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A maid who works for a traveling theatrical troupe wants desperately to be an actress, and manages to get some small roles in the company's productions, but is determined to do anything she can to show that she deserves a shot at the big time. Written by
A movie for those who work behind-the-scenes in life
"Smile tho' your heart is breaking"--that's the motto of the theatre, where on-stage appearances and illusions are essential to creating the audience's experienced reality. Sam Taylor's "Exit Smiling" is an insightful commentary on the theatrical life, behind the make-up and costumes and between the grueling roadshow performances. It fittingly features Beatrice Lillie, renowned as a Broadway performer, in her first film role, alongside a supporting cast of colorful, but certainly less than marquee-status players. The very fact that MGM did not employ its bevy of famous names in this picture seems a testament to the overall sense of *ordinariness* that "Exit Smiling" conveys. For the world of this traveling theatrical troupe is not one of glamour and glitz with elaborate sets and costumes, but rather one of cramped dressing rooms and boxcars, lonely train depots, and rural barnyards.
In this midst of all this stands Lillie herself, who, as Violet, the drudge of the troupe, responsible for every menial task, spends her spare moments dreaming of the roles she could play if only given the chance. Lillie has a physical presence that is mesmerizing; her face is not traditionally beautiful, or even traditionally feminine (an aspect which is exploited in the story)--yet she is all the more striking as a result. Her reactions to the goings-on around her are quite subtle--you need to watch closely in order to pick up on her considerable abilities as a comedienne.
If, however, you come to this film (as I did) expecting a rip-roaring comedy (whether of the slapstick or the screwball variety), you may be disappointed. For me at least, this film rises above the ordinary not as a comedy, but as a reflection on the kinds of people in society it portrays through Lillie's character. For Violet toils away behind-the-scenes, both in her job and in her intervention on others' behalf, yet never receives the credit or rewards she deserves. Such is the nature of life, and Taylor seems to suggest that we might do well to transfer the empathy we feel by the end of the film for Violet to those other "Violets" in our own lives--to those who make things happen, who make the performances seem effortless.
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