Two weeks ago, news emerged that a lost British silent film, Love, Life and Laughter, had been found. A clip was played at the Orphan Film Symposium, and the EYE Film Institute in Amsterdam is now in the process of restoring the film before exhibiting it.
When I found out about the rediscovery I was thrilled. I was aware of the film: it was on the BFI’s 75 Most Wanted list of missing titles. Moreover, I used it and another (still missing) film, Reveille, as the subject of an essay and poster presentation during my MA. Both of these films were directed by George Pearson, produced by his company Welsh-Pearson, and both starred Betty Balfour.
My presentation and essay focused on the marketing and critical reception of the two films, with a focus on Betty’s star persona (see above). When a film is known to be missing, often it is the star that is the crux of the interest in finding that film. However, that star is not always an actor. Directors, producers, designers and cinematographers often have star personas that can be leveraged to generate interest in a missing title, which is why Hitchcock’s The Mountain Eagle probably wins the prize for the most-wanted missing film.
I re-read that essay I wrote three years ago, and I noticed that at the time I thought that the BFI’s plea for the significance of Love, Life and Laughter and Reveille was not based on the star persona of Betty Balfour, but in the possibility that the films ‘may have marked [the director’s] creative zenith.’* When the rediscovery was announced, however, George Pearson’s name was rarely mentioned, whereas Betty came to the fore once more.
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.
It is interesting to note the difference between marketing a missing film and celebrating a found one. Appeals for missing films are written by archivists and aimed at other archivists, collectors, historians and cinephiles who are more likely to be attuned to auteurism, more willing to go after the more obscure or cult films, and more likely to engage in the fetishisation of technologies and format. Articles about rediscoveries are written by journalists and pitched at prospective audiences, which include the more casual film fans who are more likely to be interested in Britain’s biggest silent film starlet, rather than a film director who happened to have a well-received sequence of films in the 1920s.
I had fully intended to condense that essay into a blog post for you guys, but I’ve since decided to sit on it in case I decide to publish it elsewhere. You’ll just to believe that I made many incisive and nuanced points about star theory, silent cinema and critical reception. Of course, if you do fancy academic work about Betty (or just want to see her in some other films) then the British Silent Film Festival is just around the corner.
* ‘BFI Most Wanted’, the British Film Institute, accessed 1 May 2011 (NB. the link is now dead: http://www.bfi.org.uk/nationalarchive/news/mostwanted/75-list.html)