Lost Betty Balfour film discovered by EYE: Love, Life and Laughter (1923)

Genuinely exciting news for silent film fans. A long-thought-lost film starring the wonderful Betty Balfour, and directed by the somewhat elusive George Pearson, has been returned to us. The film is Love, Life and Laughter (1923): Betty “Queen of Happiness” Balfour stars in a typically winning role as Tip Toes, an impoverished chorus girl who dreams of fame on the music-hall stage. She befriends a young aspiring writer, also down on his luck, and they decide on a plan – to meet two years later back at their tenement building to see if either of them have achieved their fondest wishes.

Love, Life and Laughter was found in a cinema in Hattem, in the Netherlands. The cinema was due to be rebuilt and so the anonymous film cans stored there were taken to EYE, the the Dutch Film Museum, in the hope that they might contain footage of local historical interest.

The BFI’s curator of silent film, Bryony Dixon, welcomes the discovery with open arms, saying:

Contemporary reviewers and audiences considered Love, Life and Laughter to be one of the finest creations of British cinema, it will be thrilling to find out if they’re right! We hope to be able to acquire some material from our colleagues at EYE soon so that British audiences can have a chance to see this exciting discovery.

We know that the copy EYE has acquired of Love, Life and Laughter has Dutch intertitles and has the original tints and tones intact – and we do have reason to believe that it is a very special picture. Contemporary reviews praised the film, with the Telegraph saying it was “destined in all probability to take its place among the screen classics”. In the Manchester Guardian, CA Lejeune’s gives nicely rounded sense of the film, and its importance:

Love, Life and Laughter is the latest Pearson film, and legend has it that the latest Pearson film is aways the best. It is certainly the most ambitious, spectacular at times in the De Mille ballroom manner, lit and photographed with a beauty to dream of. Devotees have called it George Pearson’s masterpiece, and so it is – of bluff. He lights common things uncommonly, and legend makes them symbolic; he catches a series of farcical situations, and legend makes them comic; legend turns sentimentality into sentiment, and confusion into mystery.

This fantasy of a chorus girl and a young poet is clever, but chiefly clever in simulating cleverness, in tickling the intellectual vanity of its audience with a goose feather, coloured peacock by imagination. It will succeed. And its success will be the result not of innate quality but of the great Welsh-Pearson legend – and, when all is said and done, nothing else matters.

That rather guarded review takes on a new aspect when we remember that the “great Welsh-Pearson legend” has now been forgotten, and their films have almost entirely vanished – which has the affect of rather enhancing the title’s allure. Until its rediscovery, Love, Life and Laughter sat on the BFI’s 75 Most Wanted list of much-missed British films.

A 1923 programme for the film offers this romantic and tantalising description:

“The Story is but a simple exposition of the oldest, yet ever youngest desire of the human heart, the achievement of an earnest ambition. The incidents tell in picture form of the striving of a boy and girl, against the odds of the world. The portrayal of this struggle towards a final goal of the desired happiness is unconventional in treatment. The Boy and Girl laugh and weep, succeed and fail, move onward and forward to an inevitable destiny, and to a climax which should live long in the memory.”

One of the many attractive elements to this news is that the film’s subject matter – of two starry-eyed types struggling to achieve their artistic ambitions – resonates against the life stories of the director and star both. Poignantly, in light of the fact that this film has been missing for so long, both Balfour and Pearson were highly acclaimed in the silent era and subsequently forgotten by most. It’s discoveries such as this, in fact, that make us appreciate anew how terrible the odds of survival for silent cinema are – with 75% of silents by the wayside, for each one we treasure there are three more we may never see.

London-born Betty Balfour was the biggest female star in British silent cinema, and regularly described as our answer to Mary Pickford – a feisty, charming, comic star with sweetly dimpled good looks and blond curls. Balfour’s roles were not so demure nor as innocent as that might suggest, in fact her appeal was decidedly down to earth, something Rachael Low characterised as a: “mixture of pathos, cheerful humour and sentiment”. Low acclaimed her ability to “to register on screen a charm and expression unequalled among the actresses in British film”. Balfour went on to star in Hitchcock’s Champagne  (1928) as a spoiled heiress, but her most famous roles were in the Squibs series of movies in the early 1920s. The Squibs films were also directed by George Pearson and featured Balfour as a Cockney flower girl in the West End of London. In fact it was with Pearson that Balfour made her screen debut, as a slovenly maid in Nothing Else Matters (1920). Pearson had spotted her on stage (she first performed aged 10) and hired her to work at his Welsh-Pearson studios – the start of a long and fruitful partnership. Balfour’s success with Pearson was phenomenal, but she soon felt typecast as a lovable Cockney sparrow or a capering vagabond and longed to play more grownup roles. Love, Life and Laughter, like Reveille, a war drama that is still lost as far as we know, was a determinedly more serious production from the Pearson-Balfour axis. Still, though, in Love, Life and Laughter, Pearson has Balfour mired in the London slums, and the theatres where she began her career.

Champagne (1928)
Champagne (1928)

Europe called, and Balfour went abroad to make films in France and Germany, but never Hollywood. The coming of sound nearly did for her career – she made a few talkies, including a Squibs musical, but never regained her former fame. Balfour made her last film in 1945, and in 1952, after a failed theatrical comeback and with her marriage long since ended, she even tried to kill herself. Balfour died in 1977, aged 74 and having left her acting days  far behind her.

George Pearson
George Pearson

Even fewer George Pearson films survive than Balfour works, but he was widely acclaimed in his lifetime, called a genius and even credited by some with inventing the moving camera shot. Like Balfour he was a Londoner, born in Kennington in 1875, and he grew up to become a teacher, first picking up a camera as a teaching aid. He brought the Ultus detective serial to the screen, before uniting with Balfour on the Squibs films.

Christine Gledhill’s entry for Pearson on the BFI Screenonline website applauds his “visionary populism” and summarises his strengths as a director:

Pearson‘s authorial stature was recognised in the human emotions he drew from traditional types, the charismatic performances of his actors, and inventive visual and symbolic effects wrested from limited resources and the skilled camerawork of Emile Lauste and Percy Strong.

It is precisely these skills that we can expect to see demonstrated in Love, Life and Laughter (which is photographed by Strong) if it lives up to our giddy expectations. Gledhill describes the film as one of those “intensely personal films centring on figures who, yearning like Pearson himself to communicate the ineffable, seek to exceed life’s limitations, only to encounter disillusion and eventually reconcile to its terms”. What we might call a cinema intellectual, Pearson was a founding member of the London Film Society and after the Welsh-Pearson company foundered (he argued for conversion to sound but failed to win the day) he would lecture and lobby on behalf of his industry. He made quota quickies in the thirties and was in charge of the Colonial Film Unity during the second world war. In fact he was awarded an OBE in 1952. Pearson retired at the age of 80 and died in 1973, just a couple of years off a full century. Until the discovery of Love, Life and Laughter, just one of his films (Squibs Wins the Calcutta Sweep, 1922) was known to survive in its entirety.

The discovery was announced in public on Wednesday night after the Orphan Film Symposium at New York University. The audience were treated to a five-minute extract of Love, Life and Laughter, with musical accompaniment by Stephen Horne. According to my sources, it was a delight for eyes and ears both.

Read more on Silent London

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