Monday, 12 March 2018

The funniest woman in the World… Exit Smiling (1926), Meg Morley, Kennington Bioscope 2nd Silent Laughter Weekend

The Cinema Museum’s redoubtable tour guide, Morris Hardcastle, was offering his hand at £50 per shake given he had once shook Charlie Chaplin’s hand, for David Robinson and Kevin Brownlow he was suggesting a bargain £100 given the number of silent performers these two have met over the years. But before Exit Smiling, our final film of the packed, inspirational Saturday programme, Mr Robinson told us of meeting its inimitable star, Beatrice Lillie at a screening of the film at the BFI in the late 1960’s and raised the stakes once more. 

David said she was often described as the funniest woman in the World and on that night in her seventies she still dazzled in unpredictable ways slaying the audience and laughing throughout the screening: “she’s very good, she does things the way I do them!” she remarked at her younger self… a one-off performer with unique timing and sense of the ridiculous and yet who could also reduce you to tears (with or without an onion…).

In her excellent, in-depth introduction, Michelle Facey related the opinions of Chaplin and Keaton on this Anglo-Canadian marvel including the latter sleeping outside her hotel room door – a slapstick guard of honour for this toweringly-talented Torontian. Sadly (for us) Hollywood couldn’t easily cast this quirky and stunningly individual talent and, for this and no doubt several other reasons (maybe she just didn’t want to?) this was Bea’s only silent film and she made few after, much preferring the more interactive and improvisational freedoms of the stage.

Tonight, we watched not only Kevin Brownlow’s 16mm copy of Exit Smiling but, as it turned out, Miss Lillie’s own, so I’d make that another £50 for shaking the hand of projectionist Dave Locke.

Beatrice Lillie and Jack Pickford
We are truly blessed by these associations with the silent past and also by expert accompaniment from the Bioscope Players. Meg Morley, a jazz musician by night and, a silent film accompanist by er, other nights, played along with a thoroughly modern mix of jazz-age themes and improvised scoring that sound for all the world like it’s been months in the preparation. I always imagine the music as a duet and Bea is such a graceful performer with a dancer’s arm extensions and amazing timing, that the music followed suit; to this extent Meg riffed with Bea and took some bold decisions along the way (a flash of Carmen for the vamping!) enjoying the tones as much as the audience.

I’ve previously raved about the actress and the film here if you want a fuller synopsis. I'd watched the Warner Archives DVD but, as ever, it's still a treat to see this film on screen especially in what Ms P. Hutchinson once described as a silent speakeasy: this crowd are fascinating as well as fascinated and all respect the subject.

Raymond Griffith and Vera Reynolds not in a night club...
With Miss Lillie tonight and Mabel Normand last week, it’s easy to forget that men can also be funny too… The day opened with Raymond Griffith in The Night Club (1925) a film that didn’t actually feature a club but as Kevin Brownlow’s introduction made clear, had been logged down as a title before script or even story. Block-booking in advance meant that there had to be a film of this title and so it was squeezed into the first title card as a gentlemen’s club dedicated to avoiding marriage.
Griffith’s character get’s jilted at the alter as his fiancé’s ex returned at the last minute from a presumed death on a desert island and so keen was he to marry that he tries to ban all women from his life. His fortune turns when an uncle dies and leaves him a million, but the condition is that he must marry his second cousin (Vera Reynolds).

He heads off for foreign climes only to find not only bump into but fall in love with Vera’s character, but things get awkward when they both realised, and she miss-hears his intentions. There’s a nice cameo from Wallace Beery (a bad-tempered Mexican) and an even better one from Louise Fazenda who plays his “Carmen” for whom he would kill whether you pay him or not.

Griffith is so watchable, he takes everything in his stride – even this daft script – with a wide-eyed smile and a look straight to the audience. Costas Fotopolous joined in the fun on piano, twinkling the ivories in sympathy with Raymond's knowing gaze. 

Henrietta Watson, Pauline Johnson and the impossibly youthful Leslie Howard
Then we had Tony Fletcher’s traditional sweep through rare and early British film and a revelation to me with a silent and very young Leslie Howard in Bookworms (1920). Based on a scenario from AA Milne (yes, him) it told the story of a young chap, Richard (Howard) and his attempts to woo his neighbour Miranda Pottlebury (Pauline Johnson) away from her over-protective Aunt and Uncle. The Pottlebury’s all use the local library and Richard starts to leave notes in books they order in the hope of communicating with the girl of his fancy… The results are gently amusing, and it is a very charming film with glimpses of post-War English gardens and sitting rooms.

A Fugitive Futurist (1924) was your standard time-travelling con which did feature some interesting special affects showing London as it will be in the future… a derelict Strand and water-filled Trafalgar Square are, of course, only just around the corner now thanks to Brexit…

Lillian Hall-Davis, Sybil Rhoda, Humberston Wright and Phyllis Neilson-Terry in Boadicea (1927)
Starlings of the Screen (1925) featured a host of young gals looking for fame with the Stoll Picture Company, including Sybil Rhoda who was to feature in Hitchcock’s Downhill as well as Boadicea (1927) – her favourite performance – with Lillian Hall-Davis.  Various screen tests are featured including professionals such as Moore Marriott playing alongside the hopefuls who include Molly Weeks, Phyllis Garton, Nancy Baird and Shailagh Allen but Sybil wins and gets the part of Melody Rourke in Sahara Love (1926).

“Look at all that sand, dozens of it…”

Crossing the Great Sagrda (1924) is almost indescribable; a mock ethno-graphical film with title cards that could have been written by a Goon had they yet been invented. It featured sand courtesy of Blackpool Borough Council and free-form intertitles each one attributed to a different film company. Whatever it was about, I liked it and I laughed.

Almost as barmy was Beauty and the Beast (1922) featuring Guy Newall as The Beast and Ivy Duke as… you can guess. Meg Morley brought musical method to all the madness.

After lunch it was time to cut to the Chase, Charlie Chase… as Matthew Ross took us through some more highlights from the second coolest silent comic who was so much his own man any comparison belittles his suave majesty.

Charlie helps a pal pull his car out from a muddy patch and ends up losing his own car to Hal Roache’s ACME mud pool and then goes in a brilliantly desperate search of trousers in The Way of all Pants (1927). The session ended with plastic-surgery farce Mighty Like a Moose (1927) which is a work of World-cultural significance.

Mr Sweeney stayed cool at the keys and kept pace with the Chase.

Monty Banks bronze medalist in the Freestyle Moustache 
Then in a surprise entry for moustache of the day (he came third…), Monty Banks twitched his winning ways through A Perfect Gentleman (1927). You can’t fail to like Monty in this well-balanced comedy, as he chases around a ship trying to prove his innocence after having crashed his own wedding inadvertently drunk and then doubled his disgrace by being accused of robbing his former fiancé’s father’s bank. Not the day’s first wedding nor the last bank robbery. 

Costas was really on the beat for this lightweight charmer and he was clearly enjoying himself as his punchy lines accompanied Banks' every pratfall.

The KB weekenders are great for bringing attention to performers such as Banks and Griffiths, but we were about to be reminded of the sheer excellence of one of those who is deservedly still widely remembered. Four commentators were given the essentially impossible task of choosing a favourite moment from a Buster Keaton film.

Even married to the star, Natalie Talmadge wonders why sisters Constance and Norma always had easier gigs...
David Robinson chose the breath-taking closing scenes from Our Hospitality (1923) when our hero rescues Natalie Talmadge from the rapids, a waterfall and over-bearing relatives. Then Kevin Brownlow’s choice was the Tong war from The Cameraman including a mini-tribute to the camerawork in Intolerance I hadn’t previously spotted.

Poly Rose (known to many on The Twitter, as The Flying Editor) is a film editor (natch) who revealed some secrets about Keaton’s own editing for Sherlock Junior. It takes one to know one and it was fascinating to see how this mind-boggling segment was constructed through double exposure. Publicity stills, and contemporary reviews also suggest that there were other versions of Buster’s somnambulant transition from what we see, Keaton test screened his work and fine-tuned the brilliance.

Last up was David Macleod, broadcaster and president of the Blinking Buzzards, the UK Keaton Society, who has written extensively on the comedian’s sound films which extend far beyond his relatively-short silent period. He chose the pulsating climax to Steamboat Bill Jr (1928) as our hero literally risked life and limb in a town torn apart by hurricanes and another extraordinary river rescue.

Buster to the rescue as Marion Byron clings on in Steemboat Bill Jnr
John Sweeney accompanied and once again demonstrated extraordinary fluidity for those river-chase sequences but most of all he really Keatoned those keyboards!

A day of pure concentrated silent bliss – where else would we see these films and hear these musicians?! Thankyou Bioscope and the Cinema Museum.

The Way of all Pants!


  1. Wow, what a wonderful evening! It sounds brilliant. And I really appreciated your review of Exit Smiling. I only saw this in the last year or two, and I loved it so much. Lillie is just wonderful, and that ending is really remarkable: brave, and unexpected.

    1. It was great programming and having Mr Robinson and Mr Brownlow share their memories is a real treat! You wonder what would have happened to Bea's character... she was still learning about herself and maybe she ended up with a Cary Grant rather than a Jack Pickford? She's one of those performers who just shines!