Today being Bea Lillie’s birthday and all I thought I would observe it by paying tribute to one of her very few film appearances, MGM’s Exit Smiling (1926), directed by Sam Taylor and co-starring Jack Pickford.
In this wonderful silent comedy, Bea is a wardrobe lady and bit player for a theatre troupe who gets to understudy for other performers, and who dreams of getting to be a star herself…but she is terrible. She dresses in costumes and plays make-believe a lot and presents herself as a star when meeting strangers. When they are stopped at a town for an engagement, she meets a local boy (Pickford) who’s out of a job. She encourages him try out to be the company’s male ingénue. He lands the part. Unfortunately, a real life melodrama transpires. It turns out the boy was suspected of stealing a large sum from the bank, and the company will be playing the town where the scandal occurred. Bea understudies his part on the stage, then gets to finally play the vamp part she wants so much in real life when she needs to stall someone from blowing the boy’s cover. In the end her unsung heroism pays off for the boy — but not for her. He’s going to stay in the town and resume his job at the the bank – but he loves the leading lady of the company. The “pathos” ending is rather abrupt, but this was an excellent movie, all ’round.
Look for terrific period details about the stage of the time in the film. And Franklin Pangborn plays a flamboyantly gay ham actor, his screen character already well established. And Lillie of course, is a genius. One is tempted to say “she should have made more films” — but she was a creature of the stage, and was mighty successful there. Life, thou art ephemeral!
To learn more about birthday girl Beatrice Lillie go here.
For more on silent comedy please check out my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc
To find out about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.