It’s easy to imagine that the late, great Alfred Hitchock emerged format the womb as a fully-formed director; that his first words were “Action!” and that, with his first steps, he was already moving towards cinematic greatness. The reality is, however, that Hitchcock’s early career was riddled with inconsistencies. His output throughout the early days of the medium in the 1920s and ’30s was the definition of a mixed bag, with films like The Mountain Eagle, Rich And Strange, and Juno And The Paycock representing something of a learning curve for the director.
Once he hit his stride with films like The 39 Steps, however, Hitchcock quickly established himself as one of the era’s most celebrated directors. From then on, his career hit new critical peaks with every release, earning him the moniker “the master of suspense”. But before he was the UK’s greatest purveyor of tension, Hitchcock was experimenting with the kind of filmmaker he wanted to be. This period of trial and era spawned several comedies that seem like the work of an entirely different director compared to his esteemed later work.
Looking back at this period, Hitchcock would name 1928’s Champagne as the worst of his films. Based on an original story by writer and critic Walter C. Mycroft, Hitchcock would refer to the film as being “Probably the lowest ebb in my output”. Of course, he was bound to be critical of his early work, but in the case of Champagne, one can’t help feeling he was simply calling a spade a spade.
The film is a riches-to-rags story about an aristocratic girl forced to get a job after her father loses all of his money. It was intended as a comedy, but Hitchcock never really mastered the genre. The film was received poorly after its attempts to disguise a poorly constructed plot with risque shots of ladies underclothes failed entirely. But to be fair to Hitchcock, the outcome of a film is vulnerable to a dizzying array of external factors, so the quality of Champagne can’t be entirely blamed on the technical ability of its director. From its inception, the film faced numerous challenges. Hitchcock may well have had a distinctly different vision for the film, but the influence of producers and the addition of Betty Balfour to the cast necessitated a lighter storyline, leading to a hasty rewrite of the script.
Principle photography was also riddled with problems. When filming began in February 1928, the script was a scraggly thing, containing only the bare bones of a narrative. This forced Hitchcock and his partner Eliot Stannard to work on new scenes during filming breaks. As assistant cameraman Alfred Roome recalled: “They didn’t have a whole script. They wrote it on the back of envelopes on the way to the studio. You never knew what was going to happen.”
But despite its overall quality, the film does contain some early examples of the trick shots that would go on to define Hitchcock’s style. One notable example comes in the form of a scene fragment shot through a champagne glass. Roome remembers how the shot was achieved: “I was the one who had to focus through the bottom of the glass. Hitch had it made specially by a glass manufacturer who put a lens into the bottom of the giant champagne glass, so we could shoot through it and get a clear picture of what was happening at the other end of the room. We all said it wouldn’t work. Most people said that of Hitch’s ideas, but they almost always did work.”
So, although Hitchock himself loathed the film, and it was described by many as a frothy melodrama of no particular worth, it contains glimpses of the Hitchcock we know and love today in-utero. If you get the chance, watch Champagne and decide how you feel about it.