TEXTS OF THE EXHIBITION « CHAMPAGNE, THE STAR OF THE 7TH ART » WHICH I CONCEIVED AND WHICH WAS SHOWN AT THE UNION DES MAISONS DE CHAMPAGNE, IN REIMS, DURING THE 2021 EUROPEAN HERITAGE DAYS.
THEY ARE THE MOST COMPLETE INTRODUCTION TO THE PRESENCE OF CHAMPAGNE IN CINEMA.
Translation: Florence Brutton
Introduction / Bubbles and the Cinematograph / Champagne in Silent films / Champagne’s popularity in French Cinema / Masterpieces and Champagne / Cult Bubbles / Bond & Bubbles / Champagne and films for foodies / Champagne in musical comedies / Champagne in Slapstick films / Champagne and westerns / Even super heroes drink it… / … So too do toons
“Champagne and the cinema: two inventions, two centuries apart, that stand as testament to the creativity of the French. For more than 125 years now, bubbly and cinema have gone hand in hand – an enduring relationship that dates back to the Lumière Brothers’ first films and continues to the present day.
This exhibition invites you to revisit their shared history. Brought to you by the Union of Champagne Houses, it presents a line-up of films that showcase the “Grandes Marques” or “Big Brands” as portrayed by Hollywood’s greatest screen legends in the guise of super-heroes, cowboys, outlaws and secret agents.
As a long-time actor and long-time Champagne lover, I was an active supporter of the “Champagne Hillsides, Houses and Cellars” for inclusion on the UNESCO World Heritage List. I am therefore doubly pleased to sponsor this fascinating backwards look at the love story between Champagne and cinema.
Enjoy your visit!”
Welcome to this retrospective of films featuring Champagne: a look back at the relationship between “Champagne” and the cinema since its invention by the Lumière brothers in 1895. The Champagne Houses and Grandes Marques appear on screen because they form part of that creative universe, not for publicity purposes. Likewise the films presented in the exhibition are selected purely for their historical and visual significance, not for promotional ends.
Drinking too much alcohol can harm your health – drink only in moderation.
Gabriel Leroux, curator of the exhibition
Bubbles and the Cinematograph
Cinema is officially born. On December 28 Auguste and Louis Lumière hold their first public screening in the Salon Indien at the Grand Café, 14, Boulevard des Capucines, Paris.
A few months later they shoot their first film about Champagne at the Moët & Chandon Champagne House in Epernay: De la Vigne au Tonneau (literally “from the vineyard to the barrel”, 1896-1897).
Was this their first advertising film? All we know for sure is that the Lumière cinematograph was so successful that the brothers sent their camera operators all over the world – and so began documentary filmmaking.
Eugène Mercier commissions the Lumière Brothers to make a film about his eponymous Champagne House. A commercial film certainly, shot in Epernay and Luxembourg by camera operator Lavesvre, but no less a testament to Mercier’s visionary thinking. It also served as a reminder of the long-standing ties between Champagne Mercier and the Lumière Brothers: Alexandre Promio, one of the Lumière Brothers’ chief camera operators, had worked as a Mercier sales representative in Lyon. Shown at the 1900 Paris World Fair, the film drew 3,723, 821 spectators and inspired other filmmakers. The Brothers Marzen, for instance, who made another documentary film about Champagne Mercier in 1907.
Champagne Mercier is the first Champagne House to feature in a fictional film: Barbe Bleue (Blue Beard) by influential filmmaker George Méliès. Regarded as the father of special effects, Méliès was also the first to engage in product placement: in this case a giant bottle of Mercier Champagne that makes a surprising appearance in one scene, prefiguring cinema’s enduring love affair with bubbly. Unlike other drinks, Champagne plays a role in films – it isn’t just set dressing.
That same year also saw the release of Ferdinand Zecca’s Par le Trou de la Serrure (What is Seen Through a Keyhole) and Rêve et Réalité (Dream and Reality) – two films where Champagne represents the embodiment of gallantry.
Ferdinand Zecca and Gaston Velle direct L’Amant de la Lune (The Moon Lover): a gem of a short film featuring giant Champagne bottles performing a graceful dance.
The Commission Spéciale de Propaganda (special committee on promotion) of what is now the Union of Champagne Houses commissions a film titled Le Vin du Bonheur (literally, “the wine of happiness”), which is usually shown at the beginning of Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights.
IncidentallyWhen thinking about a name for their new invention, the Lumière Brothers’ first choice was cinématographe. Their father Antoine Lumière meanwhile preferred the name coined by his friend, Moët & Chandon sales rep Lechère: domitor, derived from “dominator”, which was exactly what Lechère predicted this new invention would do, like Champagne itself. The Lumière Brothers however stuck to their guns and in 1895 they made it official: their newly patented device would be called a cinématographe.
Champagne in Silent films
In the beginning there were only silent films, with Europe and France leading the way in film production. That changed after World War I when Hollywood established itself as the centre of the film industry. So much so that by the 1920s the Hollywood Dream Factory and its infamous “Star System” was a force to be reckoned with.
So what role did Champagne play in silent cinema?
First, it added a sound effect to silent films. Champagne, known as the “vin saute-bouchon” or “cork-popping wine”, became the source of explosive pranks that are still funny today.
First came Georges Monca’s film, Le Champagne de Rigadin (1915), featuring Charles Prince, alias “Rigadin”, one of the most successful comic actors of the silent film era together with Max Linder. With more than 300 films to his credit, “Rigadin” ranked as one of the first big stars of the Seventh Art. In this short slapstick comedy, Champagne squirts him in the face as he tries to defuse an unexploded shell.
More explosive gags in Charlie Chaplin’s The Adventurer (1917), this time as the Maître D uncorks a Champagne bottle and our escaped convict (Charlie Chaplin) sticks his hands in the air thinking he’s heard a gun going off – an unmistakable sound that echoes in the minds of the audience even though they can’t actually hear it.
Erich von Stroheim (1885-1957) was one of the greatest directors of the silent film era, famous for his extravagant style of filmmaking and no-holds-barred budgets. His settings were equally lavish: one of his films featured a full size replica of the exterior of the Grand Hôtel, Monte-Carlo.
Nearly all of his films used Champagne to symbolise love or seduction, most notably The Wedding March (1928), which included a scene supposedly shot in a brothel, staffed by real prostitutes recruited for the purpose, where guests were served roast baby pigeons and caviar washed down with Champagne!
The French art de vivre and Paris parties
Champagne’s other great role, particularly in American films, was as an obvious symbol of France. No Parisian party was complete without bubbly, seen as inseparable from the famous French art de vivre and French culture. This comes through most forcefully in the films of German-born film director, Ernst Lubitsch – This is Paris (1926) for instance. Also in Charlie Chaplin’s A Woman of Paris (1923) where Louis Roederer Champagne is served with truffles cooked in Champagne.
Hitchcock and Champagne
Avowed Champagne lover Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980) featured Champagne in many of his films.
One of the best examples is his aptly named 1928 film Champagne, which shows one of the biggest stars in British silent cinema, Betty Balfour (1903-1977) holding a bottle of Moët & Chandon then a bottle of Mumm Cordon Rouge. The film closes with a shot of a couple kissing, with the scene framed and viewed through a lens in the bottom of a giant champagne glass that Hitchcock had specially made for the occasion.
Hollywood: parties and prohibition
“Oh! The parties we used to have! In those days the public wanted us to live like kings and queens. So we did – and why not? We were in love with life. We were making more money than we ever dreamed existed and there was no reason to believe it would ever stop.”
So said Gloria Swanson, one of the biggest film personalities of her time, when describing the life of a 1920’s Hollywood star. They all drove around in flashy cars; they all lived in palatial homes; and they all regularly got together for lavish parties where Champagne flowed like water.
s Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950) Gloria Swanson left an indelible mark on one of the only sound films she ever played in – a rare exception for an iconic actress who became known as the queen of the silent screen.
By the 1920s however, state and local prohibition was fast coming into force in the US. Ratified in January 1919, the 18th amendment to the US constitution prohibited the manufacture, transportation, import, export or sale of “intoxicating liquors”. So since Hollywood stars couldn’t live without Champagne, their only alternative was to buy bootleg bubbly from smugglers in the pay of the Italian-American Mafia (with Al Capone as one of its most notorious gangsters).
Now that Champagne was no longer available through legal channels, the Champagne Houses saw exports to the US plummet in the face of competition from bootleg Champagne smuggled through Canada, Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, and Mexico. It was then that Bertrand de Mun, President of the Syndicat du Commerce (now the Union of Champagne Houses) set up the Commission d’Exportation des Vins (now the Fédération des Exportateurs de Vins et Spiritueux). Created by and for French wines and spirits exporters, the commission lobbied government to refrain from protectionist policies that invited retaliation from France’s leading import markets for wine.
But if you think Champagne disappeared from the Silver Screen, think again. On the contrary, it continued to feature in Hollywood films, most notably in films set in Europe.
American cinema would later look back on the “Roaring Twenties” as a time of forbidden revelry soaked in jazz and Champagne. In Baz Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby (2013) Leonardo DiCaprio as the titular character throws extravagant parties dripping with glitz and glam: over-sized bottles of Moët & Chandon, hundreds of guests, and spectacular fireworks to end the night with a bang.
AnecdoteThe earlier version of The Great Gatsby, directed by Jack Clayton in 1974 and starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, features Dom Pérignon Champagne – which is something of an anachronism given that the story is set in the summer of 1922. That’s 15 years before the launch of the Dom Pérignon Cuvée by its creator Count Robert-Jean de Vogüé, then President of Champagne House Moët & Chandon!
In Some Like It Hot (1959), director Billy Wilder chose to shoot the film in black and white to plunge the audience into the heart of the Great Depression. As police and bootleggers do battle on the streets of Chicago, Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe exchange kisses between glasses of Champagne aboard a “borrowed” multi-million dollar yacht in Miami.
Brian de Palma’s Untouchables (1987) took things to a whole new level, with Robert de Niro as Al Capone raising a glass of Champagne – at the height of Prohibition.
Prohibition ended on 5 December 1933, an event celebrated in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time In America that bids farewell to the 18th Amendment by sabering a bottle of Mumm Cordon Rouge.
AnecdotePeter Bogdanovitch’s The Cat’s Meow (2001) is the semi-true story of a star-studded gathering aboard media mogul William Randolph Hearst’s yacht Oneido in 1924. Hollywood celebrities in attendance included, among others, Charlie Chaplin, actress Marion Davies (Hearst’s mistress) and film producer Thomas Ince, with Champagne corks popping everywhere you looked. The film reveals a moody Hearst who though not a drinker, enjoys a second glass of Champagne when he’s feeling good. On this occasion, one glass is enough. Moments later, he shoots Thomas Ince by accident.
Champagne’s popularity in French Cinema
French cinema retained a more popular dimension. Unlike the Hollywood studio system that fuelled a whole picture industry focused on adulated but totally inaccessible superstars, French films featured actresses and actors who the audience could relate to. These were films that focussed on the little things, the poetry of everyday life, some funny, some intimate but all of them anchored in reality.
By the 1930s, Champagne had entered popular culture and with it French cinema. Every day became an occasion to drink Champagne: special occasions (weddings, christenings, receptions) and not-so-special occasions alike. Bubbly enthusiasts came from all walks of life, some drinking it by the glass, others by the bottle, as in Jean Boyer’s Circonstances Atténuantes (1939, Extenuating Circumstances). Set in a little bar in the Paris suburbs, the film features an upstanding middle-class couple (Michel Simon as a retired judge and Suzanne Dantès as his wife) sharing bottles of Mumm Cordon Rouge Champagne with a notorious band of crooks that include Arletty spouting gouaille (lippy repartee) by the minute.
Jean Gabin drank Champagne in practically all of his films (usually vintage Champagne and favourite brands of his): as a soldier on leave in Jean Grémillon’s Gueule d’Amour (1937, Lady Killer); and as a workman, tramp, crook and police commissioner in other films.
Some years later, Gérard Depardieu in Maurice Pialat’s Loulou (1980), to name but one of Pialat’s many films, shares a glass of Champagne with Isabelle Huppert at a warm, family meal.
In more recent films, it’s Champagne’s myriad symbolic associations that come into play: in a nightclub in Thomas Gilou’s La Vérité Si Je Mens! (1997, Would I Lie to You?); in the trenches in Christian Carion’s Joyeux Noël (2005, Merry Christmas) as soldiers on all sides suddenly declare their own unofficial truce; at a birthday in Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano’s Intouchables (2011, Untouchables), starring François Cluzet and Omar Sy; and at a family reunion in Philippe de Chauveron’s Qu’est-ce qu’on a fait au Bon Dieu? (2014, Serial (Bad) Weddings).
AnecdoteIn 2018 Laurent Tirard directed Le Retour du Hero (2018, The Return of the Hero): a historical comedy starring Mélanie Laurent and Jean Dujardin set in 1812, at the height of the Napoleonic wars. Champagne does of course make an appearance, but only after much reflection because nobody knew what a bottle of Champagne looked like in 1812.
So Champagne House Perrier-Jouët had different types of bottles specially made for the occasion, one of which – string-tied, sealed with wax and sporting a fake label – features in the scene where Dujardin seduces a married woman.
Masterpieces and Champagne
Every art has its masterpieces and the Seventh Art is no exception; in this case, great films that have stood the test of time and continue to influence filmmakers today. Lists of films considered the best include: “The 100 Greatest Films of all Time” (published in 2012 by the British Film Institute); “The 208 films that you have to see” (Les 208 films qu’il faut avoir vus) published in 2008 by the École Nationale Supérieure des Métiers de l’Image et du Son; the Hollywood Reporter’s list of best-loved movies; and Le Monde newspaper’s film ratings.
Champagne makes an appearance in a whole host of timeless classics, often playing a key role as in the following examples (listed by chronological order):
Wings, directed by William A. Wellman: a silent film set in World War I featuring some of the most famous aerial battles ever committed to film. In 1929 it was also the first film (and the only silent film to-date) to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Champagne plays a major role in a long scene that supposedly takes place at the Folies-Bergères.
AnecdoteAlmost a century later that scene provided the inspiration for the Canto Bight sequence in Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi. An avowed fan of Wings, Johnson used virtually the same tracking shot as Wellman used to follow the characters as they enter the Folies-Bergères.
Der Blaue Engel (The Blue Angel), directed by Austrian- born US filmmaker, Josef von Sternberg. The first feature-length German full-talkie, this was the film that propelled Marlène Dietrich to international stardom (in the role of Lola). Champagne flows on a pretty much continuous basis throughout the film.
Freaks, directed by Tod Browning: a cult classic considered one of the greatest successes of the Seventh Art. Set in a circus, the film features untrained actors with physical deformities recruited from what were considered back then as freak shows, among them dwarves, an armless woman, a bearded lady, a man with no arms or legs, and Siamese twins. Champagne features in an astonishing wedding scene where the dwarf Angeleno passes around a cup of Champagne and invites lovely future bride Cleopatra to drink from it. She refuses, revolted at the idea of drinking from the same cup as those she considers “dirty, slimy freaks.” It being an unwritten rule of filmmaking that nobody ever turns down a glass of Champagne and gets away with it, she inevitably meets a horrible end.
Gone with the Wind, directed by Victor Fleming: one of the highest grossing films of all time and a winner of 10 Oscars. In it, pleasure-house owner (Ona Munson) invites her friend (Clark Gable) to share a bottle of Mumm Extra Dry Champagne.
Ninotchka, by Ernst Lubitsch: Greta Garbo’s penultimate film features her in the title role as a communist commissar who arrives in Paris to recover goods belonging to the USSR. Taking her first sip of Champagne, she laughs on screen for the first and only time in her career. “From what I read, I thought Champagne was a strong drink. It’s very delicate,” she says, proffering her glass for a refill.
Casablanca, directed by Michael Curtiz: in one of cinema’s most memorable scenes, Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman share glasses of Mumm Cordon Rouge in a bar in Casablanca. Awarded the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1943, the film ranks Number 3 on the American Film Institute’s Best American movies of all time. In Herbert Ross’ 1972 film Play It Again Sam, Woody Allen plays a fanatical movie buff obsessed with Casablanca and Humphrey Bogart’s persona; he apes his hero by trying to woo Diane Keaton’s character with Mumm Cordon Rouge Champagne.
There are films that mark their time and there are timeless films that mark audiences of every generation. These are your cult classics – iconic films that often spawn a long list of sequels and spin-offs, for instance Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, Star Wars or Harry Potter. Add Champagne to the mix and you have a recipe for turning a memorable scene into an unforgettable moment.
So let’s kick off with Marcel Carné’s Drôle de Drame (1937, Bizarre, Bizarre): a French comedy starring Louis Jouvet and Michel Simon, where the former famously says to the latter as they sit down to duck à l’orange: “I said bizarre, did I? How bizarre.” According to Jacques Prévert who wrote the screenplay, Jouvet and Simon polished off three ducks when shooting that scene – washed down with Pommery Champagne for good measure.
In Blake Edward’s 1963 film The Pink Panther, David Niven offers a glass of Champagne to Claudia Cardinale (a princess he’s trying to seduce and in the process steal her diamond). “Have a glass of Champagne,” he says. “Does wonders for extremes, and it’s been known to launch some lasting friendships.”
And talking of launching, Steven Spielberg’s films often begin with Champagne. Examples include: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) where “Indiana” Jones (Harrison Ford) gets the ball rolling with a glass of 1915 Moët & Chandon Dry Imperial; and Jurassic Park, released nine year’s later, which begins with Dr John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) opening a bottle of Champagne (also Moët, as it happens).
Quentin Tarantino, Spielberg’s equally gifted counterpart, likewise features Champagne in his films – even if it means taking liberties with history. Inglourious Basterds (2008), for instance, showcases a bottle of Perrier-Jouët Champagne that didn’t exist in World War II when the film takes place. You would never guess it though to look at the bottle, with those famous white anemones created for Perrier-Jouet by Art Nouveau master Emile Gallé in 1902.
Two years later, the magic of Champagne meets the world of magic in David Yate’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2010). At Bill and Fleur’s wedding, the narrator informs us that Harry had never been to a wedding before “so he could not judge how wizarding celebrations differed from Muggle ones, though he was pretty sure that the latter would not involve a wedding cake topped with two miniature phoenixes that took flight when the cake was cut, or bottles of Champagne that floated unsupported through the crowd.” (J. K. Rowling).
Which brings us to our last entry: Rian Johnson’s epic space opera, Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2018), specifically the Canto Bight sequence about a casino city on the edges of the galaxy where exotic aliens share glasses of Champagne.
Bond & Bubbles
“My name is Bond, James Bond.”
If ever there was a hero figure closely associated with bubbly, it has to be Bond, Ian Fleming’s fictional British Secret Service agent. Apart from Guy Hamilton’s Diamonds are Forever (1971), the divine brew appears in all 25 of the Eon Productions Bond films, with six brands stealing the limelight as the series progresses.
In Dr No (1962), James Bond 007 (played by Sean Connery) grabs a bottle off the dinner table to use as a weapon. “That’s a Dom Perignon ’55 – it would be a pity to break it,” says the ice-cool Dr No.
In Terence Young’s From Russia with Love (1963), it’s Taittinger that takes Bond’s fancy – at a lovers’ picnic with girlfriend Sylvia Trench, and aboard the Orient Express with irresistible Soviet Spy Tatiana Romanova. Mercier Champagne also gets a look-in: note the advertisement in the dining car.
Dom Perignon then makes a comeback in Guy Hamilton’s Goldfinger (1964) and the film he directed ten years later, The Man with the Golden Gun. In one of that film’s most famous sequences, vicious contract killer Francisco Scaramanga (Christopher Lee) shoots the cork off a bottle of Dom Perignon when James Bond (Roger Moore) lands his seaplane at Scaramanga’s island.
Other Big Brand Champagnes meanwhile make an appearance across the intervening decade: in Terence Young’s Thunderball (1965) where Bond sticks to Dom Pérignon but his arch-enemy Emilio Largo, Spectre’s Number Two, seems to prefer Veuve Clicquot; and in Peter Hunt’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) where Bond (played by George Lazenby) is offered a glass of Moët & Chandon.
Roger Moore, the “third” James Bond, then teams up with the House of Bollinger in Guy Hamilton’s Live and Let Die (1973). The story goes that the friendship between Albert “Cubby” Brocoli and Bollinger’s then president, Christian Bizot, brought their two families together. “Bolly” appears in all of the films from Lewis Gilbert’s Moonraker (1979) onwards, giving Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig the chance to enjoy some of Bollinger’s best vintage Champagnes.
James Bond also features in two films outside the official franchise: John Huston’s comedy spy film Casino Royale (1967) and Irving Kershner’s Never Say Never Again (1983). Casino Royale shows people drinking Taittinger and Veuve Clicquot, the brand Orson Welles insisted on drinking when puffing on a giant Havana cigar. In Never Say Never, Sean Connery celebrates his final James Bond performance with Dom Perignon Champagne.
Note that the 007 character as originally imagined by author Ian Fleming was already a big fan of bubbly, specifically Taittinger, Veuve Clicquot, Bollinger, Dom Pérignon, Krug and Pommery. In homage to Fleming’s brainchild, the Johnny English spy spoof series likewise gives a pivotal role to Champagne – in this case a misplaced role that further shows off the slapstick antics of Rowan Atkinson as the titular anti-hero.
Champagne and films for foodies
No sooner was it invented than cinema turned its attention to food – truffles being cooked in Champagne for instance in Charlie Chaplin’s A Woman of Paris (1923).
Cue a string of movies with tell-tale names set in restaurant kitchens and dining rooms: Gilles Grangier’s La Cuisine au Beurre starring Bourvil and Fernandel (1963, Cooking with Butter); Jacques Besnard’s Le Grand Restaurant starring Louis de Funès (1966, The Big Restaurant); and Claude Zidi’s L’Aile ou la Cuisse starring Louis de Funès and Coluche (1976, The Wing or the Thigh). Then of course there was Marco Ferreri’s La Grande Bouffe (1973, The Big Feast) where food becomes a vehicle for excess, not pleasure – even if voracious eater Philippe Noiret does wash it down with Perrier-Jouet Champagne.
The eighties then saw the emergence of “culinary” cinema, with three films in particular topping the bill of fare. First came Ted Kotecheff’s Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe (1978): a foodie thriller with the focus on chefs, kitchens and bubbly – Moët & Chandon, Dom Pérignon, Taittinger Comte de Champagne, Roederer Cristal and Veuve Clicquot to give but a few examples. … Next came Juzo Itami’s Tampopo (1985): a spaghetti-western inspired Japanese film about the search for the perfect ramen (noodle soup). The film opens with a sequence almost straight out of French New Wave cinema: a gangster-type who takes his seat in a movie theatre and addresses us through the screen while being served foodie delights washed down with Veuve Clicquot. More Veuve Clicquot in our third film, Gabriel Axel’s Babette’s Feast (1988), in this case an 1860 Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin served with Blinis Demidoff and caviar. The setting is Denmark, not Japan, but the emphasis remains firmly on life’s sensual pleasures.
And let’s not forget all those food-focused films that have come out of France, your gourmet playground par excellence. Claude Chabrol’s Le Boucher for instance (1970, The Butcher) opens with a Moët & Chandon wedding breakfast. More huge meals in his 1985 film Poulet au Vinaigre, (Coq au Vin) this time washed down with a 1976 Piper Heidsieck vintage, touted by its maker with the slogan “Que mijote Claude Chabrol?” (What’s Claude Chabrol cooking up this time?). Still on the theme of food, Edouard Molinaro’s Le Souper (1992, The Supper) imagines a secret conversation held over dinner between French ministers Talleyrand (Claude Rich) and Fouché (Claude Brasseur) in the wake of Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo. As they chew over ways of forming a government that would be good for France while keeping them in power, Talleyrand’s chef Carème feeds them delicacies served with Champagne – all paid for by the English.
Champagne is also, of course, the wine of choice for grand celebrations, as in Peter Greenaway’s The Belly of an Architect (1987) and Sofia Coppola’s, Marie-Antoinette (2006) with its famous fountains of Champagne …
Which brings us nicely to our last entry: Thomas Vinterberg’s Druk (Binge Drinking) which won the Oscar for Best International Film in 2021. The film opens with a gourmet dinner laced with enough Champagne to conjure up images of the vineyards themselves …
Champagne in musical comedies
The very first “talkie” was Alan Crosland’s The Jazz Singer: a musical drama that revolutionised the film industry and marked the beginning of all-talking pictures, many of them featuring singing scenes. With it came a flurry of new singing and dancing stars with experience in theatre, on Broadway and in nightclubs.
Champagne, as a symbol of nightlife par excellence, was the ideal wine to put the fizz into this new music scene. Sparkling and eminently quaffable, Champagne had that light, airy touch of so many of the musicals themselves – many of which were set in France, the iconic home of Champagne.
The opening credits for one of the very first musical comedies, Ernst Lubitsch’s The Love Parade (1929), presents a stylised image of Paris featuring two bottles of Veuve Clicquot. The film stars Maurice Chevalier, who also appears in Vincente Minnelli’s Gigi (1958), a feature-length musical film adaptation of the novel by French writer Colette, starring Louis Jourdan and Leslie Caron as Gigi. Before that, Caron co-starred with Gene Kelly in Minnelli’s An American in Paris (1951), a masterpiece of the Hollywood musical tradition about a struggling American painter (Kelly) who falls for a young French woman (Caron). Both films are set in Paris and both put the spotlight on Champagne. In Gigi, Leslie Caron play’s a young French woman who discovers life, men and Champagne – the inspiration for her song, The Night They Invented Champagne.
Still in Paris, Blake Edwards’ Victor/Victoria (1982) takes place in a 1930s transgender bar where Champagne flows non-stop and coloratura soprano Julie Andrews has a High C that can shatter glass (not to mention bottles).
French and European films meanwhile, unlike their Hollywood counterparts, rarely qualify as musicals. The only notable exceptions are Jacque Demy’s Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (1964, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) and Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (1967, The Young Girls of Rochefort); and Alain Resnais’ On Connait la Chanson (1997, Same Old Song) where an all-star French cast (Sabine Azéma, Pierre Arditi, André Dussolier, Jean-Pierre Bacri and Agnès Jaoui) lip sync to popular French songs and Champagne flows a-go-go in the final scene.
Musicals still draw crowds, as shown by the success of Phyllida Lloyd’s smash hit Mamma Mia! (2008), an Abba-inspired musical romance starring Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan and Colin Firth in a story about a wedding where Champagne conquers all. Another crowd pleaser was Damien Chazelle’s La La Land (2016): a glittering homage to the golden age of musicals perfectly in tune with the shimmering tones of Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label. The film won 6 Oscars, including Best Original Song. Three years later, Tom Hooper’s musical fantasy adaptation of the Broadway mega-musical Cats paid purring homage to the House of Piper Heidsieck with the movie tagline “Pi-purr-Heidsieck”.
Champagne in Slapstick films
Slapstick comedy takes its name from a theatrical device (batacchio) used in commedia del arte to produce a slapping noise when striking an opponent. It first made its appearance in American cinema in the 1910s, borrowed from the knockabout humour typical of circus clowns and pantomime – face slapping, butt-kicking, custard pie routines, wacky chase scenes and inanimate objects that take on a life of their own and turn on their user.
Slapstick brought out the comic potential in Champagne by playing on its physical properties, as opposed to its symbolic or sensory qualities. The shape of the bottle, style of glass, bubbles and corks flying out of Champagne bottles were all grist for the comedian’s mill.
Max Linder is widely regarded as the greatest comic performer of early French cinema and served as a role model for Charlie Chaplin. In the silent short Max et l’inauguration de la statue (1913, Max and the Statue) he turns up at a fancy-dress ball wearing a suit of armour and passes out drunk over his Champagne glass – which remains stuck to his face when he eventually wakes up, still slightly drunk and looking profoundly stupid.
But it was Laurel and Hardy who really put Champagne on the comedy map, starting with a now iconic publicity still for William A. Seiter’s Sons of the Desert (1933) showing them drinking a toast after opening a bottle of Piper Heidsieck with a hammer. Five years later in Edward Sutherland’s The Flying Deuces they fend off their pursuers by popping Champagne corks, a tactic eagerly adopted by contemporary filmmakers. Yves Robert in his 1974 film, Le Retour du Grand Blond (The Return of the Tall Blond Man) has the Pierre Richard character accidentally wound one of the killers on his heels by uncorking a bottle of Moët & Chandon. Same gag different Champagne in Jay Roach’s Meet the Parents (2000) with Ben Stiller as the bumbling boyfriend whose clumsy attempts to open a bottle of Mumm Extra Dry send the cork flying into the funeral urn holding the ashes of his future father-in-law’s mother. Meanwhile in the Farrelly Brother’s screwball comedy Dumb and Dumber (1994) a Champagne cork hits and kills a prized snow owl.
Other notable Champagne gags include Richard Sherman (Tom Ewell) getting his finger stuck in a Champagne bottle and The Girl (Marilyn Monroe) desperately trying to pull it off, in Billy Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch (1955); and the launching ceremony in Robert Dhéry’s Le Petit Baigneur (1968 The Little Bather) where the bottle of bubbly thrown by a minister’s wife smashes a hole in Louis de Funès’ new ship Increvable (the unsinkable).
Fast forward to today and you have Emma Stone in the title role of Craig Gillespie’s Disney movie Cruella (2021) entering Baroness von Hellmann’s reception (Emma Thompson) to the sound of breaking glass – the tower of champagne glasses she sends crashing to the floor when she pulls out a glass from the bottom.
Cinema is full of such examples. Gags where Champagne almost takes on a life of its own – moves, makes a noise, in short does what no other wine can do.
Champagne and westerns
“In that year of 1904, south Texas was still lusty, catch-as-catch-can country, with big cattle spreads and dusty settlements which were gradually growing into towns to fill its wide open spaces. The saloons did a brisk business, and fights between the cowhands and the freighters whose wagons were the chief means of supply were frequent and at times fatal. For the first time I saw a man killed, when I drove into Del Rio for supplies. He was a mule skinner. I had hitched the buckboard a few doors up the street from a saloon and this character came out through the swinging doors. Another man followed him and called out something. When the first man turned, the other pulled his gun and shot him dead.”
The quote is from Each Man in His Time by Raoul Walsh: one of the greatest Western directors of all time, who cut his teeth filming Pancho Villa in the thick of the Mexican revolution.
The first actual Western movie, per se, was Edwin Stanton Porter and Wallace McCutcheon’s 1903 silent short film The Great Train Robbery. So was born a whole new genre of film that in its heyday from the 1930s to the 1950s featured all the big names from the Golden Age of Hollywood, among them Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Henry Fonda and Kirk Douglas.
Contrary to what you might think, Champagne was no stranger to the Wild West: Buffalo Bill himself was a big fan and actually got to be quite a connoisseur. Champagne first appears in a Western in 1939, with James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich enjoying a glass of bubbly in a saloon scene in George Marshall’s Destry Rides Again. Likewise John Ford’s classic of the genre, My Darling Clementine (1946) features a rough and ready Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) being offered a glass of Champagne by an urbane Doc Holliday (Victor Mature).
Champagne’s role in Westerns came to be defined by this meeting between the masculine and the feminine, the rustic and the refined. Andre De Toth’s 1952 Western Carson City opens with a stage being robbed by stylish outlaws who treat their hapless victims to a picnic washed down with Veuve Clicquot. In King Vidor’s Man Without a Star (1955) Champagne brings out the true character of the protagonists. Rugged cowboy Dempsey Rae (Kirk Douglas) proves to be a natural gentleman while lady rancher Reed Bowman (Jeanne Crain) reveals a ruthlessness that is anything but ladylike. As a final example, Henry Hattaway’s North to Alaska (1960) has gold miner Sam McCord (John Wayne) sharing a glass of Champagne with the object of his affections, French girl Angel (Capucine). “French, the real thing just like you” he says, passing her the glass.
Contemporary Westerns continue in the same vein. In Sam Raimi’s The Quick and the Dead (1995), Herod (Gene Hackman) offers “The Lady” (Sharon Stone) a glass of Moët & Chandon; Champagne also makes an appearance in Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg’s Bandidas (2006), starring Salma Hayek and Penelope Cruz. More Moët & Chandon, this time delivered by the crateful on dogsleds in Chris Sanders film adaptation of Jack London’s 1903 classic The Call of the Wild (2020) – not strictly speaking a Western but with a typically Western setting.
Even super heroes drink it…
Superhero movies were an American invention, based on comic book characters usually combining human features with superhuman abilities – god-like beings with an appetite for the extraordinary that naturally extends to Champagne.
Superman, the most famous of them all, is an alien with a taste for earthly delights – as we see in Richard Lester’s Superman 2 (1980) where he declares his love for Lois Lane with flowers and a bottle of Piper-Heidsieck.
Also up there with the best of the best is Batman, the superhero without superpowers whose alter ego billionaire Bruce Wayne uses his wealth to do good thanks to an array of fantastic contraptions and gadgets that make our caped crusader virtually invincible. Batman’s villains don’t stand a chance, as we see in Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008) – Gotham’s avenging angel meanwhile allowing himself a few glasses of Champagne.
Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, doesn’t have any superpowers either, just a whole lot of money inherited from his business tycoon father that he uses to invent high-tech armour that makes him indestructible – hence his moniker. He is also an inveterate playboy who never misses a chance to open a bottle of Champagne, preferably in the company of a pretty woman – Gwyneth Paltrow for instance in Jon Favreau’s Iron Man 2 (2010), with Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark/Iron Man.
There are superheroes who never touch a drop. Because of his age Peter Parker, aka Spider Man, can never be shown drinking. And there are supervillains who automatically reach for the Champagne when they think they’ve killed the superhero. Except they haven’t and he’s out to get them, as “Penguin” for one finds out to his cost in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns (1992). Thinking he’s got rid of Batman, the nefarious “Penguin” (Danny DeVito) celebrates by opening a bottle of Champagne in an attempt to seduce Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) – a mistake that inevitably leads to his own downfall.
… So too do toons
French animated cartoons came into being in 1908 with Fantasmagorie: an animated short by French caricaturist Emile Cohl depicting crazy images morphing from one to the next. It was the first of more than 300 animated films created by Cohl, a Gaumont employee who once described himself as a truqueur de naissance (a born trickster).
The film projected at the then unthinkable rate of 16 frames per second, including one showing the central stick character being hit by a cork shooting out of a giant bottle. In Cohl’s later and rather more elegant animation, Le songe d’un garçon de café (1910, The Hasher’s Delirium) a Champagne bottle morphing into a beautiful woman features among the alcohol-fuelled dreams of a drunken waiter.
And so it has continued ever since, with Champagne regularly appearing in animated films.
Walt Disney, for instance, makes a particular feature of Champagne in Dumbo (1941) and Beauty and the Beast (1991). In Dumbo, accidentally drinking water spiked with Champagne causes our baby elephant to dream of dancing pink elephants before taking to the skies then waking up the following morning at the top of a tree. Fifty years later, a dinner scene in Beauty and the Beast ends with pink Champagne gushing out of a line up of bottles to the strains of Be our Guest, celebrating the delights of French food.
More recently, Champagne turns up in Sylvain Chomet’s Les Triplettes de Belleville (2003, The Triplets of Belleville) – a film that breathed new life into French animation – followed in 2005 by Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath’s Madagascar and its 2008 sequel Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa. One the funniest scenes features a penguin flight attendant serving what looks like Roederer Cristal to passengers watching an in-flight movie about air disasters. Though the bottle is unmarked, we have it on good authority from director Eric Darnell himself that Roederer Cristal was his main source of inspiration, luxury brands holding strong appeal for penguins.
Foxes meanwhile seem to prefer Dom Perignon, to judge from the Champagne served to Foxy’s guests in Wes Anderson’s delightful stop-motion animation of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox (2009).
For our last two films, we return to Belle Epoque Paris: to the Oiseau Rare nightclub where guests drink glasses of Champagne while listening to Lucille and Francoeur sing in Bibo Bergeron’s 3-D animated musical comedy Un Monstre à Paris (2011, A Monster in Paris); and to a restaurant on the first floor of the Eiffel Tower in Michel Ocelot’s computer-animated Dilili à Paris (2018, Dilili in Paris). What you see here is an open, funny-looking bottle of Mote & Donchan Brut Imperial Vintage (year illegible) – ring any bells?