Yesterday the Amsterdam EYE Filmmuseum announced it had found Love, Life, Laughter (George Pearson 1923), starring Betty Balfour, and one of the 75 most wanted lost films on the list of the British Film Institute. As many films by Pearson but also many films with Balfour are lost, this was quite a revelation. In the 1920s Betty Balfour was the most successful actress of British silent film. Balfour was a true comedienne, and this shows as well in Love, Life, Laughter, in which Balfour did what she was best in: singing, dancing and joking, though mixed with pathos, not unlike Chaplin.
Love, Life, Laughter deals with poor Tip-Toes, who wants to become a big music-hall star. She befriends a lonely boy who dreams of becoming a writer. The duo agrees to meet again in two years to see whether their dreams have materialized. Balfour herself came from music-hall, so in particular British audiences must have seen a link between real life and the filmic world. In The Netherlands Love, Life, Laughter had its premiere on 12 October 1923, at the Amsterdam movie palace Theater Tuschinski. Its Dutch title was “Squibs as Tip-Toes, queen of the music-hall”, referring to Balfour’s most famous film character, that of a cockney flower girl. Squibs had been the character created by Pearson in his 1921 homonymous film Squibs (1921). The film was such as a success that Pearson directed three sequels as well: Squibs Wins the Calcutta Sweep (1922), Squibs M.P. (1923) and Squibs’ Honeymoon (1923), all with Balfour in the lead. Of all these only Squibs Wins the Calcutta Sweep remains, basically the only complete film by Pearson remaining. While Love, Life, Laughter was not part of the Squibs sequel, Dutch publicity still pretended it to be.
In contrast to other British directors like Anthony Asquith, and even Hitchchock to a certain extent, Pearson’s films often dealt with the ordinary man. One of his most wanted lost films is Reveille (1924), in which the First World War is seen from the perspective of the ordinary man. Here too Betty Balfour played the female lead, but now in a dramatic part. Pearson was known for the subtle lighting in his films, for which he was even compared to ‘continental’ filmmakers in France and Germany, which was a high kind of appraisal then. Pearson was so smitten with Balfour that he was ready to divorce his wife and marry her, but Balfour thought him too old, so they stopped their collaboration.
At the end of the silent era Balfour acted in several British films at BIP (British International Pictures) such as Hitchcock’s Champagne (1928), but also in several co-productions with Germany and France, of which some were shot at the BIP studios. She also acted in French and German productions ‘tout court’, such as (the still existing) Le diable au coeur (1928) by Marcel L’Herbier, and with Jaque Catelain. Her last silent film was The Vagabond Queen (1929), shot at BIP by the Hungarian director Geza von Bolvary. Again she played a working class girl who happens to be a lookalike of a queen in some Eastern-European country called Balonia…
When around 1930 sound cinema had become common in Europe, Balfour’s status as star went down. In 1931 she married songwriter Jimmy Campbell, known from songs like ‘Goodnight Sweetheart’ and ‘Try a Little Tenderness’. She did play major parts in about 7 sound films in the 1930s, so she wasn’t expelled from the film sets because of some accent (like had happened with actress Mabel Poulton). After all, Balfour was a stage performer who could do any accent or language. Rather age may have interfered here, in 1930 she was 27. Between the wars stardom for a female actress was often just a decade or even less. After that one often had to satisfy with character roles or retire.
Here are two reviews from Dutch newspapers of Love, Life, Laughter:
Telegraaf, 13 October 1923: “Our gloomy and worrisome time needs Betty Balfour, for she brings distraction with her healthy humor and silvery laughter. (…) She leads one into a mood of safe pleasantness, without morbid exaggeration or dangerous thrill. (…) The story brings us the contradiction of dispirited “Weltschmertz” and weariness ànd zest for life, and ends in a big surprise. The direction is of the best British kind, executed down to the smallest detail, and shows great sophistication without ostentatious extravagance. If only there would be more like this. “
Handelsblad, 14 October 1923: “Sorry for the dear children, but I cannot but draw one conclusion: there is only one Betty Balfour . ( … ) She has nothing, absolutely nothing that speaks against her; her fine witty face with the mischievous, telling eyes , her zest for life and wantonness, her typical gait , her movements, her dancing and especially her naturalness and ease in every situation and in any environment, are the properties which have created her a proper and unique place among the many divas with and without talent ( … ) Well, as long as people still enjoy movies like the Squibs series, all the innocent joy is not yet out of this world . And being able to conclude this , is a beautiful thing , as now it’s raining all day , and everyone is exhausting themselves in predicting all kinds woe and misery that us poor earthworms , will bite us until we don’t know anything anymore. Miss Squibs thinks differently and shows us the flip side of the coin: the humour in the things of every day. “