The Vagabond Queen

UK 1929, 62 mins
Director: Geza von Bolvary

+ intro by BFI curator Bryony Dixon

Before we had the universes of Star Wars, DC, Marvel etc, there was the fantasy land of Ruritania, a make-believe central-European kingdom in which princesses were imperilled by glamorous but deadly pretenders to the throne, and where mistaken identity was the norm. The already ridiculous Ruritania was ripe for parody. This merciless and fun-filled example was impressively directed by Geza von Bolvary and gives full rein to the comedic talents of Betty Balfour and a spiky Ernest Thesiger.

In 1927 exhibitor Sidney Bernstein conducted a series of questionnaires to patrons of his cinemas the results of which were published in the trade journal Kinematograph Weekly. Number 1 in the list of female stars admired by both male and female patrons was Betty Balfour. Balfour was one of only two British stars whose fame in Britain was equal, if not greater than, that of their Hollywood counterparts; the other star was Ivor Novello. There was even a Betty Balfour fan club that had five hundred members in 1927.

Balfour was known as ‘the British Mary Pickford’ or as ‘Britain’s Queen of Happiness’. Her popularity was based on her down-to-earth comic charm rather than on sex appeal, attributes she shared with Pickford. Yet Balfour also had qualities which were distinct from Pickford’s persona; her manner was perhaps less refined, more boisterous and at times tinged with sadness – a character quite difficult to define and all her own.

Betty Balfour was born in London in 1903, and made her stage debut aged only ten in 1913. In 1920 she performed at the Alhambra Theatre where T.A. Welsh and George Pearson, from British production company Welsh-Pearson, saw her, and Balfour was signed for Nothing Else Matters. Her popularity with British audiences was encouraged by a series of comedies produced by the company and directed by Pearson. In these she starred as ‘Squibs’, a character based on a music-hall sketch of an exuberant cockney flower girl. Apparently her collaboration with Pearson ended when he asked Balfour to marry him.

In a review of Champagner (British title Bright Eyes) directed by the Austrian Géza von Bolváry the US film journal Variety said Balfour was a ‘nice little comedienne, perhaps England’s best screen actress, but here she does not photograph up to international standard.’ Yet most of her films were well received in the US. Balfour did not attempt to break into Hollywood but instead, encouraged by the European connections the British industry nurtured during this time, worked frequently in Germany and France. She starred in Die sieben Töchter der Frau Gyurkovics (Ragnar Hylten-Cavallius, 1926) with Willy Fritsch and in an Anglo-German production Die Regimentstochter (aka Daughter of the Regiment, Hans Behrendt, 1929). In France she worked for Marcel l’Herbier in Le Diable au coeur (1928) and for Louis Mercanton in Croquette (1927). These international connections would be affected with the introduction of sound when the transnational appeal of many actors was lost. Although Balfour was fluent in French she no longer worked internationally in the sound era.

When she was hired by British International Pictures in July 1927 it was considered a ‘scoop’ for the company, as Balfour’s success was now just as great in France and Germany and BIP was hoping to reach European markets with its product. At BIP, she starred with Syd Chaplin in the delightful comedy A Little Bit of Fluff (Wheeler Dryden, 1928). At the same studio she also worked with Alfred Hitchcock on Champagne (1928) where she played a flapper. She was a versatile actress though and also took on more serious roles.

The Vagabond Queen was an attempt by BIP to reach international markets with a quality product, and the film looks beautiful with cinematography by Charles Rosher, Mary Pickford’s cameraman and the photographer for F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise. Like her ‘Squibs’ character, Balfour plays Sally as a feisty working class heroine. Easily insulted, she gets into a hilarious vegetable fight with some kids by a street market. Gutsy and impassioned Balfour is a delight to watch, in particular during the procession finale, where Sally comes perilously close to death due to numerous assassination attempts of which she remains blissfully unaware. Another amusing detail in the film is the surreal images of pigs and goats running about the sets at Elstree studios.

Balfour’s popularity waned with the introduction of sound film yet although the fan magazine Picturegoer warned that Balfour (along with other British stars Mabel Poulton and Annette Benson) did not have a voice suitable for sound films this is untrue. She has a perfect voice and is wonderful in a supporting role to Jessie Matthews in the musical Evergreen (Victor Saville, 1934).

Her last film was in 1945, after a hiatus of almost a decade. After a failed stage comeback in 1952, she attempted suicide, and was a recluse for the last 20 years of her life.
Kelly Robinson and Ingrid Stigsdotter

Long Fliv the King
This short features the hilarious Charley Chase, with Oliver Hardy and Max Davidson. Another fine spoof of Ruritanian life.

Directed by: Leo McCarey
Supervising Director: F. Richard Jones
©: Pathé Exchange
Production Company: Hal Roach Studios *
Presented by: Hal Roach
Photographed by: Floyd Jackman
Edited by: Richard Currier
Titles by: H.M. Walker

Charley Chase
Martha Sleeper
Max Davidson
Oliver Hardy
Fred Malatesta

USA 1926
20 mins

Director: G.M. Bolvary
Production Company: British International Pictures
Scenario: Val Valentine
Adaptation: Rex Taylor
From an original story by: Douglas Furber
Photography: Charles Rosher
Assistant Photographer: Walter J. Harvey
Editor: Emile De Ruelle
Art Director: Hugh Gee

Betty Balfour (Sally/Princess Xonia)
Glen Byam Shaw (Jimmie)
Ernest Thesiger (Katoff)
Charles Dormer (Prince Adolphe)
Harry Terry (Winkleburg)
Dino Galvani (Ilmar)
Ralph Leslie (Nicholas)

UK 1929
62 mins

With live musical accompaniment by Stephen Horne

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Programme notes and credits compiled by Sight and Sound and the BFI Documentation Unit
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