Thursday, 5 September 2019

A Betty Balfour primer… Love, Life and Laughter (1923), LFF 2019 Archive Gala, 3rd October

The 63rd BFI London Film Festival is just over a month away and the BFI has delighted many with the announcement of this precious slice of Britain’s Queen of happiness in her prime. Love, Life and Laughter (1923) was long believed lost and was on the BFI 75 Most Wanted list until, following the discovery of materials at the Eye Filmmuseum, the BFI National Archive was able to restore the majority of the film.

Love, Life and Laughter will be screened as the festival’s Archive Gala on 3rd October with live accompaniment from Australia’s Princess of the Piano, Meg Morley and it promises to be a treat with an extended introduction by the BFI National Archive’s Silent Curator Bryony Dixon and the BFI’s Film Conservation Manager Kieron Webb.

Written and directed by George Pearson film has Betty as a working-class chorus girl who dreams of being a writer and it sounds like Pearson lives up to his contemporary reputation as a Dickens of Film able to maximise the drama and the comedy; the love and laughter…

BFI Head Curator Robin Baker said “All discoveries of lost British films are exciting, but this is among the best. Despite its incompleteness, what survives is full of cinematic richness and a predictably dynamic performance from the UK’s biggest star of the 1920s, Betty Balfour.”

It promises to be one of the silent screenings of the year and to whet your appetite, here’s a random selection of some of Betty’s best bits; a sampling of the films that made her the Queen of Happiness.

Pensive in Champagne (1928)
Ballroom Balfour: Champagne (GB, 1928)

Champagne was not one of Hitchcock’s personal favourites and is a-typical in terms of its light-hearted storyline. It still has his visual flair with a number of striking sequences, but there’s little drama or threat… but any film staring Betty Balfour is going to be a giggle. Often compared with Mary Pickford, she is certainly an energetic performer with her mobile features enabling her to switch expression with unpredictable swiftness and Hitchcock often lingers on her face as she moves the story along with a laugh that emphatically becomes a frown and vice versa...

Betty plays a spoiled little rich girl who begins the story by flying out to rendezvous with her boyfriend (Jean Bardin) on a cruise ship. She’s been forbidden by her Wall Street banker father (a frowning Gordon Harker) from marrying the boy, but she’s not to be thwarted… even as she is also spotted by a predatory man (Ferdinand von Alten) who begins to pursue her – interrupting her attempts to make love to her beau. The comedy, dance and drama works its way to Paris and the inevitable Hitchcock nightclub dive, fall and redemption.

Champagne is a slight and oddly constructed comedy with a wonderfully quirky performance from Betty Balfour… part innocent, part irritant… she is unstoppable, emerging from each crisis with a beaming smile. A very British hero; she may be a brat but she’s not malicious and is ultimately humble and a quick learner!

Betty and Willy Fritsch
Borderless-Balfour: A Sister of Six (Sweden-Germany 1927)

"Charming scenes – Gorgeous gowns – Splendid Acting. Betty Balfour’s greatest picture.”

This exceptionally energetic Swedish-German co-production that showcased an impressive array of European talent showing that Betty’s appeal had complete freedom of movement.

Nominally directed by Ragnar Cavallius, cinematographer Carl Hoffman (Faust and Varieté) really took the lead and this much is clear from his hand-held pursuit of a cheeky monkey to an array of shadowy dollies and pull-aways. He captures the outstanding energy not just from our Betty but her handsome co-star Willy Fritsch who plays a Count Horkay tricked by his cousin into a trip to meet the seven daughters of Mrs. Gyurkovics (Lydia Potechina), the eldest of which is he is lined up to marry but – gasp! – he’s already wed.

The plot is so complicated and cunning you could twist a tail around it and call it foxy but it doesn’t matter because at any given moment you’re only a cute Balfour twinkle or a mad Aunt’s leer away from a smile. The aunts in question are brilliantly created by Karin Swanström as Countess Emilie Hohenstein and Stina Berg as Countess Aurore Hohenstein – two women so concerned at the romantic behaviour of their niece, that they have prepared a padded room for her.

Padded room, dark mansion-imprisonment, cross-dressed Count come to the rescue? All you need to do is make sure that Betty is at the heart of all that and you’re there! A Sister of Six is simply one of the most joyous silent films - the publicity quote above is no exaggeration.

Princess Happiness: Vagabond Queen (GB, 1929)

Here Chester-Le-Street’s finest plays Sally a humble maid in a London boarding house who temporarily becomes the Princess of Balonia – a woman she resembles to the last freckle – in order to act as a decoy on coronation day as rebels in the fake Balkan state, use knives, bombs and bullets to try and assassinate their future monarch.

It is an aptly named country and there’s a certain Marx Brothers zaniness to Douglas Furber’s script: “My friends and Balonians!”, directed with brisk efficiency by Géza von Bolváry. The film was essentially a silent but had a recorded soundtrack added post-production to turn it into a “talkie” of sorts. The score was from John Reynders – a renowned musical compiler – and sticks like glue to the narrative with sound effects galore as it follows the action like a shadow.

Betty is super-charged charm throughout and is aided by Ernest Thesiger as Lidoff, the Balonian diplomat and young Glen Byam Shaw as her boyfriend Jimmie. The real Princess’s actual husband, Prince Adolphe, as played by the decidedly louche Charles Dormer, is in a drunken confusion wondering how his poor Zonia has lost her loving feeling.

Arthouse Betty: Le diable au coeur (France, 1928)

Here Betty is infected with the most spiteful of quick tempers and shows how her impulsive chaotic charm could be turned to destruct mode. This film is a world away from the light comedies I’ve mostly seen Balfour in but she plays well and dominates with eye-catching intensity. I wouldn’t go as far to say I don’t get what L'Herbier saw in Jaque Catelain but he’s limited in comparison to the Balfour emotive engineering. He’s so much a product of his director’s odd worlds that I can’t imagine him in a British film whereas Betty is positively protean with a cross-border and cross-genre appeal rivalled by very few.

Betty plays Ludivine Bucaille, “une fille étrange…” who is indeed a little beyond the usual as she drives her father Maurice (Auguste Picaude) to drink and her mother (Catherine Fonteney) to distraction. There are some convincing scenes of childish mayhem as Ludvine energetically marshals the local lads of misrule in endless japes, hiding from the police, trespassing and pretending to be handicapped.

Ludivine has still to understand the power she has over her surroundings and when she launches a cruel attack on the house of the Leherg family for no good reason other than their piousness, she causes more upset than she bargained for. Balfour’s ability to switch from comic childishness to darkly dramatic emotions is rare and she imbues even the most slapstick of moments with an edge; a twinkle in the eye that conveys joy and devilment. Her character is conflicted, fighting a battle between denial and desire that can only end with her growing up.

Betty in painted postered pursuit of Paradise
Beach Balfour: Paradise (GB 1928)

This film progressively gets darker after an opening which sees our girl – as Kitty Cranston -  struggling to complete a crossword on a crowded tube – as I type I’m on the  Northern Line – there are shades of Underground and it’s nice to see that commuter-mood hasn’t really changed. Now keep that crossword in mind as it’s going to be important. Kitty’s one word away, eight letters… a place of enduring happiness? “Public ‘ouse?” miscounts a lady crammed to the left of her, “Sarf ‘end” suggests a boy to the right… it’s only when she goes to meet her boyfriend, handsome Doctor John Halliday (Joseph Striker) in his crowded waiting room that his ironic comment about the state of things makes the penny drop: “Paradise!”

The Doc wants to settle down but Kitty is fed up of the trains and the rain and the grey and the rain and the trains… she wants the sunshine where people can “live”! She gets her chance when her crossword wins her £500 and whilst her father Reverend Cranston (Winter Hall) says it should be used to help the needy Kitty decides that self-actualization is more important and heads off on a lone mission to The Riviera.

Cue bleached images of Monte Carlo as Kitty ignores the warnings of the Doctor and the Reverend and starts to enjoy herself in five star luxury. But it’s not long before she attracts the attention of the local gigolo, Spirdoff (Alexander D'Arcy) who opts to stop dancing with older woman for money in favour of this much younger model and her money… There’s going to be a moral in this tale and we always, always root for Betty!

Tickets for the London Film Festival Archive Gala screening of Love, Life and Laughter are on sale now for BFI members and on general sale from 10:00am, 12th September - full details on the website here.


  1. Wonderful primer, Paul! I hope I get the chance to see Betty on the big screen one day :)

    1. She never lets you down and is so versatile! Thanks for reading! Best Paul