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Champagne Charlie (1944)


Main image of Champagne Charlie (1944)
35mm, black and white, 107 mins
DirectorAlberto Cavalcanti
Production CompanyEaling Studios
ProducerMichael Balcon
ScreenplayAustin Melford, Angus Macphail, John Dighton
PhotographyWilkie Cooper
Music DirectorErnest Irving
New Music and LyricsUna Bart, Frank Eyton, Noel Gay, Billy Mayerl, Ernest Irving, Lord Berners, T.E.B. Clarke

Cast: Tommy Trinder (George Leybourne); Stanley Holloway (The Great Vance); Betty Warren (Bessie Bellwood); Jean Kent (Dolly); Austin Trevor (Duke Of Petworth); Peter De Greeff (Lord Petersfield)

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In the music-halls of the 1860s, a rivalry erupts between the singers George Leybourne and The Great Vance, which leads to a battle of drinking songs.

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Films featuring drinking are common, but the vigorous consumption of alcohol as a metaphor for success sits uneasily with the modern view that heavy drinking is unhealthy. However, in Champagne Charlie (d. Alberto Cavalcanti, 1944) the career of happy-go-lucky miner Joe Saunders (Tommy Trinder) is charted with songs extolling the virtues of drink as he makes his way from pub singer to reluctant music hall star. As his fame grows, so does the value of the drink he sings about.

Set in London's music halls of the 1860s, the film centres on the developing rivalry between Saunders and established star The Great Vance (played with typical gusto by Stanley Holloway), who regards the upstart performer as trespassing on his territory. "How dare you sing a drinking song," Vance demands, "I sing about drink."

The rivalry is initially played out on the boards; Saunders, under the stage name George Leybourne, and Vance up the stakes with each new song, starting with ones about beer before rapidly moving through gin, wine, rum, brandy, sherry and finally champagne. The feud, which culminates in an incompetent duel with pistols, is finally forgotten when the theatre owners try to have the music halls shut down as disorderly houses.

The film's sub-plot, following the growing relationship between the daughter of redoubtable music hall owner Bessie Bellwood (Betty Warren) and a foppish nobleman, attempts to expose hypocritical upper-class attitudes to working-class entertainment and 'below stairs' marriages, but its overly-plotted structure robs it of much of its potential, and it fits awkwardly with Trinder and Holloway's comic sparring.

Another plot point that fails to develop initially appears to be central to the film. Saunders travels to London with his brother Fred, whose hopes of becoming a boxer are dashed when it becomes clear that working down the mines has ruined his health. Joe's original motivation for staying on in London is to earn enough money to get his brother out of the pits. But this is quickly forgotten as the song-count rises.

Champagne Charlie often struggles under the weight of unnecessary complexities, but the central feud between Trinder and Holloway is played out with such enthusiasm that these are easily forgotten. And importantly, the key element in any musical - the songs - are memorable. The title tune was a genuine Victorian favourite, while others were specially written for the film by Lord Berners and T.E.B. Clarke.

Anthony Clark

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Video Clips
1. 'A Half of Half and Half' (2:48)
2. Joe's big chance (4:40)
3. 'Champagne Charlie' (4:08)
Original Poster
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Eating Out With Tommy Trinder (1941)
Trottie True (1948)
Cavalcanti, Alberto (1897-1982)
Clarke, T.E.B. (1907-1989)
Cooper, Wilkie (1911-2001)
Fowler, Harry (1926-2012)
Holloway, Stanley (1890-1982)
Justice, James Robertson (1905-1975)
Kendall, Kay (1927-1959)
MacPhail, Angus (1903-1962)
Relph, Michael (1915-2004)
Slocombe, Douglas (1913-)
Trinder, Tommy (1909-1989)
Film and Music Hall