There are plenty of films we wish had been lost – Sex And The City 2 immediately springs to mind, or the latest Rambo film – but sadly, it’s not usually ill-planned vanity projects or by-the-numbers blockbusters that fall out of sight.
Instead, it’s old movies, often efforts that helped define modern film-making, or showcased forgotten stars of the past, which tend to disappear. And we really do mean disappear – the British Film Institute (BFI) has a ‘Most Wanted’ list, first compiled in 2010, of cinematic projects which for one reason or another have vanished.
“Once a film is no longer in distribution it becomes a relatively low value asset for a film company,” says the BFI National Archive’s silent curator Bryony Dixon.
“In [the past], they didn’t have the concept of showing older or classic films. They stay on shelves, film companies went out of business or were lost.”
It turns out this is a particular problem for British silent movies, for both their lack of sound and the way celluloid film is made. “When sound came in, silent films were not showable anymore,” continues Dixon. “Many were recycled for their silver content, others were junked and others decomposed. Nitrate film is an unstable collection of chemicals that will decay in time. We estimate that 80% of all silent films are lost.”
All of which makes the discovery of 1923’s Love, Life and Laughter a dramedy directed by George Pearson and starring Betty Balfour (known at the time as Britain’s Queen of Happiness) even more special…and fluky.
An intern called Bin Li at the EYE Filmmuseum in Amsterdam was looking through some film cans that had been brought to the EYE by a local television employee in 2012, retrieved from a cinema in the small Dutch town of Hattem that had only been open between 1929 and 1932 and whose building was being redeveloped.
“[Li] was checking the nitrate print and identified it as a British film even though the silent intertitles were in Dutch,” explains Dixon. The EYE called the BFI National Archive and before long the film was shipped to the UK to be digitally scanned and restored.
“It was a challenge, as the nitrate film was very incomplete,” says Dixon. “There is nothing we can do about the missing material throughout the film, but the story at least makes sense with the inclusion of explanatory intertitles.” To do this, they referred to the Dutch ones, but also studied the 1923 press book for the film and reviews from the time to give the titles a Cockney inflection. “We also added back the lovely tinting – a method of adding colour to black and white film to express lighting effects, time and day and so forth.”
But why was Love, Life and Laughter worthy of being one of the BFI’s Most Wanted in the first place?
“Almost no films of this important British director survive,” says Dixon.
“George Pearson was a contemporary of Alfred Hitchcock in British film, although he never reached Hitchcock’s stratospheric heights. He really discovered Betty Balfour and wrote a series of films for her starring a character called Squibs, a Cockney flower-seller who was very popular.”
As for Balfour, she was voted the UK’s biggest movie star of the 1920s, a mixture, explains Dixon, of Meg Ryan, Kristen Wiig and Billie Piper. “A bubbly blonde leading lady who can do funny and dramatic.”
Now the film is ready to receive its new premiere, which it will do tomorrow at the London Film Festival with a live musical accompaniment. “A good film is always worth watching,” says Dixon. “This gives a really good flavour of what film was like in the Roaring Twenties and Betty Balfour’s lively performance is very charming.”
Meanwhile, Dixon and the BFI remain on their Indiana Jones-style search for lost films. “The hunt for Britain’s Most Wanted missing films continues,” she says.
“We’re committed to filling the gaps in the national collection and are asking everyone to help us with a call to arms to the public as well as collectors and archivists around the world to check attics and cellars, sheds and vaults. You never know what you might uncover.”
If you do find some nitrate film amongst your childhood junk though, be careful.
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“It is very flammable!” says Dixon.
“If you have cans of film in your attic call your local film archive!”
Love, Life and Laughter, restored by BFI National Archive at L’Immagine Ritrovata, Bologna with the collaboration of EYE Filmmuseum, and support from the Eric Anker-Petersen Charity, will receive its restoration world premiere at the BFI London Film Festival on 3 October.