Friday, 28 September 2012

Hitchcock, Mira Calix + Juice, NFT – Champagne (1928)

Through a glass lightly...
Another week, another Hitchcock restoration premier - not that I'm taking it for granted - and another brave choice of music... Following Shlomo's beatbox score for Downhill, this time the BFI had commissioned electronic composer Mira Calix, who I’d last seen performing a DJ set at Warp Records' 20th anniversary all-nighter.

This time Calix was performing her own music, using a bank of electronic kit, pre-recorded instrumentation and supported by the Juice Vocal Ensemble (Kerry Andrew, Sarah Dacey and Anna Snow).  The four walked on stage suitably attired as jazz babies, almost as if they were taking part in the film as well as providing the music… This could be another combination of sound and vision that might struggle to find the right balance - that's the risk of old meets new - but overwhelmingly they met the challenge very well.

Betty Balfour, Jean Bardin and dancer
There was a moment, as a woman danced furiously behind the main characters, when the rhythm of the music matched perfectly the staccato edginess of her movement… it was a startling connection, as if the rhythm of the dance is a constant over the decades and Calix had just tuned into that continuum with amazing precision.

Ferdinand von Alten, Jean Bardin and Betty Balfour
But then, for a film about youthful nightclubbing, Calix is an astute choice. She’s been a mainstay of Warp’s roster for many years now and has alternated between ambient sound-scaping, IDM, DJ-ing and composition. Classically trained, she has an enviable range and produced an intelligent and very entertaining score full of subtle references and which always reverted to a satisfyingly deep bass: the staple of many a good rave and a simple resonating signifier of the unsettling promise of a good night out.

Juice gave strong voice to her music, all three technically proficient individually and working well in subtle harmony. They threw in sound effects and all joined in Balfour’s quite bizarre hand-dance as the club scene reached its climax… the jazziest of jazz hands and a strange signal to move albeit one rebuffed by her confused and disaffected lover. We knew how he felt... it's an odd film.

Betty Balfour - cross-eyed
I should say that there was a split vote on the effectiveness of the music with my wife finding it intrusive and occasionally jarring. Still, this is my blog… and she’s entitled to comment below!

The ultimate judge of silent movie scores is how well they meld with the film and I felt that, in addition to the visceral impact of the bass lines the music served to bring out the quirks and the's all about the timing!

Champagne was not one of Hitchcock’s personal favourites and is a-typical in terms of its light-hearted storyline. It still has his visual flair with a number of striking sequences, but there’s little drama or threat… although The Man - none of the characters are named - retains an air of menace to the end.

Betty Balfour and Jean Bardin
Ultimately any film staring Betty Balfour is going to be a giggle. Described at the time as Britain’s Queen of Happiness and compared with Mary Pickford, she is certainly an energetic performer. Her mobile features enable her to switch expression with unpredictable swiftness and Hitchcock often lingers on her face as she moves the story along with a laugh that emphatically becomes a frown and vice versa...

Not your conventional movie star she had huge expressive eyes and a winning disposition... it’s not surprising that she went on to sustained success in Europe.

Betty plays a spoiled little rich girl who begins the story by flying out to rendezvous with her boyfriend (Jean Bardin) on a cruise ship. She’s been forbidden by her Wall Street banker father (a frowning Gordon Harker) from marrying the boy, but she’s not to be thwarted…

Ferdinand von Alten and Betty Balfour
But at the same time, she is also spotted by a predatory man (Ferdinand von Alten) who begins to pursue her – interrupting her attempts to make love to her beau.

The Girl’s father finds out about the stunt and follows her to Paris in a fury… she’s reckless, a good time girl and with no sense of fiscal responsibility… Even the Boy is frustrated by her relentless party-time as she makes fun of her assistant’s dowdy clothes at an impromptu fashion show with her socialite chums.

Gordan Harker... who's the Daddy?
But then dad turns up and reveals that the party has to stop, he has lost all in pursuing her to Europe and his business has gone bust. She’s not a bad girl though and immediately offers to sell her mound of jewellery to help them yet, in a superb sequence focusing on bodies below the head, we see her being robbed in the street – they have nothing. This is deft stuff from Hitchcock who keeps the narrative moving with economy and grace – we don’t get bogged down in exposition.

The girl attempts to look after her father in a mean little apartment… she’s ill-equipped. Then she tries to get a job and ends up as a flower girl in a dubious night club… she’s innocent and it takes her many wide-eyed shocks to understand the dynamics of the place. All of which Hitchcock relishes… in so many of these early films he ends up taking us to similar venues of adult entertainment.


The scenes in the club are the fulcrum of the film - this is where the champagne really kicks in. The main characters are constantly interacting with the crush around them and always in danger of being over-showed by these lively lights. This could be any club at any time and Hitch directs the chaos really well – the relentless energy and high spirits of  a champagne fuelled good time.

Amidst all this, The  Boy returns to rescue The Girl but they fight and she takes up The Man’s offer of help… they head off on a cruise ship back to her home in America and, to her surprise, she is joined by her true love.

It is now that the truth is finally revealed as her father arrives to explain that he hadn’t lost his money and had been trying to teach her a lesson all along. What’s more, we learn that the Man has been in Daddy’s employ all along: charged with luring her away from her boy.

All confusion passed… the girl agrees to marry the boy and all look set to live happily… Hitch can’t resist a few sinister stares from the Man who looks at the Girl through the bass of his champagne glass.

Jean Baldin and Betty Balfour
Champagne is a slight and oddly constructed comedy with a wonderfully quirky performance from Betty Balfour… part innocent, part irritant… she is unpredictable and usually emerges from each crisis with a beaming smile. There are times though when her eye-balls-to-the-wall performance throws up a frown of sorrow and you can understand why she retained the sympathy of the British public – she may be a brat but she’s not malicious and is ultimately humble and a quick learner!

Betty Balfour
The rest of the cast perform their parts well, with Ferdinand von Alten standing out for his menace even at the happy ending. Gordon Harker is good at looking grim but he still looks more like a fairground boxing promoter than a financier!

Champagne is currently available on DVD but this restoration is something else and well worth the wait for the eventual release.

For more information on the marvellous Ms Calix visit her official website here.

Postscript: As usual the film was introduced by the BFI’s Keiron Webb who pointed out that a 22-year old Michael Powell had been involved with Champagne as a still photographer, nice to think of our two greatest directors working on the same silent film.

As he spoke about the restoration work, it struck me how extraordinary the BFI’s efforts have been this year and how much I’m going to miss these events. The big finale is still to come with The Manxman but what are the BFI going to do to follow this?!

Betty ponders life beyond the Hitchcock 9...

No comments:

Post a Comment