Champagne Charlie (1944 film)

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Champagne Charlie
Champagne Charlie VideoCover.jpeg
Directed by Alberto Cavalcanti
Produced by Michael Balcon
John Croydon
Written by John Dighton
Angus MacPhail
Austin Melford
Starring Stanley Holloway
Tommy Trinder
Betty Warren
Jean Kent
Cinematography Wilkie Cooper
Edited by Charles Hasse
Distributed by Bell Pictures Corporation
Release dates
  • 6 November 1944 (1944-11-06)
Running time
105 minutes
Country United Kingdom
Language English

Champagne Charlie is a 1944 British musical film made by Ealing Studios. The original screenplay by Austin Melford, John Dighton, and Angus MacPhail is loosely based on the real life rivalry between George Leybourne, who first performed the song of that name, and Alfred Vance.

The film focuses on Leybourne and Vance, who were popular music hall performers of the Victorian era, described as lions comiques. In the film they are 'top of the bill' at their respective music halls: one a fictional Mogador (based on the Théâtre Mogador in Paris) and the other, the real Oxford Music Hall. Leybourne (Mogador) is played by Tommy Trinder and Vance (Oxford) by Stanley Holloway. The female leads are Betty Warren and Jean Kent. The film was directed by Alberto Cavalcanti.

The film opens with a sing-song in a public house in Elephant and Castle, and follows the rise of Leybourne in the music hall. The highlight of the film is a singing competition between the two protagonists. Leybourne sings "Ale Old Ale", and Vance replies with "Gin, Gin, Gin"; the competition continues, with the scene finally ending with the song of the title. The film is notable for its verity approach to showing details of the audiences, venues and staff, with copious quantities of food and drink forming a vicarious delight for wartime audiences.[1]


George Saunders arrives in London from Leybourne with his brother, and they go to the Elephant and Castle pub, the haunt of Tom Sayers, a leading boxer. While his brother, an aspiring boxer, is having a trial bout with Sayers, George Saunders is persuaded to sing a song to entertain the bar's customers. Initially reluctant, he soon gathers his confidence, and his performance is extremely well received by the audience. The impressed landlord offers him a pound a week and two free beers a night if he will perform on a regular basis. Saunders’s brother, meanwhile, is too ill from his past career as a miner to make a serious boxer and he returns home to Leybourne.

A month later, Saunders is now a major hit at the bar and draws a large crowd. He received an invitation from the local music hall, the Mogador, to perform a song there. Unfortunately rather than attempting one of his more popular songs, he chooses to sing a slower, more melancholic song. When he performs this at the Mogador, it is met with a mixture of indifference and hostility by the crowd. Bessie Bellwood, the owner of the Mogador, informs him he was "horrible" and that she only employs the best. A disappointed Leybourne walks away and begins to sing "Half and Half and Half" to himself, which leads Bellwood to instantly change her opinion of him. She decides to hire him - but after his poor first performance, she tells him he needs to re-brand himself, and he is now to call himself George Leybourne after his home town.

Within a short period of time, Leybourne has established himself as a headline fixture at the Mogador and performs to packed houses. He is curious when a member of the audience compares him unfavourably to the "Great Vance". Bellwood tells him that Vance is the greatest music hall performer of the era, and takes him along to a performance Vance is giving. Leybourne is impressed by Vance, but announces he wants to be better than Vance. A new song is written for him "Ale, Old Ale" which fast becomes a hit. This annoys Vance because he considers singing drinking songs as his territory, and he regards Leybourne as an upstart. He responds with a fresh song about drink himself, triggering a rivalry between the men in which they both keep developing fresh songs about different alcoholic beverages to outdo the other. Leybourne eventually is extremely successful with his signature hit Champagne Charlie.

An enraged Vance challenges him to a duel, fully expecting him to instead apologise. Unwilling to back down Leybourne accepts the challenge, and the two men fight a farcical duel with pistols which results in neither of them being hurt. The two men continue their rivalry, under an increasing threat to the music halls from the government who are being lobbied by the theatre owners who see the music halls as a threat to their business. Despite their continued competition, Vance and Leybourne begin to develop a grudging respect for the other - and they agree to stage a joint performance together in support of the owner of one of the other music halls. A relationship has developed, meanwhile, between Bessie Bellwood's daughter Dolly and Lord Petersfield, the young son of the Duke who is charge of the panel cracking down on the music halls.

Dolly resists Petersfield's repeated attempts to marry her, because she believes that the gulf in class can not be overcome - an impression added to by the polite but dismissive reception she receives from Petersfield's father. Unbeknown to her, however, the Duke had once come extremely close to marrying Bessie Bellwood many years before, and had only been persuaded not to do so by his father who similarly invoked the class differences involved. Bessie Bellwood pays the Duke a visit to try to persuade him to allow his son and her daughter to marry, reminding him of their own dalliance. She grows angry when she discovers that the Duke is running the committee investigating the music halls, and may choose to close them down.

During the first performance of Leybourne's latest song, a major riot is started by men paid for by the theatre owners - who send for the police. The likely result of this will be the closure of the Mogador and other music halls. The performers and staff try to battle the rioters, and send out for help to the neighbouring music hall where Vance is performing. Vance leads his own staff to the rescue of Bellwood, to "throw the scum out in to the gutter". They manage to overcome the rioters and restore the order, just before the arrival of the police, who arrive to find an orderly music hall listening to Leybourne's song. Summoned to give evidence before the committee, the performers give their evidence, but expect the worse. At the Mogador they stage a joint performance between Vance, Bellwood and Leybourne. The Duke arrives and announces the committee decides in favour of the music halls, meaning their future is secured. The film ends with the entire music hall drinking champagne to celebrate while signing Champagne Charlie.


Both Billy Mayerl and Lord Berners worked on the music for the film. Some of the songs featured include:

  • "Arf of Arf and Arf"
  • "The Girl Who Asked For More"
  • "Don't Bring Shame on the Old Folks"
  • "Ale, Old Ale"
  • "Champagne Charlie"
  • "Not in Front of Baby"
  • "By and By"
  • "Come on Algernon"



  1. ^ Charles Drazin The Finest Years: British Cinema of the 1940s (I.B.Tauris, 2007) pp. 128–130 ISBN 1-84511-411-6

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