What’s so frustrating about Champagne for Caesar is how little the film really would’ve need to do to be a success. It just needed a rewrite. Someone to come in and fix Hans Jacoby and Frederick Brady’s script, which is usually fine but they really can’t figure out what to do with Celeste Holm. And given Holm is second-billed (albeit below the title) and doesn’t come into the picture until moments before the halfway point… it’s like there needs to be a point to Holm.
And there really isn’t.
Up to the point Holm arrives, it really seems like the film knows what to do. Until then, the biggest problems with it are director Whorf’s bland close-up inserts—you can just imagine the actors mugging at nothing instead of the other actor in the scene—and Art Linkletter’s game show host. Linkletter’s supposed to be a jackass so he gets a lot of leeway—he really does seem like a jackass. But even he’s able to redeem himself and help move the film into position to really take off with Holm.
So the film, which starts consciously objectifying sunbathing Ellye Marshall because—as the narrator informs the audience—there won’t be any chance for it later, is actually about erudite Ronald Colman. Colman’s dedicated his life to learning all that is learnable, content to sit and read, doing the odd job to help with the bills, but it’s obvious sister Barbara Britton is supporting them. She teaches piano. It’s crappy—while Coleman doesn’t look his fifty-nine years, he’s visibly older than Britton and there’s a story in how they ended up together, with Britton acting like she’s a spinster just because she doesn’t sunbathe.
This portion of the film, with Coleman and Britton just hanging out and trying to get by while being eccentric—they invite Britton’s student, Byron Foulger, to a show and it ends up them watching a television through the store window. Historically accurate but it’s not a “show.” The scene has Foulger perplexed at how he’s ended up sharing the activity with them; it’s really strong stuff—Whorf’s direction is never better than in the first act, though there are some returns to form later on. Coleman and Britton just perfectly click.
So Coleman has this bad job interview with this weird soap company run by oddball businessman Vincent Price. What makes Price so funny is how everyone indulges his eccentricities when he’s really just a poseur. It pisses Coleman off, so much he decides to sabotage Price’s game show—the soap company sponsors a quiz show and who better to go on a quiz show than Coleman, who’s got encyclopedic knowledge and instant recall.
While at the game show, Britton gets taken with Linkletter, which doesn’t seem like it’s going to be a great arc or anything—quite the opposite—until they fall in love. Again, shouldn’t work, but does work. After Coleman keeps winning, Linkletter offers to use Britton’s crush to snoop on Coleman; except Britton knows Linkletter’s doing it and doesn’t care. She’s not going to betray Coleman—though she’s against his game show revenge plan—but she’s also not going to stop seeing Linkletter.
Very unexpected, very well-executed. You get to see Price just completely lose it, which you’ve been hoping he’s going to do since his first scene and the payoff’s there. The third act bungles Price in a lot of ways—somewhat through neglecting him—but he’s mostly magnificent and absurdly so.
But everything going so well makes it seem like the film’s going to know what to do when it brings in Holm, who’s a professional troublemaker. Price hires her to seduce and destroy Coleman. Holm poses as a nurse to take care of man cold suffering Coleman, working to quickly sabotage him with her feminine wiles.
Except Holm mugs through all the feminine wiles scenes—very effectively, but it doesn’t seem like the script’s written for that approach. And, although he’s obviously taken with her, Coleman’s not believably moony about her. The scenes where he’s got to be a jealous mess, Coleman plays with a shrug. His character’s willing to lose $20 million to make a point, it doesn’t seem like Holm manipulating him will get much mileage.
During this section of the film—so the middle to the third act start or thereabouts—Britton basically disappears. Coleman even comments on her absence. Presumably she’s off with Linkletter but seeing them sit around and talk about Coleman’s chances on the game show would probably be more interesting than the feigned screwball stuff with Coleman and Holm. If Whorf could keep up with the actors, it’d probably be fine. Coleman and Holm are doing different things but never bumping into each other. They’ve got a professional grace, even though the script’s clunky and the direction’s detached.
Then Coleman and Britton get back together in the third act to regroup and Caesar’s all of a sudden so much better for a moment; it’s like you’ve forgotten the ground the film’s lost through its runtime.
The ending’s not bad just flat. Tepid. Lukewarm. Blah.
There’s some excellent material in it—Price is a hoot, Britton’s quite good, Coleman and Holm are solid; Caesar never tasks Coleman and he always gives more than the scene needs. Just needs a better script and more decisive direction.
Directed by Richard Whorf; written by Hans Jacoby and Frederick Brady; director of photography, Paul Ivano; edited by Hugh Bennett; music by Dimitri Tiomkin; costume designer, Maria P. Donovan; produced by George Moskov; released by United Artists.
Starring Ronald Colman (Beauregard Bottomley), Barbara Britton (Gwenn Bottomley), Celeste Holm (Flame O’Neil), Art Linkletter (Happy Hogan), Vincent Price (Burnbridge Waters), Byron Foulger (Gerald), Vici Raaf (Waters’s secretary), and Ellye Marshall (Frosty).