Sunday, March 18, 2012

Silent Sundays: Exit Smiling (1926)

“The first time a girl is in love… all the world’s a song. After that it becomes a phonograph player

            Films about entertaining and being an actor/actress tend to be about how life in the spotlight is hard. Sure there have been some funny ones on the topic but most of the films that people seem to remember and seem to be the most acclaimed are dramatic. Exit Smiling is one film centering on the life of acting that is funny and will have you laughing the entire time.
            Violet (Beatrice Lillie) dreams of being the headlining actress in the touring theater company she is with. She is employed as the maid cleaning up after the actors and cooking their meals. Sometimes she gets little parts in the plays but they are no stretch to what she does in real life. Violet knows all the lines to the latest play Flaming Woman and even acts out the scenes and practices them. She almost gets her chance to play the leading lady when the actress is not showing up but at the last moment the actress does come in and Violet is yet again relegated to playing the maid. She has the opening line in the show but as soon as the curtain comes up she realizes she forgot her headpiece and runs off the stage to get it!
            Traveling by train the troupe stops at a station in a small Midwest town named East Farnham late at night. Boarding the train is a young man named Jimmy Marsh (Jack Pickford). When the train pulls away Violet picks the time to go outside and practice some of the lines and scenes from the play. Jack hears her but cannot see her and thinks she is in trouble. Violet likes Jimmy and for a while lets him think that she is the main actress until the next day when her boss tells her to get to work ironing the clothes. That does not bother Jimmy though. He tells her she needs a job and she helps him get an audition. She trains Jimmy by helping him with a tragic death scene. With Violet’s help Jimmy gets a place in the troupe and the part as the villain in Flaming Woman.
            Back in East Farnham everyone thinks Jimmy left because he stole five thousand dollars from the bank he worked at. His girl is upset and misses him terrible. She and her father, the bank’s president, do not believe Jimmy stole the money but they do not have the proof to say so. It turns out one of the workers in the bank stole it because he owed gambling debts. The man he gave the money to threatens to turn him in if he does pay another thousand dollars.
            The next town the troupe plays in is Jimmy’s hometown. He cannot possibly play there lest he gets caught. Violet comes up a with plan to keep him off the stage by pretending he is sick and she can cover for him since she looks like a man with her hair slicked back. The plan works and Violet hilarious messes up the show with her terrible, distracted performance.
            While Violet is acting she overhears that Jimmy has been found out and the bank worker wants to get rid of Jimmy. The bookie who wants the money tells the worker he has until midnight to get the thousand dollars to him. Violet gets another idea: in the play the lead has to distract a vampire until ten o’clock to keep her lover from becoming a vampire. She figures she can distract the bank worker for an hour and her own love will be saved.
            Violet does an absolutely brilliant job distracting the bank worker. She drives him insane! She pretended he ran her over with his car and was knocked out so he would have to stay with her in his house. What calamity Violet creates! Her feathered fan gets stuck in a fan, her pearl necklace rips, she and the guy trip all over the house, she tries to do sexy things from the play and they just come out so awkward.
            Violet winds up saving Jimmy but instead of staying with her and the troupe he stays behind in his hometown to be with his girl and work at the bank.
            Not your typical comedy film ending but it goes along with how whatever good deeds Violet does for everybody else they go completely unnoticed and unappreciated.
            Beatrice Lillie was hysterical as Violet. She had been known in London and the major cities in the US but was not known to people living in small town cities. People had been hearing how funny she was but they never got to see her. Exit Smiling was her first film where wide audiences finally got to see her and it was also her only silent film. Lillie is like a female Charlie Chaplin with her smooth, slapstick physical comedy. Her comedic style like Chaplin’s is subtle which requires that you watch her performance closely. Lillie’s physical appearance is not traditionally pretty or feminine which adds to her character’s quirkiness.
            Beatrice Lillie has so many hilarious scenes I do not even know which one to start with. My favorite one was in the beginning when the play is over Violet is doing her makeup and getting herself together to leave. She put a floppy hat on and moves her head around to get the hat in a position she likes then when she does she takes the powder puff she was using on her face and clips it on her hat. When she walks out she twirls a feather boa on her neck but it falls and when she walks out we see it is attached to her skirt like a tail. There is a scene where Violet hands out the dinner she made to the troupe that is so funny and so intricate I cannot explain it you would have to see it. The scene where Violet does the ironing while she is singing because she is in love in so funny; she burns a shirt and does not care, to cool the iron down she puts it on a block of ice but when the ice melts and cools it cools around the iron, then she sticks the iron in the ice on the stove and the water boils.
            Jack Pickford did not really do anything for the film. He makes it hard to believe that Violet could be madly in love with him. The character is really blah but Pickford makes him even more so. If you could not guess by the name he is the younger brother of the famous Mary Pickford. Jack looks exactly like his sister with the large eyes and the childish face which makes him look like a boy in his early teens rather than his early thirties.
            Exit Smiling is such a fun film. I really needed to laugh and this was perfect. The comedy was sweet and sad at the same time but it was so enjoyable. I love the film so much I cannot stop thinking about it and I love it when that happens I know a film is really good when that happens to me. Beatrice Lillie was amazing she really made the film. Exit Smiling is a great laugh and a film to watch when you need one.