This is a guest post for Silent London by Dr Rebecca Harrison. Harrison is a film critic and a lecturer in the Theatre, Film and Television Studies department at the University of Glasgow. She is the author of From Steam to Screen: Cinema, the Railways and Modernity (IB Tauris, 2018).
Known as ‘The Queen of Happiness’ during her reign as Britain’s foremost star of the screen, Betty Balfour very nearly meets her unhappy match in Love, Life and Laughter, the 1923 feature that until recently the BFI had feared lost. Directed by George Pearson, the picture was found in the Netherlands in 2015 (thanks to a cinema that failed to return the film to the distributor), and the newly restored version appeared in October as the Archive Special Presentation at the 2019 London Film Festival. While the audience had to make do with digital projection rather than a print, we were treated to a improvised live score by composer and accompanist Meg Morley – not to mention 70 minutes of Balfour’s luminescent presence on screen.
The film introduces us to Tip Toes (Balfour), a talented and ambitious young performer who longs to escape the tenement slum presided over by a elderly couple (who provide much of the film’s comic relief) and an assortment of happy-go-lucky neighbours. While the neighbours speak in dialect typical of them-there lower classes – all gorblimey intertitles and a rather fabulous joke about how one take’s one’s tea – Tip Toes is more refined, and she seems destined for greater things. Even when she falls for the depressive writer who lives upstairs, she is a constant source of joy. She’s a fizzing, whirling, spinning top of energy that darts back and forth across the frame and up and down tumbling staircases. The BFI’s Bryony Dixon is right to call her a “firefly”; Tip Toes elevates every one of her scenes and if the film is somewhat lacking in gravitas, Balfour’s performance more than makes up for it.
One suspects that if The Boy were spotted at a party in 2019, he’d be boring some poor woman with his opinions on Tarkovsky. Given his maudlin demeanour, it’s a little hard to know what the effervescent Tip Toes sees in the tragic writer. Nevertheless, she is smitten (perhaps it’s his hair?), and throughout the second half of the film we are catapulted into a fictional alternative-reality that The Boy has written about the star-crossed couple. In it, Tip Toes leaves him for a glamorous career on stage in Paris and promises to meet him again in two years’ time to renew their love. The story-within-the-story gives rise to some glorious scenes of music hall drama, with the celebrity Tip Toes wooed by a rich suitor in a sumptuously pretty boudoir tinted in a feminine rose-pink hue. While she dances in sequins with her name in lights, he wanders the blue streets and seeks solace with some old musician friends. The colour work is magnificent, with what Dixon calls “jazz tints” flashing across the screen in rich greens, reds, and purples that create visual tension between the couple’s lives.
Of course, Tears of the World, The Boy’s story, ends as tragically as its bleak title suggests, and the moral of his tale seems to be that success for Tip Toes will end badly for him. Thus, while Love, Life and Laughter has all the iconography of 1920s modernity –gramophones, sequined flapper dresses, neon lights, jazz – it also speaks to ongoing debates about gender roles and women’s careers. That the ending is so abrupt (we get one very short scene back in the real couple’s house by way of resolution) does feel a little unrewarding, and the pacing could be more consistent. However, the film looks phenomenal, and the work of the restoration team to recover English intertitles and fonts from a Dutch print, as well as the beautiful tints, is admirable. With its sympathetic new score and the light-footed fairy-like quality of Balfour, it’s a fun 70 minutes and certainly one to look out for when the film becomes available for home viewing.
By Rebecca Harrison
- ‘Betty Balfour and Optimism’: read Dr Lawrence Napper’s take on Love, Life and Laughter at his site.
- Here’s my piece for the Guardian on the rediscovered film.
- An in-depth look by Bryony Dixon at the film and its restoration.