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.

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