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DVD SAVANT

Champagne for Caesar


Champagne for Caesar
Image Entertainment
1950 / b&w / 1:37 flat / 99 min. / Street Date December 17, 2002 / $24.99
Starring Ronald Colman, Celeste Holm, Vincent Price, Barbara Britton, Art Linkletter, Gabriel Heatter
Cinematography Paul Ivano
Film Editor Hugh Bennett
Original Music Dimitri Tiomkin
Written by Fred Brady and Hans Jacoby
Produced by George Moskov, Harry M. Popkin
Directed by Richard B. Whorf

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

An amiable farce about radio quiz shows years before the famous TV quiz show scandals, Champagne for Caesar is unevenly directed, but saved by an inspired cast. Ronald Colman is fine in an atypical comedy role, and Vincent Price proves to be adroit at plucking big laughs from the broad theatrical material.

Synopsis:

Brilliant intellectual Beauregard Bottomley (Ronald Colman) lives with his sister Gwenn (Barbara Britton) in a Hollywood bungalow, trying to find a job equal to his brainpower. Sent to the soap company of insufferably egotistical Burnbridge Waters (Vincent Price), Beauregard flunks the interview but gets a terrific idea - to become a can't-lose contestant on Waters' idiotic TV quiz show. A walking encyclopedia, Bottomley comes back week after week, developing into a celebrity hero. His unstoppable wins threaten Waters' company with bankruptcy. Complications ensue: Gwenn falls for the show's clownish emcee, Happy Hogan (Art Linkletter), and Beauregard is likewise distracted by Flame O'Neill (Celeste Holm), a Mata Hari dispatched by Waters to confuse the brainiac's straight-laced mind.

Producer Harry Popkin had a short & erratic run as an independent producer who assembled interesting talent into unusual entertainment packages. His D.O.A. is a bonafide classic, but other efforts tended toward the bizarre or were half-baked flops. This enjoyable comedy has very uneven direction - neatly organized scenes followed by unusually flat ones - and a strange mix of actors. The top roles are played by 'serious' names who seem to be having the time of their lives, and their enthusiasm is infectious. Velvet-voiced Ronald Colman is the straight man, while Celeste Holm has all the fun as an intellectual seductress. Vincent Price shows an amazing ability to turn ridiculous overplaying to his advantage. There isn't a scene where he doesn't elicit chuckles, and he gets a number of huge laughs with outrageous slow burns & doubletakes.

The script is not exactly Preston Sturges caliber, but it's way above the norm for a Hollywood farce. Flatly identifying Television as the rot which will bring down Western Civilization, the story posits the brilliant Beauregard as a genius, but identifies his brilliance in dumbed-down terms - he's really a nervy know-it-all who can answer questions correctly. The quiz show gives him the ambition to win so much money, Waters' Milady Soap company will eventually become his by default. Scheming Waters uses all kinds of dirty tricks, but Beauregard is his equal for Machiavellian calculation.

Champagne for Caesar relaxes just enough from its satirical aims, to let its characters breathe. Vincent Price's soap magnate is irredeemable, but the supposedly idiotic Happy Hogan is eventually revealed as a nice guy who hates his phony quiz show persona. Both he and the crafty Flame O'Neill fall for their intended targets, creating real romances from fake ones. (spoiler) In the surprise ending, Beauregard colludes with Price to fix the final contest, just as the real TV cheaters did eight years later.

Colman stays his sober, sincere self, and retains our sympathy even though he mercilessly pokes fun at people he believes to be his inferiors, like the dumb starlet neighbor played by Ellye Marshall (Cat-Women of the Moon). Price veers from giddy elation to apoplectic panic - and back again - with amazing dexterity. Usually seen in much more 'sophisticated' fare, Celeste Holm gets a lot of mileage out of sneaky smirks and sophomoric giggles, and her sense of fun is infectious. Barbara Britton (who actually later worked on the TV quiz show, The $64,000 Question) is charming as the sister, and the odd-looking Art Linkletter, in his only film, isn't smooth enough an actor for the material, but comes off as convincingly sincere. Mel Blanc provides the voice for the titular Parrot, which says things like "Let's get loaded!" at appropriate moments.

Veering this way and that, and perhaps running a few minutes too long, Champagne for Caesar always has a good laugh and an interesting plot twist waiting in the wings. The satire isn't always fully developed, but its sense of fun is.


Image's DVD of Champagne for Caesar has a clean b&w picture that only has one brief bit of damage at a changeover point. The audio is serviceable, but tends toward the slight compression-distortion 'crunchiness' that Savant has noticed in tracks probably derived from 35mm optical prints. Scenes with large audiences applauding loudly tend to distort, but most of Dimitri Tiompkin's score is clean. The still and lobby cards in the gallery are of uneven quality, perhaps indicating that screen grabs from an old laserdisc were appropriated, and didn't convert well to DVD. David Del Valle provides some thoughtful and informative liner notes informed by his own knowledge of Mr. Price Vincent Price: The Sinister Image. I don't know if there was better material available, but the packaging art is not very attractive.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Champagne for Caesar rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Good
Sound: Good-
Supplements: Stills and Lobby card gallery
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 27, 2002





DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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