Screen Snapshots

Screen Snapshots

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Champagne for Caesar (1950) - Ronald Colman, Drunken Parrots and Phonecalls from Einstein

In 1948 Ronald Colman won the Academy Award for Best Actor for the previous year’s A Double Life. His performance as the tortured Shakespearean actor Anthony John was a triumph that rounded off a superlative career as a consistently popular, well loved and highly regarded actor. After winning the Oscar (and the Golden Globe), Colman seemed in no hurry to follow it up, instead concentrating mostly on radio work. In fact, it wasn’t until 1950 that he made his next film, the very funny but nonetheless lightweight Champagne for Caesar. I don’t know enough about his personal life to know exactly what he did in the intervening three years, or indeed why he waited so long to follow up A Double Life, but I’ve always found it odd that this was the vehicle he chose, especially since it proved to be his final role as a leading man. After Champagne for Caesar, he only made a further two screen appearances, firstly a wonderfully symbolic cameo in Around the World in Eighty Days and finally as the top billed performer in the all star mess that is The Story of Mankind.

The basic premise of Champagne for Caesar didn’t seem too promising at first: a satire of television quiz shows where a polymath tries to bankrupt the quiz sponsor as revenge for not giving him a job. It’s a plot that seemed a bit dated and forced and given the film’s reputation as a bit average my expectations were a somewhat low. Though a Ronald Colman performance is never less than entertaining, the film seemed in retrospect to be an afterthought to a career that had already reached its happy ending. In fact, I would suspect that many critics tend to overlook Colman’s final screen moments for precisely this reason, like a retired Hall of Fame sportsman coming back for one last ill-advised season.

In the movie, Colman plays the unfortunately named Beauregard Bottomley, the man who “knows everything except how to make money”. What’s immediately impressive is that Colman makes this know-it-all character so likeable and sympathetic, never once letting his vast intelligence turn into something that would alienate the viewer. Even when chastising characters on their lack of education, he’s never less than charming in his use of his expressions, gestures and of course his soothing voice. How can you not trust the owner of that voice? This likeability factor is one of the hallmarks of Ronald Colman's screen persona, and one that ensured that he remained a firm favourite of audiences for decades despite changes in fashions and film stars.

The film starts off rather oddly, with a purposefully irrelevant opening scene and constant jaunty comedy music that sounds like the linking music on a radio show where someone is going shopping somewhere busy. This combined with the silly character name makes one fear that the words “zany” and “madcap” may be needed to describe the action. Luckily after a shaky start establishing the character, things pick up as Colman attempts to get a job at a soap company run by none other than Vincent Price (with an office designed by Jean Cocteau by the looks of it).

Vincent Price is laugh out loud funny in this film, a real revelation. At this point in his career he had outgrown the secondary dramatic leads of his youth but was yet to find his niche in horror and surprisingly here displays an as yet largely unseen talent for comedy. It is strange watching him with hindsight because his performance is exactly what you would expect from the Price of the Corman era and beyond with over the top exclamations and scenery chewing, except it’s happening in 1950. He starts off the proceedings by enthusing about his new idea, a soap for teeth then decides to not hire Colman because “I loathe humor, and you are humorous”. Finally he promptly disappears off into a trance mid conversation to visit the astral plane. By later standards of his performance, it's a restrained debut.

Our hero sees that the soap company sponsors a television quiz show and is horrified by the lack of education needed to win a prize, saying (with scary prescience) “If it is noteworthy and rewarding to know that 2 and 2 make 4 to the accompaniment of deafening applause and prizes, then 2 and 2 making 4 will become the top level of learning.” I think he safely managed to predict the future, and not just in game shows. Though it’s really only a small part of the film, the satirical point being made about prime time entertainment's lack of intellectual value on television is something that is even more relevant today. Nevertheless, the point isn't heavily laboured, possibly lest the audience felt they were being accused of anything. It does however let the movie industry have a well-aimed dig at the young upstart that was beginning to eat into its profits.

Without giving away the whole plot, our genius takes on the sponsor in a double your money quiz show and keeps going until he stands to win the net worth of the company. Along the way, Vincent Price devises more and more elaborate ways to sabotage his progress, including hiring a femme fatale (played by Celeste Holm) to cloud his judgement with thoughts of love. As the story picks up so do the laughs, especially from Colman and Price who work wonderfully together. Ronald Colman’s understated, gentle way of delivering his lines (even though they include some quite cruel put downs) only serves to up the tempo of Vincent Price’s theatrics. There’s a very funny scene where Colman is at the soap factory and bending over a large vat of soap. Price sees this and then suddenly a devil appears on his shoulder. Without missing a beat he says to his evil side “I’m way ahead of you” (sadly he is stopped by an unexplained indoor flash of lightning!). As the drama of the final quiz question unfolds, Price is hilarious as he cackles maniacally when he thinks he is winning, only to do a ridiculous double take before collapsing into a heap due to an outrageous last minute intervention from none other than Albert Einstein (just watch the film, it makes sense, trust me).

Of course it’s a clichéd formula, as we wait for the hero to answer the final question to get his revenge on the evil (and loopy) executive, but it really works. Naturally there are some twists along the way but I don’t want to spoil them for anyone. And predictably there is a happy ending as everyone pairs up, even Vincent Price who finds out that Colman’s alcoholic parrot (one of the more bizarre sub-plots involves Colman's search for the man who introduced the bird to booze) was his roommate and drinking buddy at college!

It's difficult to put into words how good Ronald Colman is in this film because he’s really no different from the wonderful, charming, graceful character he plays in all his pictures. The main criticism leveled at Colman is usually that he’s too mannered, or too perfect in his delivery, but if anyone in movie history had a real twinkle in his eye and just consistently projected an air of honest integrity, it’s him. In a way, Ronald Colman is not so important for his performances but for what he represents, but that’s an argument for another day. In Champagne for Caesar he looks like he could do this sort of film in his sleep, and although I overuse the term "effortless" for actors of this era, it really does look that way. Of course in reality the opposite is true as he works very hard to judge his performance of, on paper, a possibly unlikeable character and make it rather endearing.

Of the rest of the cast, the standout is Celeste Holm as the Mata Hari hired to woo Colman and throw him off his game. For a largely treacherous character (mainly due to the fact that she is pitted against such a sympathetic man in Colman) she is a constantly smiling, effervescent presence. She plays the femme fatal with gusto (and given her character’s name, Flame O’Neill, she had better!) and the script gives her plenty of opportunity to milk the situational back stabbing and wooing. In a way she’s perfectly cast, looking vulnerable yet glamorous (and always smiling!) though in the end when she recants her evil ways I didn’t quite buy it – I think she looked like she was enjoying being bad a bit too much. Interestingly, though billed second, she doesn't actually turn up until about 50 minutes into the film, but she certainly makes an impact once she arrives.

Other cast members are variable. Barbara Britton is excellent as Colman’s prim sister though unfortunately doesn’t get much to do other than engage in an unlikely romance with Art Linkletter as the obnoxious quiz show host. He’s good as the host (and I’d be worried if he wasn’t given his background) but is a bit of a dud when shoehorned into the romantic sub plot. Britton does get to call him “the forerunner of intellectual destruction in America” which was pretty funny. The only other casting of note is that of Mel Blanc as the parrot (the Caesar of the title), pretty much reprising his role from Jack Benny’s radio show.

All in all there is a lot to enjoy from Champagne for Caesar. Sure, it’s no Oscar winner, but it’s sharp, clever and expertly performed. I honestly don’t know why it’s not more highly regarded, especially amongst Vincent Price fans as he steals the film and establishes himself perhaps for the first time as a master of the ridiculous. However, when it came to the star my fears were for naught and it can safely sit proud in the Colman canon. It’s a film that doesn’t take anything away from his previous award winning performance and gives Colman the opportunity to play the affable and suave character he is associated with one last time. In fact, with Ronald Colman moving more and more into radio and television in the 1950’s, a clever satire of these mediums seems an appropriate taster to his new (and ultimately very successful) career.

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