Silent witness: The forgotten NZ movie star

by Paul Little / 17 November, 2018
Eve Balfour in her “Greek costume” from Five Nights, 1915.

Eve Balfour in her “Greek costume” from Five Nights, 1915.

A tale of melodrama, morals and murder.

The list of successful New Zealand-born actors working internationally is a long one: Sam Neill, Melanie Lynskey, Karl Urban and Anna Paquin are all flat-out thespians. But they come in the wake of pioneers, stretching back more than a century, who had to head north to find work simply because so little was happening here.

Expat stars who shone brightly in the Northern Hemisphere and are now all but forgotten – or whose New Zealand origins have been obscured by the fog of history – include Ewen Solon, James Laurenson, Denis Lill, Gina Bellman, Jonathan Elsom, Anouska Hempel and Chris Rankin.

One of the earliest and possibly least known of their number is the silent-movie actress Eve Balfour, born in Christchurch in 1890. She appeared in silent films such as The Mystery of the Diamond Belt and The Woman Who Did, as well as on the British stage. History now remembers her mainly for the scandal occasioned by her starring turn as Viola in the melodrama Five Nights in 1915.

According to an account in the Lancashire Post, headed “Scandal at a Preston Cinema”, the film featured a murder and a child born out of wedlock. The latter element aroused the moral indignation of a local member of the police force, Chief Constable James P. Ker Watson, who made his disapproval loudly and widely known. He had been at a screening of this allegedly salacious farrago, which was also attended by “several hundred men, women and children”.

Filmmakers Fred White and Walter Stott, keen to preserve their reputations or, possibly, to maximise the publicity opportunities presented by the chief constable’s imprecations, sued him for defamation. The case was held in Preston.

Millhand and mother of seven Margaret Buck told the court, “I have never seen a picture half as bad as this one” – although whether she was referring to its aesthetic or moral qualities remains unclear. Fred Daggers, army veteran and also the progenitor of seven children (which seems to have been the minimum for Preston at the time), said, “It was not a fit picture to be shown to any young person, as no doubt it would affect their future morals.”

White and Stott lost their suit. According to the Lancashire Post, “The film was never seen in Preston again, and it is now considered lost. But although it was also banned in places such as Accrington, Birkenhead and Southport, Five Nights would be shown without demur – but with considerable profit – in Blackpool and Wigan, as well as in Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham and London.”

As for that fair flower of Canterbury, Eve Balfour, she took the greatest exception to the suggestion she had participated in the making of an immoral piece of work and defended herself vigorously, saying, “I will tell you what I wear in the studio scene, the only one that can possibly be the cause of the objection at Preston. I wear a Greek costume, not of transparent material, but of heavy silk, and besides my face only one shoulder and arm are bare. I would wear that costume in any restaurant in London, and then I should have more on than many of the women there in ordinary evening dress.”

The film being presumed lost, we can only take her word for it. Balfour married British stage actor Stanley Howlett and died in Birmingham in 1955.

This article was first published in the August 2018 issue of North & South.

Latest

Inside the close-knit community that lives along the Cromwell-Tarras Rd
102505 2019-02-19 00:00:00Z Travel

Inside the close-knit community that lives along t…

by Mike White

Mike White heads up the Cromwell-Tarras road to merino and wine country.

Read more
The stars of Luther talk about their return in season five
102486 2019-02-18 13:16:40Z Television

The stars of Luther talk about their return in sea…

by The Listener

Idris Elba, Ruth Wilson, Hermione Norris, Wunmi Mosaku and Michael Smiley answer questions about the future of the dark and disturbing crime drama.

Read more
Vital evidence in Pike River mine disaster missing, say families
102465 2019-02-18 09:22:49Z Planet

Vital evidence in Pike River mine disaster missing…

by RNZ

Some families of Pike River mine victims suspect a piece of vital evidence may have been spirited away by the mining company and lost.

Read more
It's time to empower the mayor and make Auckland liveable again
102432 2019-02-17 00:00:00Z Politics

It's time to empower the mayor and make Auckland l…

by Bill Ralston

Making Auckland a liveable city is an unenviable task, writes Bill Ralston, but it's clear the mayor needs more power.

Read more
Knight star: Sir Hec Busby on his extraordinary life
102328 2019-02-17 00:00:00Z Profiles

Knight star: Sir Hec Busby on his extraordinary li…

by Clare de Lore

Northland kaumātua, master carver, navigator and bridge builder Hec Busby was hoping for “no fuss” when he accepted a knighthood.

Read more
Keira Knightley shines in bodice-ripping period drama Colette
102397 2019-02-16 00:00:00Z Movies

Keira Knightley shines in bodice-ripping period dr…

by James Robins

The story of Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, a heroine of French literature, focuses on her early struggles.

Read more
Is barbecued meat bad for your health?
102255 2019-02-16 00:00:00Z Nutrition

Is barbecued meat bad for your health?

by Jennifer Bowden

Sizzling meat on the barbecue is the sound and smell of summer, but proceed with caution.

Read more
March of the Algorithms: Who’s at the wheel in the age of the machine?
102434 2019-02-16 00:00:00Z Tech

March of the Algorithms: Who’s at the wheel in the…

by Jenny Nicholls

Complacently relying on algorithms can lead us over a cliff – literally, in the case of car navigation systems.

Read more