Saturday, 8 March 2014

Thoroughly modern Lillie … Exit Smiling (1926)

"Lillie's great talents were the arched eyebrow, the curled lip, the fluttering eyelid, the tilted chin, the ability to suggest, even in apparently innocent material, the possible double entendre". Sheridan Morley in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

From the first moments of her appearance in this film, you know you are watching one of those rare performers whose style and skill simply connects perfectly with the modern viewer: reader, let me tell you of the actress out-of-time that is Beatrice Lillie.

Born in Toronto to a concert singer mother and a British army officer who later became a Canadian government official, Bea didn’t lose touch with the old country and made her West End stage debut in 1914 earning sufficient fame to end up marrying Sir Robert Peel (the fifth Baronet and great grandson of the Tory PM of the same name).

Beatrice Lillie
She was a highly successful stage performer on both sides of the Atlantic and needed to be as Bobby didn’t have wealth, nor the ability to generate a new fortune – spending the first night of their honeymoon on a losing streak in the Monte Carlo casino. Then, during one trip to Broadway, Bea was engaged to play in Exit Smiling, her first and only silent film.

Sometimes experienced stage actors struggled to transpose their skills to the big screen where every exaggerated inflection required to be seen in the stalls can be magnified a thousand fold.  But Lady Peel was a natural with her expressive understatement, timing and droll understatement perfect for the medium.

She thought this film rather cheesy and, whilst it’s true that her performance gives it more interest than the story may otherwise have demanded, Exit Smiling is an amusing film, well observed and paced and with a wonderful supporting cast.

Directed by Sam Taylor based on Marc Connelly’s play of the same name, Exit Smiling tells the tale of a fourth division traveling repertory company inflicting a drama called Flaming Women on the mid-West.

Beatrice plays Violet the company’s maid who doubles up as bit-part player by night and all-round dogsbody by day: cleaner, cook and seamstress all in one. She’s desperate for her big break to join the others in a proper part and almost gets her chance when the show’s leading lady – Olga (Doris Lloyd from Walton, Liverpool – wonder if she knew my Great Grandmother?) – is delayed after an incident involving the consumption of more than several beer bottles.

The play begins and quickly we can see the quality of thespian endeavour the company provides: Violet almost forgets her maid’s hat, and her lady, Dolores Du Barry, arrives closely followed by an evil moustache twirling scoundrel who means her ill. The lady’s beau arrives in the form of Cecil Lovelace (Franklin Pangborn) whose camped-up cowboy quickly engages in an unconvincing struggle with the assailant as they panto-fight over a gun

Some long acts later, the show heads towards its dénouement as Dolores vamps it up in order to distract the villain just long enough to save her true love, some elements of the audience watch with rapt attention. A little drama can go a long way…

Scouser Doris Lloyd vamps it up to confound the cad!
They head off to their next engagement in their own railway carriage which includes a saloon car, sleeping bays and storage space for props and scenery. Is this just the kind of long-haul company that Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish would have started out with in their teens?

At one of the stops they are joined by a sad young man, Jimmy Marsh (Jack Pickford) who leaving East Farnham for some unknown but obviously bothersome reason.

Jimmy admires Violet's style
He instantly catches Violet’s attention as she rehearses her vamp moves between carriages and she tells him that she’s an actress, impressed he confesses that he's always wanted to meet an actress, seeing only the surface self-confidence of her display.

Violet manages to persuade him to audition for the company and with her help (and that of a discretely held onion) manages to convince the hard-hearts of the seasoned pros. He’s in and very soon he’s playing the leading bad guy.

Beatrice Lillie and Jack Pickford
This is great for Violet who falls hook, line and sinker for this fresh-faced young man but she never shows him and he can never see anyone other than the up-beat, helpful individual who does her best for him.

The show goes on and on as they schlep from small town to small town and the friendship between the youngsters grows as the supporting characters are revealed: the old pro who once played with Elmer Booth (he of Griffith’s The Musketeers of Pig Alley), greedy show-runner Orlando Wainwright (DeWitt Jennings) and the camp Cecil.

Show people: DeWitt Jennings and Franklin Pangborn
Meanwhile we cut back to Jimmy’s home town as we learn the reason for his leaving as his girlfriend (oh no!) Phyllis (Louise Lorraine) tries to convince her bank manager father of his former teller’s innocence whilst he offers her Jesse Watson (Harry Myers) as, in his view… a perfectly acceptable alternative.

But Jesse isn’t quite the man he seems as we are shown local crook Tod Powell (Tenen Holtz) asking him for a “loan” knowing who the money was really removed by and who put Jimmy in the frame.

Tod puts the squeeze on sneaky Jesse
The innocent man is miles away on a train… or is he? Jimmy steps out of the actor’s carriage to greet another day only to find that they’re arriving at East Farnham: he can’t be seen here and he certainly can’t play on stage!

Violet, as she always does, has a plan and it’s an imperfect but funny one. Events descend into chaos as the strands come together and all matters come to a head in a breathless – poignant – finale which it would be cruel to reveal: you really have to see it for yourself.

Exit Smiling is available from Warner Archives complete with a new, orchestrated score from Linda Martinez which matches the story’s energy even if occasionally out of step with Lillie’s nuanced expression. But, she's just so quick...

Sadly that was it for Beatrice Lillie’s silent films although she returned occasionally to cinema work from early talkies up to Thoroughly Modern Millie in 1967. She much preferred stage work – feeding off the audience reaction and enjoyed a long varied career on the boards, no doubt with her own changing room and a maid of her own.

It’s available direct from Warner Archives or from the usual Amazons.

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