By Janine Gericke.
On Saturday, December 1st, the SF Silent Film Festival held its annual Day of Silents winter program at the famed Castro Theatre. As I’ve previously covered, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival offers a year round celebration of early film. The festival pulls in thousands of silent film fanatics, many of whom show up in era appropriate ensembles and laden with provisions to tide them over for hours of screenings, presentations, and conversations.
Though the day showcased a full roster of entertainment, the 1926 Sam Taylor comedy Exit Smiling was an absolute highlight. The film stars Beatrice Lillie, who at the time was considered to be “the funniest woman in the world.” Lillie plays Violet, a young woman who works with a traveling theatrical group. Violet is the group’s maid, cooking their meals and prepping their wardrobes. All day she dreams of acting in one of the troupe’s productions, even memorizing lines and putting on costumes backstage. She meets Jimmy Marsh (Jack Pickford – silent star Mary Pickford’s brother!), a bank clerk accused of stealing who joins the troupe as an escape. The two form a bond and hilarity ensues.
Before the film began, a projected lobby card stated that the film’s ending was not well received upon the film’s initial release. I won’t give the ending away, but I do encourage people to seek out this film. You won’t be disappointed.
The 35mm print, which looked fantastic, was provided by the British Film Institute. The presentation also welcomed a new face to the silent film festival, pianist Wayne Barker. Even when there was a technical hiccup, Barker didn’t hesitate and just kept playing. The audience ate it up. This was one of the best screenings I have seen at this festival. The crowd was having a great time and the hilarious film made for a perfect afternoon screening.
Exit Smiling is really Beatrice Lillie’s film. This was actually her one and only silent film. Lillie seemed like a veteran at this point. Originally a stage actress, her comedic timing is impeccable and her facial reactions could rival that of Buster Keaton, who could express so much with just a look. She clearly loved to perform, which isn’t much of a stretch to portray a woman who dreams of performing in front of an audience. Lillie can draw you in with her radiant facial expressions, but also break your heart when she is desperate to hide her own heartache. Had she continued making films, Lillie could’ve held her own with any famous silent film stars of the era. It seems that director Sam Taylor also had a knack for finding comedic talent. He directed Harold Lloyd in Safety Last (1923) and The Freshmen (1925).
I can’t recommend this film enough. It’s just a good old-fashioned comedy, plain and simple. Granted, I saw it in a crowded theater with a fun and engaged audience and live music, but I would watch the film again from the comfort of any living room. The film is available on DVD through the Warner Archive and is also available on iTunes. If anything, see the film just to see how brilliant Lillie’s performance is. A natural comedianne who shines in a role that is relatable for anyone who has ever watched from sidelines just waiting for their moment.
Janine Gericke is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.