So what role did Champagne play in silent cinema?
First, it added a sound effect to silent films. Champagne, known as the “vin saute-bouchon” or “cork-popping wine”, became the source of explosive pranks that are still funny today.
First came Georges Monca’s film, Le Champagne de Rigadin (1915), featuring Charles Prince, alias “Rigadin”, one of the most successful comic actors of the silent film era together with Max Linder. With more than 300 films to his credit, “Rigadin” ranked as one of the first big stars of the Seventh Art. In this short slapstick comedy, Champagne squirts him in the face as he tries to defuse an unexploded shell.
More explosive gags in Charlie Chaplin’s The Adventurer (1917), this time as the Maître D uncorks a Champagne bottle and our escaped convict (Charlie Chaplin) sticks his hands in the air thinking he’s heard a gun going off – an unmistakable sound that echoes in the minds of the audience even though they can’t actually hear it.
Erich von Stroheim (1885-1957) was one of the greatest directors of the silent film era, famous for his extravagant style of filmmaking and no-holds-barred budgets. His settings were equally lavish: one of his films featured a full size replica of the exterior of the Grand Hôtel, Monte-Carlo.
Nearly all of his films used Champagne to symbolise love or seduction, most notably The Wedding March (1928), which included a scene supposedly shot in a brothel, staffed by real prostitutes recruited for the purpose, where guests were served roast baby pigeons and caviar washed down with Champagne!
The French art de vivre and Paris parties
Champagne’s other great role, particularly in American films, was as an obvious symbol of France. No Parisian party was complete without bubbly, seen as inseparable from the famous French art de vivre and French culture. This comes through most forcefully in the films of German-born film director, Ernst Lubitsch – This is Paris (1926) for instance. Also in Charlie Chaplin’s A Woman of Paris (1923) where Louis Roederer Champagne is served with truffles cooked in Champagne.
Hitchcock and Champagne
Avowed Champagne lover Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980) featured Champagne in many of his films.
One of the best examples is his aptly named 1928 film Champagne, which shows one of the biggest stars in British silent cinema, Betty Balfour (1903-1977) holding a bottle of Moët & Chandon then a bottle of Mumm Cordon Rouge. The film closes with a shot of a couple kissing, with the scene framed and viewed through a lens in the bottom of a giant champagne glass that Hitchcock had specially made for the occasion.