It is tempting to see Champagne Charlie through the lens of later comments Michael Balcon made about projecting Britain as a ‘patron and parent of great writing, painting and music’ and the necessity of moving beyond an aesthetic based purely in realism. While it is possible to read the film in relation to its wartime production context, this story of comic rivalry among Victorian music hall stars seems to have its eye on a wider range of issues and approaches.
Directed by ex-documentarian Cavalcanti, with many experienced Ealing stalwarts (including director of photography Wilkie Cooper, scriptwriters Austin Melford, John Dighton and Angus Macphail, with Michael Relph on art direction, T.E.B. Clarke contributing to song-writing and Douglas Slocombe operating the camera) this is close to the heart of Ealing’s production ethos at the time. And while it is true that there are elements here of the traditional and community-minded Ealing that we’ve seen in other films – music hall rivalry is put aside when all are threatened with closure (cooperation transcends competition, according to Charles Barr) – this appears to be a minor note in a film more interested in individuals, drinking songs and class mobility (or the lack thereof).
Star Tommy Trinder plays George Leybourne (nee Saunders, his stage name changes twice, from Saunders to Leybourne to ‘Champagne Charlie,’ after a particularly famous song), a miner who comes to London and is taken on as a comic singer first at the Elephant & Castle pub, then at the Mogador club, where music hall legend Bessie Bellwood (Betty Warren) schools him in his new career. Partnered with songs from Mogador’s resident writer, Duckworth / Ducky (Robert Wyndham), Leybourne is soon a popular act at the hall, which attracts comparisons and rivalries with the Great Vance (Stanley Holloway), ‘the greatest comic singer in England’.
The rivalry – and reluctant friendship – that develops between Leybourne and Vance is the heart of this film, thematically and structurally: there is a long montage just under halfway through, where the scenes cut quickly between a series of competing songs about drink. From Leybourne’s tune about ale, to Vance’s about gin, from a French-styled ‘burgundy, claret and port’ routine to sailor’s rum-based jig, from the ‘brandy and seltzer boys’ to ‘a glass of sherry wine’, the film covers almost all the major alcoholic drinks going, before ending up with Leybourne’s ‘Champagne Charlie,’. There is a glee and bounce to these scenes, a lightness of touch that is absent from many of Ealing’s wartime productions, partly a result of the changing circumstance of the war, but also the choice of genre and era (Ealing enjoyed the Victorian and Edwardian periods, returning to them again in Pink String and Sealing Wax (1945) and Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), among others). This is one of very few Ealing musicals – and most of those are star-led by George Formby or, as here, Tommy Trinder – and this comes closest to using the musical sequences to inform the plot and characters.
It would be easy to criticise the film given that very little happens for the bulk of it, and the occasional stabs at a more traditional narrative, such as a contrived duel between Leybourne and Vance, the threat by agitators to close down the lewd and satiric space of the music hall, or the concurrent class-ridden drama of Bessie’s daughter Dolly (Jean Kent), her upper class lover Lord Petersfield (Peter deGraaf) and his father, the Duke (Austin Trevor), who knew Bessie when he was younger and is on the committee that proposes to shut down the music hall... simply take focus away from the enjoyable music hall setting and performance. That is largely because of the strength of Trinder and Holloway, who make no pretence towards realism but give larger-than-life portraits of two egotistical but talented comedians. Although given less screen time Holloway’s inherent snobbery and one-upmanship is an enjoyable foil to Trinder’s usual cockiness, and their bickering (sung or otherwise) keeps the film going.
While never particularly showy, the film also looks impressive, with nice touches around setting and camera work: an opening camera angle down on the Elephant and Castle that tracks over the rooftops to follow Leybourne and his brother in through the pub’s courtyard; the parting of the brothers, as they take different paths off screen; the presentation of the different halls, from the Mogador to Gatti’s to the Oxford; and the focus on specific Mogador patrons when we are first introduced to the space, and then again at the end, as we leave it. Cavalcanti also experiments with deep focus cinematography in several shots of the Mogador, shooting from the stage and showing the whole audience – including Vance, who walks in at the back of the room, and pauses on a staircase to watch Leybourne perform. Cavalcanti doesn’t immediately cut to Vance, to confirm who it is, but lingers on that long shot, with Vance framed within the audience and architecture of the hall.
It is curious that Barr chooses to criticise the film for being too innocent, while Perry dismisses it as too jolly and genteel: it is the very lightness of the film, the departure from realism (there is rarely any sense that this is a realistic depiction of a Victorian music hall, or indeed of Victorian London more generally), that gives it coherence. When the film drifts away from that towards issues and social comment – notably whether Lord Petersfield’s life will be ruined if he marries a ‘mere’ music hall performer – it stumbles, and has to pull itself back to topic – the centrality of individual performance and comic routines.
Next time, our Tommy Trinder mini-marathon ends as we go down under for Bitter Springs (1950)...