Directed by Sam Taylor and starring Beatrice Lillie as Violet and Jack Pickford as Jimmy Marsh. Exit Smiling is a silent comedy set amongst a theatre troupe as they traverse the country by train, performing their popular melodrama ‘Flaming Women’.
Violet longs to become the lead actress, but instead is the drudge of the company, cooking their meals, ironing their clothes, and being given the most limited of onstage roles. Jimmy Marsh is a bank worker forced to flee his hometown after being framed for the theft of $5000, leaving behind his sweetheart Phyllis (played by Louise Lorraine), who continues to protest his innocence.
Violet and Jimmy meet at the station when he misses his train, and the pair become friends after she helps him to get a job with the troupe. They perform in one small town after the next, and Jimmy finds success within the company, but is unable to forget the girl he left behind. Violet, unaware of his past, falls in love with him, and when they return to East Farnham – Jimmy’s hometown – she goes to great lengths to clear his name.
Violet finds herself finally playing the lead role – but not as the glamorous vamp. She takes over Jimmy’s role as the male lead in Flaming Women so that he can stay hidden, in a sequence that allows Lillie to demonstrate her mastery of physical comedy. Tripping over plant pots and punching goldfish bowls – her false moustache flapping wildly – Violet’s performance has the audience in tears of laughter. During the chaos, a note finds its way into her hands which provides her with the opportunity to prove Jimmy’s innocence.
As soon as the play is over, Violet rushes away from the theatre. At last her opportunity to play the vamp is here, but instead of being on stage, she’s acting out the lead of Flaming Women’s ploy (and wearing her costume) in order to save her real life love. An hour is all she needs, but when a clumsy attempt at seduction fails, Violet tries to stall through increasingly ridiculous physical interventions and, finally, by ripping a phone cord out of the wall entirely.
Pickford is natural and likeable as the understated Jimmy, but Lillie is the standout here. Her performance in Exit Smiling is strikingly modern; she is at once hilarious and heartbreaking, her exuberance underpinned always by a profound sense of longing and a palpable fear of failure. The final shot of the film – a close up of Violet – is arresting, the ghost of her joy still visible on her crestfallen face as she watches Jimmy leave with Phyllis, unaware of what Violet has done for him.
This was Toronto-born Lillie’s film debut, but she was already well known as a comedic theatre actress, having enjoyed success both on Broadway and in the West End. It was the only silent feature she would make; Lillie also starred in Warner’s musical revue film The Show of Shows (1929) before returning to Broadway. She made a handful of other films throughout her life, but largely remained on the stage. It’s a real shame that this is her only silent picture as she’s an excellent comedienne, and has a wonderful command of pantomime.
Director Sam Taylor was a former writer for Vitagraph and Hal Roach, and worked prolifically with Harold Lloyd. After this film, he would go on to direct Mary Pickford in her first talkie Coquette (1929).
Louise Lorraine had previously appeared as Jane in serial The Adventures of Tarzan (1921), as well as many other silent features, both independently and for studios including MGM and Universal. She starred in several more films throughout the remainder of the 1920s, although many are now unfortunately considered to be lost. Her final film was Moonlight and Cactus (1932), a comedy short directed by Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, after which she retired from the screen.
Like Lorraine, Pickford was an experienced actor by the time he made Exit Smiling. He’d been appearing on stage and on film (both solo and with his sister Mary) since he was a child, and had a notorious and chequered past worthy of longer discussion elsewhere. Sadly Pickford would only appear in one more film (Gang War, 1928) after this, and he died in Paris in 1933.
Exit Smiling is a wonderful silent comedy, with a memorable performance by Beatrice Lillie as the female lead. I was lucky enough to see it at a public screening with live musical accompaniment. Unfortunately it seems to be quite difficult to find online, but do seek it out if you can.