There are some films that are just difficult to like, mainly because the lead is so detestable. Recent examples I’ve seen include Napoleon Dynamite, Vagabond and Transformers, and Champagne joins that far from hallowed list, although this time I feel that the lead, Betty Balfour’s simply named The Girl, is meant to be unlikable as she’s a spoilt little brat who only comes to realise she can be a good person when her father (Gordon Harker, Hitchcock alumnus from The Ring and The Farmer’s Wife) loses all his money and she is forced to take care of him.
The Girl, who at one point is referred to as Betty, so I’ll call her as such, is the kind of poor little rich girl who is accustomed to the world bending to suit her every whim. When Jean Bradin’s ‘The Boy’, her lover, is on a cruise liner from America to France, she commandeers a plane to land in the sea nearby, knowing a rescue boat will be sent out to save her and bring her aboard, and she doesn’t even thank the men who come to her aid. Whilst aboard said boat, she also catches the eye of the wealthy yet clearly sinister (he has a moustache and everything) ‘The Man’ (Ferdinand von Alten), and the two men then spend the rest of the film making awkward looks at one another as their affections for Betty wax and wane with such rapidity I’m surprised neither of them has whiplash.
The overall story is fairly simple: Betty has done far too little with her life to justify the amount of her father’s money she is spending. When he comes to France to tell her he’s lost everything and they are ruined, she takes care of him in a tiny apartment, cleaning and cooking abysmally for him, but she learns to be a better person because of it. Except that she doesn’t, and the decisions she makes after this point are only made out of spite or for her own personal gain, so I can’t really see what the overall message is. The last minute reveals, of which there are a couple too many, are all fairly well signposted too, so didn’t come as much of a surprise, except for the final shots which added another layer of intrigue and deception into the mix, as to a character’s true intentions, which were basically the intentions we assumed he had before an earlier reveal, making that reveal a little bit pointless anyway.
If it all sounds confusing, it only slightly is, but there’s not a lot of point trying to wrap your head around it as this is definitely a lesser Hitchcock (as I fear most of his silents are going to be), so personally I’m not going to recommend it. Some of the messages and parallels are handled with too heavy a hand – Betty gets a job as a flower-girl at a swanky club where she looks longingly at the wealthy clientele, but still feels the need to underline that she used to pay to go to places like that, and now they pay her, which was pretty much the whole point of those scenes, so didn’t really need to be explained quite so succinctly.
There are some nice moments of comedy – Betty giving her flowers out to the band because her boss told her to give them to men wearing eveningwear – meaning of course only the customers – but elsewhere it often goes too far, for example when she tries to make the bed by dragging the mattress over her father who is doing push-ups nearby. Before losing the money her fashion taste is also diabolical, with her dresses being far too elaborate and are frankly horrible, though that could be a product of the times more than anything, and I’ve never been too up on even today’s styles, so what do I know?
There’s good use of a swaying camera and actors to mimic seasickness – though I wouldn’t be too surprised to see Hitchcock utilising a swaying set instead – after all he built the entire apartment block from Rear Window inside a soundstage – but though the swaying wasn’t convincing it was at least a good touch. The early lifeboat rescue however looks like it was performed on a set previously used for a school play – even in 1928 – and I’m fairly sure in the first couple of takes the plane probably fell over.
Overall, not a lot to recommend here. A simple story unnecessarily overcomplicated and with terrible effects.
Choose life 3/10