Movie Of The Month by JB Kaufman

Exit Smiling (1926)

August, 2013

MGM, 1926. Director: Sam Taylor. Scenario: Sam Taylor and Tim Whelan, based on a story by Marc Connelly. Camera: André Barlatier. Film editor: Daniel J. Gray. Cast: Beatrice Lillie, Jack Pickford, Doris Lloyd, DeWitt Jennings, Harry Myers, Tenen Holtz, Louise Lorraine, Franklin Pangborn.
            This film may not really be all that obscure; it seems to be “rediscovered” every now and then. On the other hand, if it were as well known as it deserves to be, periodic “rediscoveries” would be unnecessary! In any case, Exit Smiling is a gem of a film, one that should be remembered as one of the classic comedies of the silent period, and I welcome the opportunity to focus more attention on it here.
            The film is known, when it’s known at all, as the screen debut of Beatrice Lillie. Unfortunately, after this brilliant beginning, Ms. Lillie never developed much of a screen career at all. On stage it was a different story: for decades she enjoyed the acclaim of international theatrical audiences and critics as a brilliant comedienne. But after 1926, for whatever reason, movie audiences saw her only in a smattering of roles that gave a scant glimpse of her comic genius.
            Exit Smiling allows us to see what all the fuss was about. The film’s story is an apt vehicle for Lillie’s talents: she appears as the “drudge” of a barnstorming theatrical troupe, cooking meals for the company, tending their wardrobe, performing other miscellaneous odd jobs, and—incidentally—permitted to appear onstage in small supporting roles. On the train, en route from one small town to another, she meets a young man and falls in love. The boy has hurriedly left his hometown after being framed for a crime, and Lillie contrives to have him hired as the company’s new juvenile. He’s a nice enough sort, and grateful for her friendship and her help, but Lillie thinks her love for him is requited. The troupe’s circuit inevitably takes them back to the boy’s hometown, and Lillie—having discovered his predicament and discovered the identity of the real culprit—goes to heroic, and comic, lengths to expose the real wrongdoer and clear the boy’s name. Her efforts are successful and the boy is cleared, quits the troupe, and returns to his former life and his conventionally pretty girlfriend—never knowing the valiant efforts Lillie has expended on his behalf.
            It will be clear even from this brief outline that the story is constructed along lines of Chaplinesque pathos. It also allows for a series of comic set-pieces, designed to show off Lillie’s comic talents: absent-mindedly ironing (and destroying) laundry while pouring out her heart in a love song; rehearsing the new juvenile in his audition scene in a rural yard, surrounded by pigs and goats; romping through the company’s current stage melodrama in male attire when she is allowed to substitute for the missing villain; and—in the film’s climactic comedy highlight—waylaying the small-town crook by hilariously attempting to replay a seduction scene from the same play. Lillie’s comic skills run the gamut from subtle pantomime to vigorous slapstick: if she can’t detain the small-town miscreant with her seductive wiles, she can always resort to a flying tackle instead.
            The rest of the cast provides her with excellent support. Jack Pickford may seem an unlikely casting choice as the temporary juvenile, but he’s likable, natural, and convincingly underplayed in the role. Doris Lloyd is glamorously despicable as the troupe’s rude, cynical leading lady. Franklin Pangborn, just beginning his own screen career, is hilarious as a markedly effeminate leading man. We know Harry Myers as the eccentric millionaire in Chaplin’s City Lights, but he actually had quite a prolific career in both silent and sound films, and gives a solid performance here. As good as all these players are, Exit Smiling is unquestionably Beatrice Lillie’s picture, and she effortlessly holds her own from beginning to end.
            And, as good as she is, I think the film itself is even better. My fellow W.C. Fields enthusiasts who are familiar with the Fields sound film The Old-Fashioned Way—at once a send-up of, and an affectionate tribute to, the world of penniless traveling theatrical troupes—will be delighted to discover something similar in Exit Smiling. Here the vision is perhaps a little darker and more poignant, but we get wonderfully atmospheric scenes of the company setting up in seedy small-town halls, recruiting locals to fill in in walk-on bit parts, snatching hurried meals on the run, surreptitiously stealing light bulbs from dressing rooms and napkins from cheap lunch counters.
            To be sure, this film benefits from some stellar talent behind the camera. Based on a story by Marc Connelly, then at the height of his reputation on Broadway, the scenario is the work of Sam Taylor and Tim Whelan—both veterans of some of Harold Lloyd’s finest comedies, and both later associated with other Hollywood royalty—and Taylor doubles as director. (The name of Jack Pickford’s fictional hometown, East Farnham, is an in-joke reference to Joe Farnham, who wrote the titles for this and so many other silents.) Together they alternate easily between broad slapstick and subtle wit. In one beautifully understated scene on a train’s observation platform, they manage to convey, gracefully and wordlessly, Pickford’s anguish over his predicament, his longing for the girl back home, and Lillie’s conviction that his heart is hers alone. Considering MGM’s track record with comedy in later years—most infamously their effect on the careers of Buster Keaton and the Marx Brothers—it’s comforting to know that, in 1926, they were still capable of producing so hilarious, touching, and lovingly crafted a comedy as Exit Smiling.

J.B. Kaufman