Entertainment legend Beatrice Lillie made her film debut as a acting troupe dogsbody who dreams of playing the big vamp role. She gets her chance when she meets an innocent bank clerk on the run from false charges.
Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.
The Vampire Understudy
When you leave out the cameos, Beatrice Lillie’s film roles across four decades can be counted on your fingers. In her memoirs, Lillie herself wrote that “Sweet reason had no part in making movies, and there was no audience to learn from.” She found the production of Exit Smiling to be rushed, the out-of-order shooting typical to the movies to be confusing and concluded that the finished product was “a piece of cheese.”
Lillie would probably be amused and surprised to learn that Exit Smiling has developed quite a following over the years. While it doesn’t have the name recognition of City Lights or Safety Last, it is one of those movies that invariably invites responses of “Oh, I love that one!” whenever it is mentioned.
It’s the story of Violet (Lillie), the drudge, gofer and perennial understudy of a small repertory acting troupe. Their signature play is Flaming Women, designed by the screenwriters to act as a sendup of the vamp fare of the previous decade. The finale involves its ingénue dressing herself up as a vampire in order to distract the mustachioed villain and save her noble lover. Violet dreams of playing the big part but, predictably, her acting is not up to snuff even in this less-than-exalted thespian circle.
Olga (Doris Lloyd) has the leading role sewn up and she is ably supported by Cecil Lovelace (Franklin Pangborn) but the villain has recently been fired.
Meanwhile, a bank clerk named Jimmy Marsh (Jack Pickford) has been accused of stealing $5,000 from his employer and though he is innocent, he has fled town in a panic. Violet runs into him, falls for him and decides to help the kid out by getting him an acting job. Jimmy is a natural who can cry on command—with the help of Violet and a hidden onion.
Violet now has two goals in life: play the vampire part and win Jimmy. When the troupe returns to Jimmy’s hometown, the opportunity arises. The real culprit will be exposed if Violet can just manage to distract him long enough to save lover. Hold onto your incense and feather boas!
Lillie loved the feedback of the theater and while the silent era film studio was raucous compared to the “Quiet on the set!” rules of the talkies, there is a period of waiting between the shooting and the premiere and no way of knowing whether the film or the performance was a success. There’s no right or wrong answer in choosing between film and stage and Lillie certainly triumphed in the theater but I believe we can safely take her dismissal of Exit Smiling with a grain of salt.
The real highlights of the picture, besides Lillie, are the supporting players, including Franklin Pangborn, whose camp performance Lillie described as “in a style the censors disallowed for years after that” and Doris Lloyd as Olga, the company’s brassy leading lady.
You need to be a good actor to play a bad actor and Pangborn and Lloyd offer contrasting studies in badness alongside Lillie’s would be vamp. Pangborn is all dramatic poses and defiant glances when his character plays the he-man onstage and Lloyd’s character mails in her performances from the next county.
Of course, a major weakness in the film is that Violet is going to a lot of trouble for Jimmy and Jack Pickford is just kind of… there. (I hold the opinion that any picture that is good with Jack Pickford would have been even better with somebody else.) Obviously, Beatrice Lillie’s performance was going to work no matter who her leading man was but she had to do quite a bit of heavy lifting to sell her infatuation. If the picture had either cast a genuine cutie-pie or had given Pangborn the role for a zanier one-sided romance, the dividends would have been great.
Incidentally, Pickford played another innocent bank clerk accused of stealing money and skipping town in 1926, Brooks Bailey in The Bat. Not sure what was going on that year. “We need a patsy bank clerk on the lam! Get Pickford!” What can I say? I am a sucker for humorously specific typecasting.
For the most part, however, director Sam Taylor is content to simply let Lillie go about the business of being Lillie and this is where the film shines. Lillie’s deadpan delivery of the physical gags is absolute perfection. Some highlights for me included the ironing scene, in which she burns a shirt, calmly and neatly folds it and then drops it into a red hot fire, and the luncheon scene, in which she enforces rationing by quickly switching plates.
And, of course, the two set pieces during the final act are Violet portraying the (male) villain of Flaming Women onstage and the vamp part in real life as she tries to distract the real embezzler. Both sequences take advantage of Lillie’s skill with prop humor and there are laughs aplenty as she is vamped by Olga, battles Cyril for a gun and loses her ostrich fan to the blades of an electric one.
If you want to irritate a silent movie fan, repeat the myth that silents were all overblown melodramas. Exit Smiling is a nice way to illustrate that silent era audiences were aware of the conventions of melodrama and enjoyed cackling at the more hoary tropes. It’s sad and ironic that these same tropes have somehow become attached to the entire silent era. Curses! Foiled again.
Story-wise, this one was never going to set the world on fire but this was never really about the plot. It was meant as a showcase for Lillie’s humor, nothing more and nothing less. It definitely succeeds in its mission but I can’t help but wish there had been a bit more ambition in its plotting. (Spoiler) The old “woman who lacks conventional looks sacrificing herself so her love can ride off into the sunset with an attractive starlet” thing is was as old as the hills even in the silent era. That’s not to say that Lillie is unattractive, quite the opposite and the film takes advantage of her androgyny.
In fact, some reviews of the time complained that the film went for pathos instead of a happy ending with Jimmy recognizing Violet’s sacrifice. I am actually satisfied with the ending as-is, bittersweet is fine, I just wish the general structure of the film was not so reliant on tropes.
Exit Smiling is a good comedy that just scrapes below greatness due to a trope-laden plot and a meh leading man. That being said, the antics of Beatrice Lillie and the supporting players are remarkably droll. It’s cute and zippy and well worth checking out.
Where can I see it?
Released on DVD by Warner Archive.
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