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MOVIES | Alternate Screen

'Champagne' Toast

Ronald Colman isn't known for comic work, but the silent-era star is a natural in this 1950 film.

May 06, 1999|RANDY LEWIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ronald Colman spent most of his career as a dashing British leading man and adventurer in "Lost Horizon," "The Prisoner of Zenda" and the like.

One of the few leading men from the silent-film era whose success not only continued but also grew when talkies arrived, he always brought a Cary Grant-like lighter-than-air sophistication to his roles.

Colman didn't, however, do as much comedy as Grant--unfortunate, since he did such a magnificent comic turn toward the end of his career as know-it-all Beauregard Bottomley in "Champagne for Caesar" (1950), screening tonight at Chapman University in Orange.

The one piece of information Bottomley doesn't seem to have socked away in his otherwise flawless brain is how to make a buck. That's what leads him to try out for "Masquerade for Money," a TV game show sponsored by Milady soap ("The soap that sanctifies!"), a company run by alternately demonic and zoned-out Burnbridge Waters (Vincent Price).

The movie whimsically anticipates TV quiz show scandals that came in the 1950s and also brilliantly anticipates the lowest-common-denominator mentality that would become the norm on television over the next half-decade.

Bottomley gets his first glimpse of "Masquerade for Money" while standing outside a department store window where a crowd has gathered, not to watch the science show he's enraptured by, but to catch the antics of "Masquerade for Money" host Happy Hogan (Art Linkletter, in his movie debut).

When a contestant gets an ovation upon revealing that she's from Brooklyn, Bottomley mutters, "I fail to see why the location of birth should be met with applause."

And when Hogan leads the cheers after she guesses correctly that it was the Nile river that Cleopatra sailed down, Colman's character announces to the onlookers: "This man is the forerunner of intellectual destruction in America. 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 make 4 will become the top level of learning!"

Soon, though, the chronically unemployed Bottomley applies for a job with Milady. He's quickly dismissed by Waters, who tells him, "You would be a poor ambassador of goodwill for Milady. This is a deadly serious world, this world of business, and at some given moment you would probably revert to type. You are the intellectual type. I despise the intellectual type."

That's when Bottomley gets the idea to go on "Masquerade for Money" and take Waters for everything he's worth.

He gets on the show and quickly becomes an audience favorite, which compels Waters to keep bringing him back, even as his winnings continue to mount. Celeste Holm appears as the deliciously devious and brainy femme fatale Waters hires to be Bottomley's undoing.

The movie was one of Price's early ventures into comedy on screen. In 1950, Price had been working primarily as a villain--it wasn't until the 1960s and 1970s that he regularly began showing up in other comedies parodying his horror-meister persona.

The script by Fred Brady and Hans Jacoby is consistently sharp and kindheartedly witty. And their big finale--where Bottomley is given the all-or-nothing question in front of teeming multitudes gathered at the Hollywood Bowl nervously awaiting his answer--is masterful.

Oh, and the title? Caesar is the name of a stray parrot Bottomley and his sister took in, and who also is a lush. He doesn't say "Polly want a cracker," but "Polly wants a drink--let's get loaded!" If Caesar's voice sounds vaguely familiar, it should. It's Mel Blanc's.

Ironically, several people who worked on this skewering of the then-young medium of TV went on to lucrative careers in it.

Linkletter, of course, became one of TV's most familiar and trusted faces as host of "House Party" and "Kids Say the Darndest Things."

Long Beach native Barbara Britton, who played Bottomley's irrepressibly romantic sister, became a TV pitchwoman for Revlon products and starred in the 1952-54 series "Mr. and Mrs. North."

Director Richard Whorf, who had done movies including "Blonde Fever" in 1944 and "Till the Clouds Roll By" in 1946, became a prolific TV director of "Gunsmoke," "Wagon Train" and many other 1950s westerns. In the 1960s, he directed episodes of "My Three Sons," "The Beverly Hillbillies" and "Petticoat Junction" (including the latter series' premiere episode) and several other series before his death in 1966 in Santa Monica.

* "Champagne for Caesar," Chapman University, 333 N. Glassell St., Orange. 8 p.m. today. Free. Not rated. Running time: 99 minutes. (714) 997-6765.

Q&A With Director Paul Mazursky

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