What I remember:
When I wrote about "The Rocking Horse Winner", I told you that my college
girlfriend talked me into watching it. In the case of "Champagne for Caesar", it was my post-college girlfriend who turned me on to it.
We watched it on our huge 19 inch screen Toshiba, which was more than ample for this film. To that point, that TV was the most expensive thing I'd ever bought that didn't help me make music in some fashion; that is until I bought my first VCR, a Panasonic 2 piece unit with separate tuner and video recorder/player.
Ahh, technology of the early '80's. Remember tracking dials? How about having to tune your TV to channels 3 or 4 depending on your local stations? Oh yeah, early Manhattan Cable, with some of the most unintentionally hilarious Cable Access programming you can imagine.
My girlfriend was quite the intellectual, and she was pretty funny too. She
certainly got comedy, and this movie was right up her alley. In order to make
money, a super-intelligent professor goes on a quiz show, and proceeds to clean up. He's got a parrot who gets drunk, and a very acerbic tongue. His arrogance, I think, ends up tripping him up at some point.
What sets this comedy apart from the usual dopey '50's chucklers is the cast, in particular Ronald Coleman as genius Beauregard Bottomley, and a crack supporting crew headed by Celeste Holm, Vincent Price and, gasp, Art Linkletter. Not to mention the great Mel Blanc as the voice of Caesar, the tippling talking bird.
It feels like this one has been all but forgotten. Time to change that, at
least with 5 or 6 of you who will ever read this thing.
Happy Hogan: “You have five seconds to tell us the Japanese word for goodbye. 1... 2..”
Bottomey: “Sayonara. Not to be confused with cyanide, which is, of course, goodbye in any language.”
Beauregard Bottomley (Ronald Coleman) is a true intellectual, who sadly for him, is unemployed. He lives with Gwenn (Barbara Britton), his piano-teaching sister in a bungalow in Hollywood. At the unemployment office, he gets wind of a job with Milady Soap, run by the eccentric Burnbridge Waters (Vincent Price). Waters is horrible to Bottomley at the interview, so Bottemley hatches a revenge plan that centers around a trivia based game show sponsored by Milady. Bottomley shows up on the show dressed as the Encyclopedia Brittanica, and proceeds to win week in and week out, until he becomes a celebrity. He won't be satisfied, however, until he bankrupts the soap company and Waters to boot. Complications arise when Gwenn falls in love with the quiz show host Happy Hogan (Art Linkletter), and Waters hires a siren named Flame (Celeste Holm) to addle Bottomley’s mind.
There might be a lot more going on here than just your average frothy comedy. It’s confusing that the quiz show is first seen in a store window as a TV show, yet subsequently is referred to as a radio show. Initially it feels like this film is a vendetta by Hollywood against the lowbrow world of TV. But then when you keep hearing that it’s on radio, you start to think that it’s all in your mind. Curiously, the only real dummy in the film is Frosty, the starlet neighbor of the Bottomleys, who is at least quite sweet, and very attractive. Everyone else is quite erudite and well spoken, even Happy Hogan. You want stupidity and ignorance? Try 2012, my friends, not 1950.
The indictment of encroaching ignorance in society, which seems like the purpose of this film, begins to take a back seat to the comedy, which really dominates the proceedings. In fact, much of the comedy is physical, which would seem lowbrow to a lot of people. But really, what makes you laugh harder than such brilliant physical comedy as the opening of “City Lights” (Chaplin and the statue), or the stateroom scene in “A Night at the Opera” (“and 3 hard-boiled eggs”), or Alvy Singer’s LA bumper cars in “Annie Hall”? You don’t get smarter than those three comedy icons, that’s for certain.
The movie is filled with memorable characters, especially the two male leads.
Bottomley is a snob’s snob, but he is also quite witty and, even though the term is anachronistic, I’d say snarky. His insults aimed at Milady, Hogan and even the listening audience themselves are couched in such wit, that nobody seems to mind. In fact, the audience appears in on the joke. If this were today’s reality TV, a guy like this would be vilified. At one point when leaving Waters’ office, he says “Shall I genuflect, or just face Mecca?” Nobody is put off by his snarkiness, in fact, they applaud his gambling spirit; that he is willing to risk it all solely on the confidence that he feels he can’t be stumped.
Waters is the worst kind of psycho-boss. You have no problem with Beauregard’s vendetta; you want this prick taken down as much as he does. Vincent Price’s read on the character is about as funny as you can imagine. He’s completely unscrupulous, and also as corrupt and crazy as absolute power can make someone. More on this later. Suffice to say that he makes the bosses in “Horrible Bosses” look like Ben and Jerry. One of my favorite TV comedies is the Aughties British series “The IT Crowd”. The boss in that show, Denholm Reynholm is absolutely insane, and hilarious. I wonder if the writer, Graham Linehan, had ever scene "Champagne for Caesar", because the resemblance of Denholm to Waters is unmistakable.
Look, this is no “Sullivan’s Travels”. You’re not getting a deep message along with your chuckles. It seems like this will happen, but it never really does. That doesn’t make the film any less enjoyable.
Richard Whorf had directed a bunch of very unremarkable post-war features up until "Champagne for Caesar", a few musicals and comedies, and one noir, creatively titled “Love From a Stranger”. He went on to direct a ton of television shows, including a bunch of “Gunsmoke” and “Have Gun, Will Travel” episodes. We’re not talking Raoul Walsh, here, despite the initials being the same. Whorf does a great job with this film, mostly. There is a bit of slowdown in the 3rd act, where there should have been some acceleration in the proceedings.
After Waters hires Flame O’Neill to seduce and confuse Bottomley, their courtship and her use of feminine wiles is more than predictable. As much as I love Celeste Holm, she brings little new to this role, and certainly toils in the shadow of others before her, notably Barbara Stanwyck and Jean Arthur. Ronald Coleman isn’t really great at this kind of humor. While he does a masterful job at the quick retorts and the slapstick, his take on a lovesick professor is lacking. I think of the actors who had this sort of character down; Jack Lemmon, Cary Grant, even Henry Fonda in “The Lady Eve”. I feel that in different hands, the comedy in this section would have been much stronger and believable, and "Champagne for Caesar" would be considered a masterpiece of the genre.
The sets are stellar throughout, particularly the Milady offices. Photography is simple and direct, nothing gets in the way of the humor or story. The score has one memorable theme, and is typical of comic films of that era.
In spite of the flaws of Coleman’s and Holm’s realization of the romance/anti-romance, most of the acting herein is just perfect. Coleman is a revelation as a physical comic. His bit with the Milady arms is as well done as Buster Keaton. As you would expect, his delivery of barbs is low key and yet still stingingly funny. And his frustration with the dumbing down of society comes across with palpable clarity. It is a very different role from the man who played Sidney Carton, Charles Rainier and Robert Conway.
As for Vincent Price, this film predates his horror genre dominance, and follows his turn as Shelby Carpenter in “Laura”. To my knowledge, other than guest turns on variety hours, this is his only true comic role, and he is brilliant. Right in the middle of a conversation he will go into freeze mode, his assistant insisting that he has “entered another plane”. Suddenly he’ll snap out of it in full conversation. His timing and expressions hit every note pitch perfectly. Who knew? It makes you wish he had done much more like this.
Like I said before, I am a fan of Celeste Holm, and she rarely disappoints. Rarely however, has she been employed as a femme fatale, albeit a comic one. She doesn’t really have that animal magnetism or overt sexuality that the part calls for. She is a fine comedienne, but sadly miscast in this film. Bottomley admittedly wants an intellectual peer for a mate, but there still needs to be some chemistry to make that relationship and his sudden inability to concentrate believable. I think Rita Hayworth could have pulled this off far better.
As for Art Linkletter---it’s so hard for people of my generation to separate him from the TV icon--“Kids Say the Darnedest Things” and all that. When I was growing up, he and Ed Sullivan were the two biggest TV personalities that weren’t animated or on strings. At least as far as I know! It is no stretch for me to see him as a Quiz Show host, especially one as clownish as Happy Hogan. Of course, when Gwenn falls in love with him, uhhhhh, no. Art Linkletter a chick magnet? What the hell? Then again, I totally love dancing ingénue Dick Powell playing Phillip Marlowe in “Murder My Sweet”, so preconceptions be damned.
And what of our titular character, the parrot named Caesar? His voice was portrayed by the genius Mel Blanc, but given only a few good lines. I guess the concept of an alcoholic talking bird was enough to keep audiences in stitches in 1950. The film would have been fine without him, and his comic part is overshadowed by Coleman and Price. No upstaging by this pet, unlike Uggie in “The Artist”. It’s also kind of hard to understand what he’s saying through Blanc’s voice tricks. Too bad…there could have been a lot more great moments in here.
ON SECOND LOOK
"Champagne for Caesar" is a great and original comedy, but could have been much, much better. I think there is a reason why it’s been forgotten, and we can point directly to the lack of real romantic tension and chemistry between the two leads. It’s absolutely worth the time, if nothing else for watching two masterful genre actors go completely outside their milieus, and for some terrific highbrow AND lowbrow comedy.
1st Look- ✭✭✭1/2 2nd Look- ✭✭✭