Cinevent Past Notes: CHAMPAGNE CHARLIE (1944)

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Richard M Roberts
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Cinevent Past Notes: CHAMPAGNE CHARLIE (1944)

Postby Richard M Roberts » Wed Jun 25, 2014 8:09 am

All right, it's true confession time, as a person who never allows himself to be corralled into such nonsense as a ten-best list, or the greatest film of all time, most talented grip, best-best boy, whatever, I'm going out on a limb and cop something to ya—CHAMPAGNE CHARLIE is one of my favorite films.

Okay, okay, calm down!!! Nobody's saying it's the masterwork of the ages, the secret of Western Civilization, or the cure for cancer. A personal favorite usually says more about the person making the choice than the work involved and it's no different here. I love British films, I love British Music Hall and Variety, and I've gradually come to the conclusion, with or without SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS, that fun, entertaining movies frequently do far more for you than the most personally pretentious soul-pourings of any self-styled "auteur" (a word that always needs to be in quotes). As much as I may profess admiration for the cinematic musings of Griffith, Welles, Bergman, et all, nine times out of ten on a bad day when I'm in need of some picking up, I'm running this film.

Plain and simple, I love CHAMPAGNE CHARLIE, ask any of my friends who've most likely had to sit through it more than once, and I'm delighted that you're getting the opportunity to see it too. In my book, what's not to like? It's a joyous, definitely rose-colored look at the World of 1860's Music Hall told through the story of George Leybourne, the real-life star and author of several time-honored tunes, the title song and another little ditty called "The Man on the Flying Trapeze". CHARLIE traces his rise to stardom from Yorkshire coal miner to pub-singer to Headliner of the legendary Mogador Music Hall owned by another legendary star Bessie Bellwood. The film also charts his rivalry/friendship with The Great Vance, another real life star of the Boards, and briefly touches on this period when the Halls very existence was threatened by the Legitimate Theatre owners who were trying to close them permanently when they proved good competition for the entertainment shilling.

That's pretty much the plot actually, and it's of no real matter. The main reason to make CHAMPAGNE CHARLIE was the merest excuse to bring together several of England's top Variety stars of the 1940's to pay tribute to the greatness of Music Hall's past and recreate it with incredible gas-lit accuracy. Well, accuracy as far as the look and feel goes, lets just say that they cheated a bit on the songs. Truth be told, the genuine Music Hall songs of the mid-to-late Nineteenth Century are a bit dim actually, simple lyrics with catchy repeated phrases allowing quick memorization for a sing-along from a somewhat inebriated audience.In the original's place, we have a whole host of new tunes concocted by the then current cream of British tunesmiths like Noel Gay (who wrote "The Lambeth Walk") and Billy Mayerl that are suprisingly similar in period tone, if just a bit cleverer. Phooey on accuracy, you'll be whistling them for days anyhow.

Tommy Trinder plays Leybourne, and for those unfamiliar with Mr Trinder, perhaps the easiest way to describe him would be to say that he was Britain's Bob Hope of the 1940's. A very popular Variety and Radio comic with a fast, snappy line of patter but capable of handling a tune or a dance when called for. Rising to film stardom in the late thirties, he made a number of popular films during WW2 and also tirelessly entertained the troops throughout the duration. Though his film career sagged with peacetime, he continued to be a television mainstay until his death in 1989. Just like Bob Hope, Tommy Trinder also was capable of submerging his well-known comic persona and give a real performance when called to do so, and he gives a fine one here. His lankiness and horse-faced comic grin may remind some of Dick Van Dyke in MARY POPPINS, but Trinder's the genuine article.

The Great Vance is essayed by the amazing Stanley Holloway. He was only about halfway through his career when he made CHAMPAGNE CHARLIE, over twenty years away from his concert-party apprenticeship and star-making debut in the revue hit THE CO-OPTIMISTS (1921) and twelve years until Alfred P Doolittle in MY FAIR LADY, the role that immortalized him. He'd be busy until his death in 1981. As Vance, he's totally in his element, both spoofing the vanity and competitive nature of the Lion Comique offstage, totally riveting onstage with the sort of talent and professionalism that only comes from that many years on the stage. He was truly a consummate entertainer.

Other nice performances fill out the film. Betty Warren as Bessie Bellwood, the first of the red hot mamas. Look out for a young (was he ever young?) James Robertson-Justice as one of the Mogador's nightly patrons. Guy Middleton in a nice running (well, staggering) gag as the Mogador's regular inebriate. Brit actor-spotters will also recognize a very young George Cole and a teenage, pre-nose job Kay Kendall. Those who think of Michael Balcon's Ealing Studios only in terms of those wonderful Alec Guiness comedies of the early fifties will fmd CHAMPAGNE CHARLIE a surprise. This was truly the Golden Age of Ealing. The film's director, Alberto Cavalcanti, is certainly one of Ealing and England's finest of the forties (WENT THE DAY WELL, DEAD OF NIGHT, THEY MADE ME A FUGITIVE) and like a number of England's finest directors, he's an ex-patriate from elsewhere (fair enough, plenty of Britain's homegrown directors ex-patriate themselves over here). Cavalcanti can truly boast an international career: Rio-born, making his first reputation in French silents (catch CAPTAIN FRACASSE (1929) recently released on DVD), moving to the UK in the thirties and becoming part of the British documentary movement, then moving to Ealing and Michael Balcon's excellent production where, despite his exotic upbringing, Cavalcanti's pictures are verrry British indeed. He catches the Music Hall milieu down pat, filling the screen with wonderful character faces and incident, you really feel you've spent a night at the Mogador. The musical numbers look like they could actually be performed on a Music Hall stage. Cavalcanti captures the infectious fun of nothing more than a lone performer grabbing an audience's rapt attention as they all join in song.

Now, I did say this was a rose-colored tribute, and yes, rose-colored it is. The life of the Music Hall Artiste in the nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries was a rough one, low pay, poor living and working conditions, quick pleasures and even quicker retributions. Coupled with a class system that rated Music Hall Folk beneath that of a common theatrical (and a common theatrical below that of your average petty criminal). Most below the top names on the bill lived in the sort of poverty Charlie Chaplin grew up in, with both parents in the profession. In reality, neither George Leybourne nor The Great Vance saw the post-side of fifty.

But CHAMPAGNE CHARLIE is a wartime film, designed for a country truly in the thick of it, it's a nostalgic hark-back much in the way MEET ME IN ST LOUIS was for our home-folks at the time. Just remember that bombs were actually dropping around Ealing while they shot this picture, and perhaps you'll feel that slightly stronger and more urgent sense of goodwill tinged with irony as Trinder et al sing "Everything Will be Lovely When the Pigs Begin to Fly". That's the British stiff-upper-lip at it's stiffest, the dark humor that enabled the country to survive the test of true hardship. That War may be over, but the good feeling in CHAMPAGNE CHARLIE remains, sixty years later, and do we still need it. It's one of those pictures where the local villains aren't really that villainous, most problems will likely resolve themselves, true-love will win out in the end, and most people, however imperfect, care about each other and really aren't that bad, maybe sort of like real-life? Perhaps all we really need to do is get together, have a few drinks, sing a few songs, and everything will be lovely.......when the pigs begin to fly.

So enough of my ranting, you got the idea I kinda like this film. Just let me play the Chairman a few moments longer (Was there ever a better job? Dress sharp, get up once in awhile, floridly introduce the acts, sit among the swells, let 'em buy you drinks, get paid for it)--I'll bang me' gavel, clear my throat "Ladies and Gentlemen brought to you at ENORRRRMOUS EXPENSE! The Cinevent proudly presents to you the glorious CHAMPAGNE CHARLIE! Tommy Trinder and Stanley Holloway, those wonderful performers, singing you many a song about drink and girl-chasing and all the lovely things in life! Give them a fair hearing and a sturdy round of applause and please feel free to sing along!"

I will be.......


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