Monday, September 4, 2017

Poetic Absurdity: The Genius of Beatrice Lillie

Beatrice Lillie (aka Lady Peel) in Exit Smiling (1926).

There’s a tradition of eccentric English actresses who made improbably triumphant careers for themselves in the twentieth century. One was the great high-comic technician Gertrude Lawrence, who couldn’t sing a note without quavering yet became a musical-comedy star, performing songs by Noël Coward, Cole Porter, the Gershwins and Rodgers & Hammerstein. Another was Margaret Rutherford, who embodied a kind of British dottiness – an unassailable uprightness and forthrightness, like that of a nanny shepherding her charges through the park – even when she was playing Agatha Christie’s sleuth Miss Marple. But my favorite was Beatrice Lillie, who was born in Toronto in 1894 but became a star in the West End twenty years later and performed on stage and occasionally in movies and on television for just over half a century. (Her final appearance was in the ill-advised 1967 musical film Thoroughly Modern Millie, in the role of the white-slaving villainess Mrs. Meers. It was hardly a worthy valedictory, though she did get to wear chopsticks in her beehive hairdo and execute a modest tap dance to get a stubborn elevator moving.) Canadian she may have been by birth, but no one could have captured so acutely a specifically English brand of silliness, though possibly the fact that she was officially an import from elsewhere in the Dominion may partly explain the fact that her portrayal of English aristocratic hauteur was always parodic – even though in real life she married a baronet (she was Lady Peel) and lost a son, a naval officer, in World War II.

Especially in her younger days, Lillie was so strange-looking that she always seemed exotic: she had almond-shaped eyes with pencil-thin eyebrows that she could raise one at a time, an aquiline nose, and such a slender frame that she looked like a line drawing. In The Show of Shows (1929) her flapper dress barely moves on her. The more outré the outfits costume designers plopped on that odd body the better. In the Bing Crosby picture Doctor Rhythm (1938) she wears a black gown with shimmery gold curlicues all over it, an enormous corsage on her left shoulder and a winged hat for the number “There’s Rhythm in This Heart of Mine”; when she begins to shimmy, she’s like a bowl of Jell-O in an earthquake. One of the late-Victorian headdresses she models in On Approval (1943) is a wide-brimmed black hat with an absurdly outsize striped bow on top that drips down the back of her neck – and she’s holding a terrier in her lap. Later we see her in bed with the pooch, and this time her hair is down but bound by a band with a bow; her hair always seemed to have something or other nesting in it. And this isn’t the only movie in which a small animal punctuates her diminutiveness: at the end of a farce version of a fox hunt in Are You There? (1930), she ends up with the fox in her arms, anticipating Auntie Mame. (Are You There? was intended as an elaborate musical comedy built around Lillie as a lady detective, but it had the misfortune to come out after the audience had grown fatigued with the cruddy musicals Hollywood was churning out indiscriminately in the early days of the talkies, so the studio, Fox, cut it by a third. Only a twenty-five-minute excerpt survives; it’s not so good, but she’s pretty funny in it.)

She could do more witty things with a line, perhaps, than anyone on the far side of Maggie Smith, like “You’ll find the dinghy at the jetty” in On Approval and “Darling, I’ve been worried rigid!” in Doctor Rhythm. She wasn’t the first person to perform the sketch about the socialite who gets all balled up when she tries to order a dozen double-damask dinner napkins (it was written for Cicely Courtneidge), but she made it famous; it was interpolated into At Home Abroad on stage and Doctor Rhythm on film, and it can still crack you up. Her clipped, wrung-dry ironic style was perfectly suited to double entendres and other forms of wry erotic suggestion – as in “Mother Told Me So,” a Dietz lyric from the musical Flying Colors that she recorded in 1935, the tale of a beguiled and betrayed maiden that ends, “Mumsy told me so / She told me all about the stork / She should have told me about New York / I told Mother so.”

Lillie wanted to become a serious singer but wound up burlesquing serious singers instead. Most of the shows in which she performed songs were revues – Charlot’s Revues of 1924 and 1926 and The Third Little Show (songs by Noël Coward) in London and a whole raft of them on Broadway: At Home Abroad (songs by Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz), The Show Is On, Set to Music, Seven Lively Arts (songs by Cole Porter), Inside U.S.A. (Schwartz and Dietz again), the revamped 1957 Ziegfeld Follies and An Evening with Beatrice Lillie, which won her a Tony Award. And they were all novelty songs, like “Mad Dogs and Englishmen,” “Paree,” “Get Yourself a Geisha” and “There Are Fairies in at the Bottom of Our Garden.” She would strike a deadpan and trill, then do something, physically or vocally, to comment on the ridiculousness of her own attempt, like clearing her throat or twisting her face into an expression of disdain. Clever lyricists who wrote for her would sometimes put the commentary into the lines: “At the Mardi Gras” from Inside U.S.A. begins, “Oh, the night was like wine / And I drank quite a lot.” The effect could be distinctly Dada.

Beatrice Lillie in An Evening with Beatrice Lillie.

I had the amazing good luck to see Lillie in her last Broadway show, High Spirits, in 1964. I was only thirteen but I’d devoured everything I could find about the history of musical theatre (I read Stanley Green’s The World of Musical Comedy, a birthday gift from a perceptive aunt and uncle, straight through three times), so I knew her by reputation. High Spirits was a musical version of Coward’s Blithe Spirit. Tammy Grimes was the star, and she was wonderful as the seductive ghost Elvira, but when Lillie, cast as the loopy medium Madame Arcati, appeared on a bike in the second scene and sang “The Bicycle Song,” the whole world seemed to tip sideways. The songwriters, Hugh Martin and Timothy Gray, gave her three subsequent numbers that were more pertinent to the narrative, but it was “The Bicycle Song” that ideally framed Lillie’s peculiar brand of lunacy, perhaps in part because the image of this compact dame holding her own amid the vicissitudes of a vigorous bike ride seemed so hilariously apt for her.

In the movies she had only two leading roles. The better known of the pair was the tart-tongued Maria (pronounced “Mar-eye-a”) Wislack in On Approval, which Clive Brook adapted from Frederick Lonsdale’s 1927 comedy of manners and also directed. The plot idea is that Lillie’s Maria agrees to take her suitor (Roland Culver) away for a weekend to see if he suits her before agreeing to marry him; she’s relentlessly mean to him during that time, but he assumes that her ill-spiritedness is part of the test, and when he finds out it’s not – that she’s always like this – he marches away, relieved to have dodged a bullet. Brook and Googie Withers play the other mismatched couple, a bankrupt duke and an American heiress who adores him until she learns what he’s really like. It’s a skillful and entertaining comedy; all four of the actors are perfectly cast. Lillie’s performance is full of memorable comic touches, like the glint of craziness in the smile she flashes Culver and her way of waving her fan as if she were conducting an orchestra and the moment when she slices potatoes as if she were a wazir in an Arabian Nights story beheading his enemies.

Her other starring part had come seventeen years earlier, in a picture she made in Hollywood called Exit Smiling, written by director Sam Taylor, Tim Whelan and Joe Farnham (he wrote the cheeky titles) from a story by playwright Marc Connelly. It’s one of the great comedies of the silent era yet virtually unknown. (You can see it on an excellent DVD in the Warner Brothers Archive collection.) Lillie plays Violet, a jack-of-all-trades in a traveling theatre troupe that specializes in dreadful potboilers; no one takes her seriously, but she dreams of playing the vamp roles and she’s learned them by heart. Amiable, slightly scruffy Jack Pickford (Mary’s brother, who had a brief, sad life) is Jimmy, who leaves his small Missouri town under a cloud and winds up joining the company. Violet falls for him, unaware that he has a fiancée back home; she ends up saving his reputation so that he can return to the woman he loves, and he never finds out what she’s done for him. There’s a bit of the Little Tramp in the way the role of Violet is conceived, and some of Lillie’s scenes – notably one in which she serves a meal to the troupe, switching plates when one of the actors gets too gluttonous and tossing a slice of bread across the table so that another one can spear it with his fork – show the Chaplin influence as well. But Lillie is too sharp-witted to sink into the masochism that sometimes wrecks Chaplin’s comedies, though this may have been the only time in her career when she got to show her dramatic skills and reveal genuine emotion. (Some of her routines anticipate the way Barbra Streisand sends up melodrama in the first half of Funny Girl while validating the feelings underneath it.) Lillie is such a famously verbal performer that it takes a while to get used to seeing her in a silent film, though those of us who know her later work can practically hear her voice in our heads as we watch. She’s fantastic in the movie, but it came out too late: The Jazz Singer was released the following year, turning the movie business topsy-turvy and ringing down the curtain on the era of the silent comedy, and Lillie never got the chance to become the female Chaplin or Harold Lloyd. (If anyone has rescued Exit Smiling from obscurity, it’s the critic Alan Dale, who devotes ten astute pages to it in his book Comedy Is a Man in Trouble: Slapstick in American Movies.)

The loveliest tribute I’ve ever read to Beatrice Lillie is in the third (and last) of Alec Guinness’s memoirs, Positively Final Appearance. He calls her “a small-scale clown of genius” and insists that theatergoers who saw her only in big revues missed her at her best, in intimate venues that didn’t swallow her up. “The material she used was often not much above commonplace camp,” Guinness argues, “but she made it flower, in her absurdity, into something almost poetic . . . “ He describes a seven-minute sketch, silent until the very end, of a Japanese tea ceremony that sounds sublimely funny and inspired. He tells some charming anecdotes about her, too, but he concludes with a devastating reminiscence of the last time he saw her, at a party, sitting alone and miserable. When he asked if he might join her, she told him, “I’m just not worth speaking to. Forget me,” and waved him away. “I sat next to her for perhaps ten minutes but she wouldn’t speak,” he writes. “She just sat, small, straight-backed, sometimes putting up a hand to make sure her little red fez was straight or perhaps to reassure herself that it was still there. It had been very much her professional badge. There was nothing to do but leave her. And my God, I needed a drink.” That was the “fundamentally sad” side of Lillie that Guinness had always been aware of. Of all the evidence that remains of her phenomenal talent, only Exit Smiling, with its ironic title, hints at a gift for channeling it and a willingness to do so.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

No comments:

Post a Comment