betty-balfour.jpg
Née Elizabeth Balfour 

b. 27 March 1903, Chester Le Street, County Durham
d. 4 November 1978, Weybridge, Surrey,England

Actor

During the 1920s, Betty Balfour was Britain’s most popular actress, known for her ‘mixture of pathos, cheerful humour and sentiment’ (Low, 1996: 122). Whilst actresses such as Alma Taylor and Chrissie White gained national recognition in the silent era, no British female achieved the international status of Betty Balfour, the so-called Queen of Happiness. 

Born in London in 1903, Balfour made her stage debut at the age of ten and, after several years on stage, came to the attention of producer, George Pearson. Impressed by Balfour’s delicate expression and comic charm, they quickly forged a professional relationship. In 1920, Balfour made her screen debut for the Welsh-Pearson company in Nothing Else Matters (George Pearson, 1920) instantly showcasing her comic talents. Her first starring role came the following year in Mary-Find-the-Gold (George Pearson, 1921).

However, it was her role as the wayward florist, Squibs (George Pearson, 1921) that established Balfour as a national star, creating a persona that would both propel and restrict her career. Squibs (a cockney flower girl working in Piccadilly Circus) was the ideal vehicle for Balfour’s cheerful disposition, amidst a dreary London setting.

The instant success of the film soon gave way to three further Squibs adventures, Squibs Wins the Calcutta Sweep (George Pearson, 1922), Squibs M.P. (George Pearson, 1923) and Squibs’ Honeymoon (George Pearson, 1923). These popular sequels, and an array of product endorsements, ensured that Balfour’s vast fan base continued to flourish. In fact, Balfour became so popular by the mid-1920s that her stardom, in Britain at least, was rivalled only by Ivor Novello. As a result, producers made sure that her image as the loveable vagabond continued in films such as Somebody’s Darling (George A. Cooper, 1925) and Blink Eyes (George Pearson, 1926).

Interestingly, Balfour never attempted a move to Hollywood, though she did appear in several European productions including La Petite Bonne du Palace (Louis Mercanton, 1926) and Die Sieben Töchter der Frau Gyurkovics (Ragner Hyltén-Cavallius, 1926). She also displayed her ability to handle more dramatic material in Love, Life and Laughter (George Pearson, 1923) and Revéille (George Pearson, 1924), two of Pearson’s grittier productions.

However, her synonymy with Squibs soon led Balfour to become increasingly frustrated. By 1926, she had parted with Welsh-Pearson in order to re-establish herself as ‘a sophisticated, fashionable woman of the world’ (Macnab, 2000: 56) – far removed from the persona that had typecast her. Consequently, her popularity in Britain began to decline.

Though appearances in Cinders (Louis Mercanton, 1926) and Champagne (Alfred Hitchcock, 1928) sustained her profile, Balfour began to struggle for leading roles and the advent of sound only hindered her career further. By the 1930s, it was clear that Balfour had lost favour with the British public, and a drought of starring roles saw her gradually fade into obscurity. Even a musical remake of Squibs (Henry Lawson, 1935) was unable to recapture the public’s fondness for the star. In 1945, after a nine year hiatus, Balfour appeared in 29 Acacia Avenue (Henry Cass, 1945). This was to be her final film.

The unrest that had engulfed the latter part of Balfour’s career culminated in 1952 with a failed return to the theatre and a subsequent suicide attempt. Balfour never returned to stage or screen again and died in 1977, aged 74.

Film Historian Rachael Low comments that Betty Balfour was ‘able to register on screen a charm and expression unequalled among the actresses in British film’ (Low, 1996: 122). Unquestionably, it was this refreshing charisma, typified in Squibs, which made Balfour an icon of the silent era.

Though the name of Betty Balfour may not be so recognisable to modern audiences, she remains one of the most revered and popular British stars of the 1920s.

©Dan Horn

Bibliography

Low, Rachael (1996) The History of British Film: Volume IV (London & New York: Routledge).

Macnab, Geoffrey (2000) Searching for Stars: Stardom and Screen Acting in British Cinema (London: Continuum International Publishing Group).

Contemporary articles about Betty Balfour

Lederer, Josie P., ‘Britain’s Best Bet’, Pictures and Picturegoer, December 1924, p. 31.

 

Articles by Betty Balfour

‘Mainly About Me’, The Picturegoer, October 1921, pp. 22-23.

‘The Art of the Kinema’, Motion Picture Studio, 29 September 1923, p. 13. Reprinted as ‘The Art of the Cinema’, in Red Velvet Seat (Antonia Lant with Ingrid Periz, eds., London: Verso, 2006), pp. 160-161.

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