Genuinely exciting news broke out earlier this month. A long-thought lost film starring Betty Balfour, the “British Mary Pickford” and “Britain’s Queen of Happiness”, and written and directed by George Pearson, a pioneer of British film, was discovered in the Netherlands. The film is Love, Life and Laughter (1923). It was listed as one of the British Film Institute’s “75 Most Wanted” lost films.
What made the news especially joyous for me personally was that the film was found and identified by a friend of mine: film archivist, restorer and researcher Bin Li. We met whilst in university in London and connected through our mutual appreciation of the history of cinema. It felt pretty surreal to browse Facebook one morning and come across these incredible news told by a friend – and, a few days later, by the press world wide. But I was left wanting to hear Bin’s side of the story. After all, I can’t even imagine the thrill an archivist must feel upon such a discovery!
Here Bin Li shares his first impressions of the silent masterpiece, talks about the film’s importance to contemporary understanding of Betty Balfour’s stardom and what’s in store for Love, Life and Laughter before it plays on the big screen after 90 years.
– Can you talk a bit about your work and education?
I am a film archivist, restorer and researcher. I am now doing volunteer work at EYE Film Institute Netherlands and Haghefilm film lab at Amsterdam. I am a graduate of the MA Preservation and Presentation of the Moving Image at the University of Amsterdam and MA Film and Television at the University of Westminster. The preservation master is quite unique. It combines both theory and practice. We did one-year theoretical study at university and half-year internship at a film institution depends on personal preference. I did mine at EYE doing decomposed nitrate film control and acetate film registration. After graduation, I continued doing my projects and doing nitrate identification and registration as well.
– How did the Love, Life and Laughter footage end up at the EYE archives? How did you end up going through the material?
I suppose everyone now know from the news that the film was found in an old cinema at a small town in the Netherlands, that is what the press are interested. There are lots of mistakes and wrong information in the news. The true story is that my supervisor the head of collection management of EYE found 4 boxes of unregistered films on the floor in one of our nitrate vaults. Even she did not know what they are and how did they come there, so she gave the task to me as I am the only one doing nitrate identification and registration at the moment at the archive. My supervisor went through all the records and found out that one of our employees accepted those films two years ago and just put them in our vault unregistered, and did not inform others either. The whole party contains 25 cans of 35mm films and 30 cans of 28mm films. I then started identifying and registering them. All the 35mm film cans were rusty and 4 cans of films are already decomposed with nitrate honey. It is a 1916 American film; the only known copy exists is in the BFI. Except Love, Life and Laughter, I also identified a rare 1917 Rosa Porten film, which is being restored at Haghefilm and will be screened at this year’s Bologna Il Cinema Ritrovato festival.
– How did you identify the film?
For Love, Life and Laughter, it was not so difficult to identify, although it has Dutch title and intertitle. The Dutch title reads “Squibs als Tip-Toes, de Koningin van de Music Halls, in 6 Acten.” (Squibs as Tip-Toes, the queen of Music Halls, in 6 acts). It also has Betty Balfour on it. “Squibs” is the character’s name that Betty Balfour had been played in a series of films collaborated with director George Pearson only one exists today unfortunately. Tip-Toes is Betty Balfour’s character’s name in Love, Life and Laughter. Given the film’s importance as listed by the BFI, I then looked at the film carefully and compared several characters in the film with all the stills listed on the BFI’s website and the actors’ photos online and finally confirmed that this is the lost masterpiece.
– What were your first impressions of the film?
My first impression of the film is that it has very beautiful tinting and toning. Also the way it tells the story is rather unique compare with other 1920s productions.
– What kind of shape is Love, Life and Laughter in today? Is the film complete?
The print is in very good shape and condition with only broken perforations. The original length of the film is 1917m and the print we have is about 1820m as I roughly estimated. It is complete in 5 reels. I suspect that this print had been re-edited from 6 reels into 5, because each reel is longer than normal and the total length is only about 100m shorter, which projected in 18 frames per second is only about 5 minutes shorter than the original.
– Have you had a chance to watch Love, Life and Laughter? What are your thoughts of it?
I watched it frame by frame on inspection table and I love it. Of course, as a cinephile and film archivist I love all silent films.
– Betty Balfour was, perhaps, the most successful female British film actress of the 1920s. Do you think this film was important to her career?
I think this film was very important to Betty Balfour judging from contemporary reviews and fragmented information that we can get. It was also very important to the director George Pearson.
– Do you think the film will add to contemporary understanding of Betty Balfour’s star image, stardom and career?
As most of her 1920s films were lost, this film will definitely contribute to contemporary understanding of Betty Balfour’s stardom. I think she showed her best performance in this film.
– What will happen to the film material next?
The film will definitely be restored either by EYE or by the BFI, which is still being discussed, most likely an analogue restoration. I think the BFI will probably want to premiere it in this year’s London Film Festival but I am not 100 per cent sure. The most difficult process will be translating all the Dutch intertitle into English. The film was famous for not only its story but also the wit in all the titles. How this can be authentically restored is uncertain given only little information of this film survived. We will see.
I am glad and surprised by the media’s attention about this discovery. I hope this can raise the awareness of the loss of our audiovisual heritage. But only films with such status can generate such attention. I found lost films quite often in my work but none of them could make such big news. For me any new discovery either films like Love, Life and Laughter or films made by lesser-known directors is exciting and important. I will continue working in this field and hope to contribute more in preserving and restoring our audiovisual heritage.