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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Champagne Charlie (1936, Fox Cinema Archives)
Champagne Charlie (1936, Fox Cinema Archives)
Fox Cinema Archives // Unrated // August 5, 2014
List Price: $19.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Paul Mavis | posted November 6, 2014 | E-mail the Author
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Short and sweet...and quite neatly done. 20th Century-Fox's Cinema Archives line of hard-to-find library and cult titles has released Champagne Charlie, the 1936 mystery from Fox (released by 20th) starring Paul Cavanagh, Helen Wood, Thomas Beck, Minna Gombell, Herbert Mundin, Noel Madison, and Montagu Love. Clocking in at a trim 59 minutes, the enjoyable B programmer Champagne Charlie only suffers one small drawback: it's a tad too short. No extras for this only-okay fullscreen black and white transfer.

The docks of New York, 1936. Aboard an ocean liner bound for Paris, beautiful Craig Copper Company heiress Linda Craig (Helen Wood) drinks a toast to the picture of her dead fiance, Charlie Cortland (Paul Cavanagh), better known to his admirers and detractors as "Champagne Charlie." That drink is served to her by the steamer's bartender, Fipps (Herbert Mundin), who was Charlie's valet for 15 years, and who has Charlie's photo on the bar as a memorial to his beloved boss. Linda's newlywed husband, boyhood friend Tod Hollingsworth (Thomas Beck), isn't exactly pleased with the salute, believing Linda still carries a torch for the smooth gambler, while her friend, three times divorced and now married again Lillian Wayne (Minna Gombell), is up for any kind of drinking. Someone else spots Linda and Fipps at the bar; Pedro Gorini (Noel Madison), who was one of gambler Charlie's financial backers. He calls Linda and tells her he wants to speak to her...or else he'll tip the papers to her "past." Fipps, though, beats Linda to Pedro's stateroom, and a fight ensures, with Pedro stabbed to death. With the Captain ready to throw both Linda and Fipps into the brig, she recounts hers and Charlie's story. A year ago in the Monte Carlo casinos, Linda met Charlie, who captivated her with his smooth charm and easy good looks. However, he was hiding a secret: he owed Pedro and Ivan Suchine (Montagu Love) over $200,000 in gambling losses, and they wanted payment. Now. Enter their idea for Charlie to romance Linda and marry her for her $20 million dollar fortune, a plan to which a reluctant Charlie eventually agrees. What happens, then, when Charlie finds out a secret about Linda...that even Linda doesn't know about?

Zippy and easy to take, Champagne Charlie is a model of B moviemaking efficiency...maybe too much of a model, come to think of it. Written by Allen Rivkin (Dead Reckoning, The Farmer's Daughter), from a story by Gene Markey (Baby Face), and directed by Fox programmer helmer James Tinling (Charlie Chan in Shanghai, Mr. Moto's Gamble, Racket Squad), Champagne Charlie moves with the swift assurance of a narrative that's been cut to the absolute bone. Such abridgement is admirable in the simple terms of not wasting our time. Champagne Charlie has a reasonably diverting (if somewhat predictable) story to tell, in an interesting backwards structure (we keep hoping that the story's twist is that Charlie will pop back up at some point, that he's not really dead...but he is), with competent actors in harness, and all that it's designed to do, is entertain us. The set-up is typical mid-Depression Hollywood escapism, what with a young, spoiled, beautiful heiress, her older, wisecrackin' chorus girl-turned-millionaire divorcee friend, her rich, handsome (and petulant) husband, and her even more handsome, suave (and in the end, genuinely noble) gambler lover--all of whom are traveling from New York City and Paris, to Monte Carlo for gambling and Switzerland for skiing (all courtesy of some shaky rear screen projection). If the camera work is locked down and unimaginative (because "complicated" costs money), at least some of the dialogue is light and crisp. When whistling Charlie enters his room and is almost stuck with a knife by Pedro, he offers, "You just missed me. Don't let it happen again, especially when I'm whistling--it can cause insanity." Getting a shave from Fipps, Charlie's valet admiringly states, "You always look, sir, if you'll pardon me saying, as if you stepped out of a band box," to which a bemused Charlie replies, "Oh, Fipps...I bet you say that to every man you shave." Someone at Fox thought Champagne Charlie had something more going for it than their usual B fare, considering the fact that--according to what little I could find on this title--it was in reshoots for over six months (very unusual for a B programmer at the time), before it played solo in first-run houses.

It's just too bad that Champagne Charlie wasn't truly given the real "first-run" treatment. While any movie that gets in and gets out fast while also accomplishing its main goal--entertainment--always gets my admiration, I would have liked just a little bit more screen time here spent on filling out the details--mainly those pertaining to our "hero," Charlie. Now, I don't need any background on Wood's and Beck's relationship (Wood is lovely, and much more animated in Cavanagh's presence, but Beck is a stiff...and what's with that off-putting, attacking form of awkward kissing Beck is forcing on her?). I would have liked a lot more, though, of sassy Minna Gombell's character (Rivkin could have wrung another good ten minutes of amusing material just off her smart-assed, gold-digging divorcee creation). Anyone watching Champagne Charlie hoping to see Herbert Mundin essay another one of his comical schlubs will be disappointed that he plays it more often than not "straight," as the devoted valet. No, what I wanted more of was "Champagne" Charlie. When he finally hits the screen, after a brief but effective build-up (people toast his legacy, and will even kill because of their loyalty to a dead man), we only have Paul Cavanagh's admittedly potent easy charm to instantly convey what everyone is saying about Charlie. We never actually see any of it. When he walks into the casino (his first scene), Linda makes it known that the fun is really going to start now...but we don't know why. What's "fun" about Charlie? What does he do that captivates people? Who knows...because we never see him in action. It would have been nice to have at least a couple of scenes showing why people gravitated to him, as well as perhaps some background on his gambling activities (and why he's in debt). However, Champagne Charlie doesn't have the time for that "unnecessary" exposition, nor for a proper middle section where he woos and charms Linda (their courtship montage takes all of 3 or 4 minutes). Of course that's the trade-off for B storytelling: abbreviation in service of speed (and economy). It's just too bad that with the promising elements here in Champagne Charlie--particularly ultra-polished Cavanagh's facility with the rakish character--that more wasn't done with them.

The Video:
The fullscreen, 1.37:1 black and white transfer for Champagne Charlie is a little rough, with a contrasty, grainy image, with quite a few imperfections, including scratches and some shrinkage wobble.

The Audio:
The Dolby Digital English mono audio track is quite hissy and squelchy. No subtitles or closed-captions.

The Extras:
No extras for Champagne Charlie.

Final Thoughts:
A tight, entertaining little B mystery drama that could have been a little bit more. At 59 minutes with no stars and little money, no one is expecting Charade here, but some amusing, light dialogue, some cheap-but-sleek sets, a sense of speedy pacing, and a particularly smooth, assured turn by Paul Cavanagh as rogue "Champagne" Charlie, all deserved just a few more minutes of care...and screen time. Still, I'm recommending Champagne Charlie.

Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.

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