The box office is a weekly popularity contest. And in Britain in the 1920s, the winner of that contest was very often Betty Balfour. She won the other kind, too, being regularly voted the nation’s favorite film star.
A dimple-cheeked petite blonde with a smile just the right side of naughtiness, and a pair of bright sparkling eyes, Balfour was described by Pictures and Picturegoer magazine in 1924 as “a winsome, laughter-loving slip of a girl, whose middle name is Optimism, and who first and last names spell ‘Begone Dull Care’ in the minds of discerning kinemagoers.” With her vivacious smile and expressive face she brought a precious brand of joy to the screen, even when she was directed by Alfred Hitchcock as a spoiled heiress in need of reformation in his silent Champagne (1928). Film historian Rachael Low described her as “able to register on screen a charm and expression unequalled among the actresses in British film.”
Balfour was born in 1903, and she was a London girl, though she may well have been born much farther north in England. She first appeared on the London stage aged ten in 1914 and continued to tread the boards until 1920, when producer-director George Pearson spotted her and hired her to appear in his films. He was famously besotted with his beautiful young protégée, and although he was never able to make her his wife, he did make her famous. Pearson was instantly convinced that she was a “star in the making,” so he bought the rights to a music-hall sketch called “Squibs.” He thought the name “hinted at fireworks,” the sparks he saw in Balfour. In Pearson’s hands, Squibs became the nickname of a young woman who sold flowers in Piccadilly Circus, the eponymous heroine of his 1921 film. Shot on the streets of London, and with a show-stopping performance from Balfour as the relatable, loyal, and scrappy Squibs, the film was such a hit that a whole series was commissioned, in which Squibs would go on to win the lottery, stand for parliament, and even get married.
Although Balfour’s fanciful line to the fan magazines was that she was no cockney but a “smartly-attired, highly-polished little West-Ender” whose big break was owed to aristocratic patronage, the public fell in love with her as that flower girl and resisted her attempt to play more glamorous roles, with the elegant wardrobes to match. “A Paris gown swamps her personality,” lamented one critic. “She reminds one a little of an unhappy kitten, dressed up in some doll’s clothes by a mischievous child.”
Perhaps American audiences would have been more accepting. In 1922, Variety lamented the U.S.’s limited exposure to her charms, asking, “Where have they been hiding this gifted pantomimist?” In 1926, Motion Picture Classic labeled her “Britain’s Queen of Happiness” and wrote, “that means, we hope, that we’ll see her pictures over here.” While Balfour never made the journey to Hollywood, she soon became more than just a national treasure, making a handful of films in continental Europe, where it might not have been easier for her to escape the shadow of Squibs, but at least she could detonate her fireworks in new skies.
A Sister of Six (Flickorna Gyurkovics) was one of those continental films, a German-Swedish coproduction, made jointly by the Ufa and Svensk, which formed Isepa precisely for such international ventures. It was set and filmed on location in Hungary as well as at the Tempelhof studios in Berlin, and it has nothing in common with the 1916 U.S. western of the same name, starring Bessie Love. This fizzy caper comedy was directed by Stockholm-born Ragnar Hyltén-Cavallius and, while this film marked his directorial debut, he had already worked quite extensively as a screenwriter in the 1920s, including cowriting The Saga of Gösta Berling with director Mauritz Stiller.
Balfour’s love interest is played by German star Willy Fritsch, an actor every bit as impish as she was, who also had the debonair chops that destined him to become his country’s number one matinee idol in the 1930s. Elsewhere in the cast are such redoubtable figures as Russian-born actress Lydia Potechina, already seen in German films such as 1922’s Dr. Mabuse the Gambler, playing the matriarch of the anarchic Gyurkovics family. Swedish star-director-producer Karin Swanström, who later became head of production at AB Svensk Filmindustri, and Swedish comedy actress Stina Berg, whose face you may recall from acclaimed silents such as Herr Arnes Pengar (1919) and Erotikon (1920), make a memorable double-act as two elderly countesses who keep a padded cell in their castle to keep wayward girls in check.
Balfour herself plays Mizzi, the fourth of, you guessed it, six sisters in the Gyurkovics family (with so many unmarried daughters at home, the house is described as “a real son-in-law trap!”). We understand everything we need to know about the Gyurkovics when we read their loopy Latin motto on the family crest (“now the devil takes the chaffinch”), and everything we need to know about Mizzi when we first see her lined up in a photograph with her five sisters. Her face is blurred, because, as we’ll see, this frisky little miss couldn’t stay still long enough to pose for the camera. But by the end of the film’s first reel we’ve had a showcase of the Balfour range of class-elastic comedy—whether dragging herself to haughtily flounce out of her head teacher’s office, impulsively splurging her train fare on a chic silk-and-lace suit, or launching herself into a street-scrap to save a puppy with no regard for her new outfit. It’s the spirit, but not the letter of Squibs.
Sister of Six is a true romantic comedy. It is a film about young love and the mischief that young lovers get up to under the noses of the older generation in order to pursue their amorous adventures. Fritsch plays Count Horkay, who turns up at the Gyurkovics household in Kecskemét posing as his friend, the sisters’ cousin, who is tied into a long-distance engagement with the oldest daughter Katinka (Ann-Lisa Ryding, a Swedish actress with a brief film career, who was married to the prolific character actor Gösta Cederlund). Mizzi is making the same journey, returning from her Budapest boarding school in mild disgrace, so she and the count meet on the train to Kecskemét. However, while he confesses to being Horkay, she snootily persists in pretending to be a Countess Hohenstein. But neither believes the other anyway. Almost immediately, the couple are taken for newlyweds by a stranger. Their first kiss, in the darkness of the railway tunnel, puts a new spin on the phrase “puppy love.”
This is just enough provocation to cause rural romantic havoc, with Horkay, Katinka, and Mizzi getting all mixed up with each other and, once they finally get to the rustic Gyurkovics house, with Katinka’s real suitor Geza von Radvànyi (German actor Werner Fuetterer, who had a long career but may still be best remembered as the Archangel in Murnau’s Faust, filmed the same year as this). It takes every trick of cinematographer Carl Hoffmann’s unchained, or at least very mobile, camera to follow the anarchic action.
Mizzi is the champion of this bunfight, however, and as the comedy Sister of Six ramps up and up, it continues to showcase not just Balfour’s captivating comic skills but her burgeoning glamour, too. Both forces collide in a scene where she appears in male drag (evening dress no less) and makes a convincing attempt to woo a female fashion model. Despite the Mitteleuropean setting, British Balfour is right at home here and in fact Sister of Six fits perfectly into a filmography dominated by comedies of class and sex, from Pearson’s recently rediscovered Love, Life and Laughter (1923) to the French Bright Eyes (1929) and the UK-made Ruritanian romp, The Vagabond Queen (1929). In this comic concoction from 1926 at least, a British star fully embraced a very European sense of saucy fun. God save the Queen of Happiness.
Presented at SFSFF 2022 with live musical accompaniment by Guenter Buchwald and Frank Bockius