Exit Smiling - Sam Taylor - Beatrice Lillie - Bea Lillie - Harry Myers - Violet - Jesse Watson - climax - vamp

Exit Smiling
1926, directed by Sam Taylor

If only it were possible to find anyone who’s seen both movies, a comparison between Exit Smiling and the 1965 Italian film I Knew Her Well would be enlightening. Both are character studies of a young woman striving to become an actress, who gives herself with all her heart to a world that only ignores and sneers at her. The latter film differs from Exit Smiling in its extraordinarily creative cinematic qualities, but there’s a warning in it – a cruel film-within-the-film that mocks the main character, and whose editing is, like the larger film itself, skillful and inventive. The lesson there is that a movie’s humanity counts for more than any flashy, original, or imaginative cinematic techniques. Exit Smiling tests this premise, because it’s an utterly modest production with an abundance of humanity.

At the center of Exit Smiling is the character of Violet, played by legendary stage actress Bea Lillie in one of her few movie roles. The intertitles describe her as the “drudge” of a two-bit theatrical troupe, playing bit parts like maids and doing actual maid’s work like ironing costumes. She dreams, however, of playing the sexy “vamp” in a play called “Flaming Women”. She’s introduced in her dressing room, caught red-handed hamming up the vamp part all alone, and it’s immediately clear she has no talent for acting.

Exit Smiling - Sam Taylor - Beatrice Lillie - Bea Lillie - Violet - rehearsing - vamp - vampire - Flaming Women

As bad as Violet may be as an actress, she compensates for it with a love of life unmatched by any other character. Whether shooting for an acting role or trying to win her beloved Jimmy’s attention, her intense desire never comes across as selfish, because we know her heart is overflowing and she wants to give as much of herself as she can. All the minor characters, without being villainous, show a mean spirit that puts her virtues in relief. The troupe’s old woman steals a light bulb from a theater; the old man steals a cloth napkin from a restaurant; Phyllis holds up a performance to get drunk; Cecil complains like a baby while waiting for Phyllis to show up, and he acts huffy when Violet accidentally sits on his bed. The manager Mr. Wainwright lords over everybody, the troupe members treat Violet with derision, the theater audience in the opening scene stomps and hisses impatiently, and most of the people in Jimmy’s town aren’t any better. With her big heart Violet stands out against a petty and ill-tempered world.

For one moment Violet sinks to their level. The morning after she meets Jimmy, while he still thinks she’s a star actress, she talks down to a servant, acting like a diva to maintain Jimmy’s awed impression of her. But the servant’s surprise reinforces what we can already intuit, that her behavior is out of character, an almost desperate ploy to impress the first man who treats her with respect. As if shamed by her pride, she immediately comes clean to Jimmy, admitting that the vamp act is only her dream.

Exit Smiling - Sam Taylor - Beatrice Lillie - Bea Lillie - Jack Pickford - Violet - Jimmy Marsh

Until its last act Exit Smiling does nothing terribly remarkable or unconventional. Violet gets Jimmy a role in the troupe, saving him from unemployment after an unscrupulous cashier accused him of stealing $5000 from his workplace. His accuser, Jesse Watson, had in fact stolen the money to pay a gangster a gambling debt, and now in Jimmy’s absence Jesse is about to steal Jimmy’s fiancée as well. Movie plots like this had long been common across multiple genres, and backstage dramas were a staple of both silent and early sound films, especially musicals. However when Violet’s troupe happens to stop for a performance in Jimmy’s hometown, and Violet overhears the gangster telling Jesse he has evidence to clear Jimmy, suddenly real life begins to reflect the theater in the most astounding way.

Seizing the moment, and inspired by the climax of “Flaming Women”, Violet borrows the vamp costume and follows Jesse Watson to his home, where in a tempestuous scene of comical but earnest efforts she does everything to prevent Jesse from meeting the gangster’s payment deadline, thereby activating the release of evidence that will clear Jimmy’s name. In “Flaming Women” the vamp character (whom the movie’s intertitles label with the quaintly unabbreviated “vampire” as if the derived usage for a sinister seductress needed no introduction) likewise feigns seduction to hold the villain at bay until a missed deadline saves her lover. The scene might come off as cheap drama in the play, but when Violet enacts it in real life it’s convincing because it allies her two passions – playing the vamp and saving Jimmy – in a joint undertaking. Not only is it totally in character for her, but we understand it’s the part she was born to play.

Exit Smiling - Sam Taylor - Beatrice Lillie - Bea Lillie - Violet - ironing - Don't Waste Soap

The movie ends with a wonderful bit of irony as Jimmy bids good-bye to Violet in the troupe’s railroad car. Unaware of all she’s done for him, and unaware even of her love, he tells her in the movie’s last line, “I sure hope you get a chance to play that vampire part some day.” He leaves her, and in her solitude Violet quietly peeks under her robe to remind herself of the vamp costume underneath. Whether or not she ever gets to play that part on the stage, she has already done far better. Even if it gained her nothing, even if it separated her from Jimmy forever, she must know that she has exceeded her original wish beyond her most ambitious dreams, playing the vamp part with more life than it’s ever likely to be played in any theater.

So far the idea may sound fairly simple. Life imitates and exceeds art, and Exit Smiling pulls it off convincingly, relying on a minimum of coincidence to create such a close parallel – after all, as the editing tells us, Violet takes the idea directly from the play. But the movie goes beyond the hackneyed idea of parallels between stage and life. First of all there’s an extra inverse parallel that compounds the delightful irony of the last act. Violet is certainly a bad actor on the stage – she overacts whenever rehearsing the vamp role, and she flubs the male villain’s part disastrously – but in real life she’s a great actor, in the sense that “acting” means “doing” rather than “pretending”. She absolutely saves the situation, remedying an injustice and setting Jimmy’s life back on its proper track. Conversely, the other troupe members may be good actors on stage, but in real life they’re bad actors – which is to say their actions are bad.

Exit Smiling - Sam Taylor - Beatrice Lillie - Bea Lillie - Violet - Flaming Women - stage - moustache - acting

This idea that Violet is a great actress in real life may get lost in the fact that she always tends to get the small things wrong, although in the end she gets the important things right. Her endless blunders drive the movie’s comic passages, and her one big stage performance is a hilarious string of fumbles. She falls flat on her entrance, pulls the leading lady’s wig off, forgets her lines and flips the words around, loses her fake mustache and puts it back upside-down, gets distracted by voices backstage, and apes the leading lady’s gestures behind her back. In another scene she can’t even iron clothes right. Her climactic performance holding Jesse until midnight is another series of embarrassing moments. Nothing goes quite her way except for the end result, which she wins by her energetic persistence.

Violet is convincing because she’s so real – most people know someone like her, someone kind and self-sacrificing who screws up the details of life but who gets the big picture right. Most such people wind up like Violet, ignored and taken for granted. The movie should teach us to recognize these personalities, to appreciate them, and to wish for more Violets in the world.

Exit Smiling - Sam Taylor - Beatrice Lillie - Bea Lillie - Violet - vamp - vampire - seductress - costume - necklace

The grandest irony of all is that Exit Smiling itself is the cinematic equivalent of its own protagonist. Like Violet the movie is outwardly unprepossessing. The photography is flat, the sets cheap, and there’s nothing in the camerawork, editing, narrative, or acting to call attention to itself, at least until the last scenes when patient viewers are rewarded. All the funniest parts and all the revealed meaning is saved for the last half hour. The movie almost never appears in textbooks or on lists of great films. It’s been forgotten and overlooked much like Violet herself, but like Violet it has a generous spirit and an abundant feeling for life that it hopes to share with the world.


All About Eve – Story of an understudy yearning to find her place in the theater

Vivre sa vie – Argument that life is more important than art

I Knew Her Well – Would-be actress who gives her whole self to the world and is never thanked for it

Andrei Rublev – Character whose artistic ambition is realized and surpassed but in a humbler form