champagne, which meant they were able to get very good image quality. But this, it turned out, was something of a mixed blessing. From the beginning of the restoration process it was apparent that, for a Hitchcock film, there were some clumsily juxtaposed shots and framing errors, while a few shots showed substandard acting. Closer examination revealed an instruction scratched into a leader saying “2nd neg”. From this we deduced that this negative was assembled from second-best shots, retained as a back-up in case of damage to the original or for making additional prints for export. As this negative is the only original element in existence, it now looks as if we will never know exactly what the film looked like as it was originally released.

A great deal of work went into the preparation of the film before it could be scanned: the negative had been stored in sections joined loosely with tape. Some minor continuity errors were dealt with and some dissolves, which had been left ‘unmade’ in the negative, were tidied up before the film underwent grading and digital restoration processes. As with most of the other Hitchcock restorations, the titles were completely remade recreating exactly the original fonts and illustrations. The edit may be slightly compromised due to the source material that has come down to us but the result is a truly beautiful looking print doing full justice to Betty Balfour’s sparkling frocks.” (Restoration team: Kieron Webb, Bryony Dixon, Claire West, Ben Thompson, Dave Gurney, Peter Marshall) – BFI programme notes

Jean Bradin and Betty Balfour in Champagne (1928, dir. Alfred Hitchcock)

Jean Bradin and our Betty, in a sparkling frock

…But we do have the very good previous version. It’s transferred at 24fps (90min; 86min with 4% PAL speed-up) and all releases feature an exceptionally lovely Xavier Berthelot piano score.

Champagne (1928, dir. Alfred Hitchcock) Australian daybill poster

Australian daybill poster, complete with spelling mistake…


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For more detailed specifications of official releases mentioned, check out the ever-useful DVDCompare. This guide is regularly updated, so please leave a comment if you have any questions or suggestions.

I started Brenton Film because I love film – quelle surprise! The silent era, 1930s and 1940s especially get my literary juices flowing though. So you’ll see a lot about those. For more, see the About page.

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