Slapstick comedy takes its name from a theatrical device (batacchio) used in commedia del arte to produce a slapping noise when striking an opponent. It first made its appearance in American cinema in the 1910s, borrowed from the knockabout humour typical of circus clowns and pantomime – face slapping, butt-kicking, custard pie routines, wacky chase scenes and inanimate objects that take on a life of their own and turn on their user.
Slapstick brought out the comic potential in Champagne by playing on its physical properties, as opposed to its symbolic or sensory qualities. The shape of the bottle, style of glass, bubbles and corks flying out of Champagne bottles were all grist for the comedian’s mill.
Max Linder is widely regarded as the greatest comic performer of early French cinema and served as a role model for Charlie Chaplin. In the silent short Max et l’inauguration de la statue (1913, Max and the Statue) he turns up at a fancy-dress ball wearing a suit of armour and passes out drunk over his Champagne glass – which remains stuck to his face when he eventually wakes up, still slightly drunk and looking profoundly stupid.
But it was Laurel and Hardy who really put Champagne on the comedy map, starting with a now iconic publicity still for William A. Seiter’s Sons of the Desert (1933) showing them drinking a toast after opening a bottle of Piper Heidsieck with a hammer. Five years later in Edward Sutherland’s The Flying Deuces they fend off their pursuers by popping Champagne corks, a tactic eagerly adopted by contemporary filmmakers. Yves Robert in his 1974 film, Le Retour du Grand Blond (The Return of the Tall Blond Man) has the Pierre Richard character accidentally wound one of the killers on his heels by uncorking a bottle of Moët & Chandon. Same gag different Champagne in Jay Roach’s Meet the Parents (2000) with Ben Stiller as the bumbling boyfriend whose clumsy attempts to open a bottle of Mumm Extra Dry send the cork flying into the funeral urn holding the ashes of his future father-in-law’s mother. Meanwhile in the Farrelly Brother’s screwball comedy Dumb and Dumber (1994) a Champagne cork hits and kills a prized snow owl.
Other notable Champagne gags include Richard Sherman (Tom Ewell) getting his finger stuck in a Champagne bottle and The Girl (Marilyn Monroe) desperately trying to pull it off, in Billy Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch (1955); and the launching ceremony in Robert Dhéry’s Le Petit Baigneur (1968 The Little Bather) where the bottle of bubbly thrown by a minister’s wife smashes a hole in Louis de Funès’ new ship Increvable (the unsinkable).
Fast forward to today and you have Emma Stone in the title role of Craig Gillespie’s Disney movie Cruella (2021) entering Baroness von Hellmann’s reception (Emma Thompson) to the sound of breaking glass – the tower of champagne glasses she sends crashing to the floor when she pulls out a glass from the bottom.
Cinema is full of such examples. Gags where Champagne almost takes on a life of its own – moves, makes a noise, in short does what no other wine can do.