Betty Balfour and Optimism

I’ve written before about my obsession with the C20th ritual of pouring your tea from the cup into the saucer and drinking from that, and the way that it’s used as a class marker in silent and sound films of the past.

Betty acts out her dreams of stardom in Love, Life and Laughter (1923)

Last night’s premiere of the rediscovered Love, Life and Laughter (George Pearson, 1923) at the London Film Festival furnished an elaborate example of this phenomenon. The film stars Britain’s ‘Queen of Happiness’, Betty Balfour, in a typical role – she’s a cheery working class cockney girl who brightens up her tenement home with her dreams of success on the stage. She’s in love with a struggling writer who lives upstairs, and the tenement is presided over by a broken down old couple – a balloon seller and his wife – who live downstairs. When Betty throws a ‘knees-up’ to prove to her writer boyfriend that the world is full of laughter there’s an extended scene of domestic jollity. The aspidistra is cleared to the side and a neighbour takes his place at the piano to bash out the hit of 1923, ‘Yes We have no Bananas!’ while Betty and the community drink and dance and enjoy themselves. One neighbour introduces her high collared guest to the company with the comment that ‘He’s a right Gent. When he tips his tea in his saucer, he doesn’t blow on it like the other chaps do. He wafts it with his hat!’

It’s not the only crockery symbolism in the film. Earlier, when we are introduced to the balloon seller (Frank Stanmore) he is drinking his tea from his saucer. The opening credits, which give characteristics for each of the characters in the film, have assigned him ‘an optimist’. He is also a philosopher, offering what Bryony Dixon argues is the signature statement of the film. Discussing Betty’s situation he remarks to his wife that “The ’opes of young people is like the air in balloons. The more ’ope, the ’igher you goes. Too much ’ope – bust!”  True to his optimistic nature, we later see him contentedly filling out his coupon for the football pools. His wife (Annie Esmond), however, is less than impressed. “There isn’t a cup or a plate in the house that isn’t chipped or cracked,” she complains, “and yet he spends all his money on them pools!”

The balloon-seller (an optimist) and his wife in Love, Life and Laughter (1923)

This scene put me in mind of Ross McKibbin’s discussion of working class gambling habits of the 1920s.[1] McKibbin notes that betting on the football pools exploded in popularity in the 1920s and 30s, easily overtaking traditional forms of betting (on horses) and newer forms (such as greyhound racing). By the late 1930s over 10 million people regularly did the pools and as much as a third of the population had returned a coupon at least once. For most people, he argues, the amount spent on such gambling was relatively small – certainly not enough to impoverish them as numerous Victorian melodramas and magic lantern slides series had envisaged. Nevertheless, he says, it’s still reasonable to ask, as the balloon seller’s wife does, why money was frittered away on bets that could be as easily saved or spent on more necessary items. The answer to this question leads McKibbin into quite a long disquisition contrasting working class and middle class attitudes, not just to money but also to time. The key difference between the classes, he argues, is not the amount of income coming into the household, but its regularity. Middle class families could save regularly because they could rely on a regular and reliable income. Knowing how much money was likely to be coming into the house every week, they could look to the future and set aside an amount towards it. Working class households did not have this luxury. The uncertainty of their income – surplus one week, debt the next – meant that there was little point in planning for a precarious future, for no amount of saving could ensure against the catastrophe of an injury, unemployment or a death.[2] Very few gambling wins could either of course, and yet a modest windfall on the pools or the horses promised an excuse (and the funds) for a ‘spree’ in the way that saving never could. “Thus” argues McKibbin,

… the differences between the economic behavior of the two classes were, broadly speaking, a result of different and somewhat paradoxical conceptions of time. Though the working-class attitude to time was probably fatalistic it was also optimistic; though the middle-class attitude was confident it was also pessimistic.[3]

True to optimistic form, of course, the balloon seller in Love, Life and Laughter does win on the pools. Betty returns home to find the couple celebrating in high style, the wife gleefully displaying her new hat. “But what about the crockery?” asks Betty. The wife turns up her nose at the idea: “Oh that!” she says, “I can stand to drink tea out of cups with no handles as long as I’ve got my new hat to wear!”

Betty’s tinsel puffball frock in Love, Life and Laughter (1923)

The film as a whole is, in fact, a paean to this version of working class optimism. It also embodies, in its curious framing device, the psychological conception of time that McKibbin suggests is characteristic of working class culture of the period. The framing devise refuses the future, insisting on the stoicism of living in the present as the only viable way of understanding the world. In this it’s typical of Betty Balfour’s other work. Her brand of cockney optimism is often linked to narratives of sudden but fleeting fortune and excitement. In films such as Squibs Wins the Calcutta Sweep (George Pearson, 1922), Paradise (Denison Clift, 1928) and The Vagabond Queen (Geza Von Bolvary, 1929) her character is catapulted from her humdrum existence to a world of luxury and exoticism. Literally we get to watch her exchange her flower-seller’s shawl and black boots for ostrich feathers and a macaw (in Paradise), for silver lamé harem pants (in A Little Bit of Fluff), for ‘jazz tinting’ and a tinsel puffball dress (in Love, Life and Laughter), for flunkies and a Ruritanian crown (in The Vagabond Queen). But at the end of all of these films the balloon goes ‘pop’ and she must return to damp old England, and the shabby lodging house with the aspidistra on the dining table. I’ve often had fights with other Betty Balfour fans who find these endings a depressing capitulation – an ideological tic typical of British cinema, they claim, which only works to reassert class relations and insist that the people should know their place and not get above themselves. I think this is a mis-reading of the films. The desire for characters in these films to permanently transcend their class seems to me akin to demands of those middle class social workers who urged the thrifty aspiration of a savings account, and were appalled to find that their charges spent their meager surplus on a lottery ticket or a football coupon instead – and exacerbated the crime when a windfall came by buying a fancy hat instead of practical new crockery.

So rather than being pessimistic about the endings of these films, I prefer to think of Betty Balfour as a sort of 1920s precursor to Arthur Seaton in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (Karel Reisz, 1960). All she’s out for is a good time.


[1] Ross McKibbin, ‘Working Class Gambling in Britain, 1880-1950’ in McKibbin,  The Ideologies of Class: Social Relations in Britain 1880-1950 (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1991) p.112-118

[2] Death, in fact, was the one certainty that working class families did prepare for. McKibbin estimates that as much as 10% of a family’s income might be spent on burial insurance, much to the horror of middle class commentators.

[3] McKibbin, p. 117

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