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Champagne, star of the seventh art

Champagne and westerns

“In that year of 1904, south Texas was still lusty, catch-as-catch-can country, with big cattle spreads and dusty settlements which were gradually growing into towns to fill its wide open spaces. The saloons did a brisk business, and fights between the cowhands and the freighters whose wagons were the chief means of supply were frequent and at times fatal. For the first time I saw a man killed, when I drove into Del Rio for supplies. He was a mule skinner. I had hitched the buckboard a few doors up the street from a saloon and this character came out through the swinging doors. Another man followed him and called out something. When the first man turned, the other pulled his gun and shot him dead.”

The quote is from Each Man in His Time by Raoul Walsh: one of the greatest Western directors of all time, who cut his teeth filming Pancho Villa in the thick of the Mexican revolution.

The first actual Western movie, per se, was Edwin Stanton Porter and Wallace McCutcheon’s 1903 silent short film The Great Train Robbery. So was born a whole new genre of film that in its heyday from the 1930s to the 1950s featured all the big names from the Golden Age of Hollywood, among them Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Henry Fonda and Kirk Douglas.

Contrary to what you might think, Champagne was no stranger to the Wild West: Buffalo Bill himself was a big fan and actually got to be quite a connoisseur.

Champagne first appears in a Western in 1939, with James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich enjoying a glass of bubbly in a saloon scene in George Marshall’s Destry Rides Again. Likewise John Ford’s classic of the genre, My Darling Clementine (1946) features a rough and ready Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) being offered a glass of Champagne by an urbane Doc Holliday (Victor Mature).

Champagne’s role in Westerns came to be defined by this meeting between the masculine and the feminine, the rustic and the refined. Andre De Toth’s 1952 Western Carson City opens with a stage being robbed by stylish outlaws who treat their hapless victims to a picnic washed down with Veuve Clicquot.
In King Vidor’s Man Without a Star (1955) Champagne brings out the true character of the protagonists. Rugged cowboy Dempsey Rae (Kirk Douglas) proves to be a natural gentleman while lady rancher Reed Bowman (Jeanne Crain) reveals a ruthlessness that is anything but ladylike.
As a final example, Henry Hattaway’s North to Alaska (1960) has gold miner Sam McCord (John Wayne) sharing a glass of Champagne with the object of his affections, French girl Angel (Capucine). “French, the real thing just like you” he says, passing her the glass.

Contemporary Westerns continue in the same vein. In Sam Raimi’s The Quick and the Dead (1995), Herod (Gene Hackman) offers “The Lady” (Sharon Stone) a glass of Moët & Chandon; Champagne also makes an appearance in Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg’s Bandidas (2006), starring Salma Hayek and Penelope Cruz. More Moët & Chandon, this time delivered by the crateful on dogsleds in Chris Sanders film adaptation of Jack London’s 1903 classic The Call of the Wild (2020) – not strictly speaking a Western but with a typically Western setting.