General Articles

UNGILDED LILLIE

Bea Lillie, Canadian-born queen of comedy, hat merely to flip a languid wrist to keep her vassals in hysterical, happy subjection

JAMES DUGAN July 15 1948
General Articles

UNGILDED LILLIE

Bea Lillie, Canadian-born queen of comedy, hat merely to flip a languid wrist to keep her vassals in hysterical, happy subjection

JAMES DUGAN July 15 1948

UNGILDED LILLIE

General Articles

JAMES DUGAN

Bea Lillie, Canadian-born queen of comedy, hat merely to Aip a languid wrist to keep her vassals in hysterical, happy subjection

IN 1915 a small blue-eyed Canadian girl was making her theatrical debut in the singing chorus of a London revue called "Not

Likely.” The young lady felt bored and repressed with the sweet sentimental nonsense she had to sing. One night she slipped onstage dressed as a man and adorned with a fierce regimental mustache. The audience laughed at her joke, but when she came off she found that the stage manager had posted a notice on the bulletin board: “Beatrice Lillie fined five

shillings for trying to be funny.” This unknown functionary has the distinction of being the author of the only unfavorable notice Beatrice Lillie has ever received.

For more than three decades since then, drama critics have been groping helplessly through Webster and Roget trying to define the wonders she works. The man who came closest to painting the Lillie is also anonymous. He stood in the lobby of the old Palace theatre on Broadway the night Miss Lillie closed her historical debut in vaudeville in 1929 and was overheard explaining to a friend, “The way I figure it, drunken fairies hit her over the head with a golden hammer.”

The subject of this general bemusement is a 95-pound woman, standing five feet three, now 50 years old. with a crew haircut, a broken leg, and the smile of Circe. She has a penny-trumpet voice, an irrepressible urge to make fun offstage, and a permanent condition of being stage-struck. Fred Allen recently said, “She’s the number one comedian in the business. I said comedian, not comedienne.”

This summer she is back on Broadway in her 35th stage hit, “Inside U. S. A.” The “U. S. A.” bears no resemblance to any nation living or dead. What is depicted here is the magic land of Lillieput, a realm of the heart, bounded by the

funny bone and the belly laugh, in which Beatrice Lillie is sovereign.

“Inside U. S. A.,” according to the playbill, was “suggested by John Gunther’s famous book.” Audiences will amend the statement slightly to, “suggested by the cover of Gunther’s book and inspired by the signature of Beatrice Lillie on the contract.” The show could not have been produced without her. The material is fair to middling. As a leading critic put it, “Only Charlie Chaplin could make so much fun of the world in general with such trivial material.” The New York Times drama reviewer, Brooks Atkinson, said this, not about “Inside U. S. A.,” but about her 1927 vehicle, “She’s My Baby.” It has been said by every other drama critic who has seen a Lillie show, with the exceptions of the Chariot revues in the early 20’s and only one of her films, “On Approval,” made in Britain in 1940. They stand as the few scripts worthy of her talent.

Beatrice Lillie is box-office insurance: she is the greatest living guarantee of a successful production. Only one of her stage appearances in 33 years of trouping on both sides of the Atlantic has been a failure. It was her only appearance as a legitimate actress, in George Bernard Shaw’s “Too True to Be Good” in 1932. The rest of the time she has been rescuing producers, authors and composers in a style once aptly described by a Chicago critic: “With a

wink here, a kick there, a sudden posture now and a subtle aside again, she soared away from the plot, away from the music, away from everything provided for her and became Beatrice Lillie, the oddest, funniest of the comediennes of her generation.”

Beatrice Gladys Lillie is variously credited with being born in Windsor, Belleville and Toronto, on May 29, 1898. When I asked her flatly, she awarded the palm to Toronto.

Occasionally the Toronto press strikes a sternly proprietory note, trying to scare off Windsor and Belleville. When she visited Toronto in 1931 with “The Third Little Show,” an enterprising photographer tried to settle matters finally. He shanghaied her at the station and drove her around, begging Miss Lillie to point out her birthplace. Suddenly she pointed to a grand Scottish baronial castle and simpered,

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“That’s it.” She skipped to the porch and posed clinging to a pillar, while the photographer covered the historic event from every angle. When the puzzled proprietor came out to demand an explanation, the joke blew up.

Beatrice Lillie’s family was not rich. She was the second daughter of a retired Irish-born officer in the Indian Army, and Lucy Lillie, of SpanishEnglish extraction. Mrs. Lillie augmented the family income by concertizing and choir singing, herself conducting, her elder daughter Muriel playing the piano and organ, and little Bea smuggled into the family-package deal as a singer. The youngest lacked in voice but compensated in charm. The first money Beatrice Lillie earned for her art was paid by a Toronto laundryman named Wang Hoo. When she was seven she visited Wang Hoo on Saturday mornings and sang to him, “You Went Away and Left Me Alone,” for which her admirer gave her a nickel. She had only one song and one patron, but it was good every Saturday.

Later, as part of the family act, the kid’s repertoire numbered, “Who Are You Getting at, Eh?”, “My Pretty Kickapoo” and “The Strawberry Girl,” a yodeling number. Is there a fortunate elderly Ontarian who can remember Beatrice Lillie yodeling?

In 1910 Muriel won the musical and dramatic competition sponsored by

Earl Grey, the Governor-General. Mrs. Lillie raised her sights—nothing remained but a Swiss musical finishing for her talented one. By 1914 she had raised the wherewithal and the musical Lillies steamed off to Europe. At this point an enemy of music inconsiderately shot a Hapsburg princeling in Sarajevo, World War I broke out and Muriel had to haul up in London. Mrs. Lillie redeployed her forces. Little Bea was smuggled into the singing chorus of “Not Likely,” a flimsy wartime charivari which opened at the London Alhambra in 1915, in which occurred the incident of the mustache.

Mother got another idea for her hopeless chick and now her patient spinning of the wheel clicked. Mrs. Lillie sent Bea off to audition for the man who was to invent every basic idea for modern musical revues, from burlesque to ballet, and who was to tend the budding Lillie into her decades of fame. His name was André Chariot, a witty Frenchman who gave to England and America the brilliant Parisian musical comedy tradition begun by Offenbach.

The 17-year-old Canadian girl waited her turn in a queue of aspirants who did their stuff before a Chariot who was busy with a secretary, a persistent telephone and aides-de-camp. Little Bea decided to get his attention. She came on singing “I Hear You Calling Me,” rending the tune to shreds, falling over a suitcase she carried and making jocund asides between bars. Chariot didn’t seem to be looking, but suddenly

he yelled, “Do that again!” He had caught the first token of Beatrice Lillie’s genius, the way she raised her right hand in what she calls “after business,” that is a pantomimic gesture after a line of speech that turns the speech into a howl.

Chariot hired her for $60 a week and farmed her out to the minor leagues, a series of London wartime revues such as “The Nine O’Clock Revue,” and even “Up in Mabel’s Room.” Canadian soldiers on furlough from France were her biggest rooting section. By the year of Armistice she was the darling of London. The Prince of Wales, first member of Miss Lillie’s royal fan club, which now includes his brother George VI and his niece, Princess Elizabeth, held his postbellum revels at the Grafton Galleries. The Gallery Suppers centred on Beatrice Lillie, who was appearing in the first of Chariot’s dazzling string of topical musicals, “A to Z,” at the Duke of York theatre.

The Chariot shows had Gertrude Lawrence, Jack Buchanan and Noel Coward, all discovered by André Chariot. The house manager of the Duke of York was Robert Peel, great-grandson of the founder of the British Conservative Party. Bobby was an offshade of Tory true-blue. Before the war he ran away from Harrow to a sheep ranch in Australia. His father, the fourth Baronet Peel, hauled him back to school. Bobby lowered himself on some knotted sheets and joined the Public School Battalion in 1914 as a private. Bobby pleased his father by surviving the war and being mustered out as Captain in His Majesty’s Coldstream Guards and then ruined himself again with Sir Robert by going into the theatre. Beatrice Lillie and Robert Peel were married in 1920.

“Don’t Take Bea Off the Stage”

The groom was confronted with loudly expressed public sentiment against interfering with his bride’s stage career. If Bobby dared make a tea-pouring Lady of Bea Lillie, well, sir, there might be a revolution. The Hon. Robert Peel was only too eager to second the motion. Before they sailed for their honeymoon in New York, the Hon. Robert Peel gave assurances to the grateful United Kingdom that he was not only husband to Beatrice Lillie but her most selfish fan. In Manhattan, the bride applied to Florenz Ziegfeld for a chorus job in the “Follies,” but was not given an interview. The pompous Ziegfeld got his comeuppance in history: three years later Chariot sailed across the sea with Bea Lillie as the star of his first revue and mowed down the Ziegfeld-type pageant under an enfilade of wit and taste.

In 1925 the Hon. Robert succeeded to the title and became the fifth baronet Peel and the lord of Drayton Manor at Tamworth, Staffordshire. Sir Robert died in 1934.

After her debut in New York with Chariot, she appeared in a series of successes on bot h sides of the Atlantic. And in 1926 she made her first movie . . .

The owners of Hollywood will have the most to answer for if Beatrice Lillie is not transmitted to the pleasure of posterity. Her musical comedy art is embalmed only in the memories of the living and will IK* lost. Phonograph records will save something of it. She has made a half-dozen films, all but one unworthy of her talent. She has logically absolved herself for submitting to the Hollywood indignities by stating that “the money was wonderful.”

This first movie was an MGM

number called “Exit Smiling.” It was made out of script metal and old

saws.

In another Hollywood item, the script required Miss Lillie to be kidnapped by ruffians who tied a sack over her head and carried lier to a cave. Sound had come to the motion picture. The producer was alert to its possibilities. When the blackguards removed the sack from her head and shrank back, saying, “Wrong woman!” the producer thought Miss Lillie should sing a song. Her dramatic sense led her to ask the director if she mightn’t introduce a gag line which would smooth the way into her vocal. He agreed. The cameras turned over, the sack came off, the kidnappers blanched, and Little Bea said, “I say! You fellows need cheering up! It just so happens that my brother left me a 50-piece orchestra in his will.” She turned to the 50 musicians waiting offstage to accompany her and gaily cried, “And now then, men! Altogether, pul-leez!” The producer vetoed the scene. To this day nobody has ever explained a movie singer’s orchestral accompaniment as logically.

Triumph at the Palace

Early in 1927 our heroine closed in the New York revue “She’s My Baby,” and went into vaudeville. She trouped the Keith circuit with a devilishly clever piano accompanist named Noel Coward, whom she had brought to André Chariot in 1921 as a personal gift. Coward wrote most of the undying ditties of Beatrice Lillie’s catalogue—“March With Me,” “Mad Dogs and Englishmen,” “There Are Fairies at the Bottom of My Garden,” and the unique Lillie song sketch, “World Weary.” In “World Weary,” she is dressed in men’s tweeds and seated on a bookkeeper’s stool. As she poises her pen she sings the plaintive dreams of the counter jumper who wants to shake the dust of thi-i-is big town. It was an essay in sadness, which no other author of Lillie’s material has dared to bring off.

But not until the week of the stockmarket crash in 1929 did Lillie face the toughest U. S. variety audience in the New York Palace, holy place of vaudeville. The art was dying under the hooves of talking pictures and the hookers were throwing in last reserves. The Palace crowd shared qualities of the last stand at Thermopylae plus those of the Brooklyn Dodger fan of today; show me, kid!

Bea’s eight-year-old son, Bobby, came in with mother from her Sands Point, Long Island, summer place to catch Mummy’s first show. Bobby was in a box. Next week Mummy was taking him hack to school in Switzerland.

The artist came on minus the social claque, which shook the rafters with bravos when she opened in Broadway musicals at $50 prices. The Palace dollar crowd was silent. She smiled her complacent siren smile and said, “This is my first appearance in vaudeville, me as has always ’ad ’is own ’orses.” The Palace regulars sat on their hands. She sang “Snoops the Lawyer.” Her son Bobby Peel hid under the rail of the box; he hated his mother to look ridiculous. Bobby wanted her always to be beautiful. The sullen crowd seemed to share Bobby’s sentiment. She sang “There Are Fairies at the Bottom of My Garden.” Nobody got up to leave. “And now,” she said, lowering her witch’s smile, “I will give you a slight impression of Elsie Janis giving a slight impression of me.” Elsie Janis was a Palace headliner, who had broken the audience in for Lillie by impersonating her a few weeks before.

This confused the Palace regulars about Lillie as much as anything else.

Miss Lillie bowed out after her imitation of an imitation, convinced that she had flopped. Then the curtains bellowed inward with the shouts and whistles, which kept up for three minutes.

The next morning Variety, the Bible of show business, struck the unbelieving note echoed by all who have had to walk away from a Lillie show faced with writing it up. “Who else could put over a punk lyric like ‘Snoops the Lawyer,’ ” snarled the Variety mugg, “or that Fairies number, or that song about a six-year-old slut?”

By the end of her first week at the Palace, Miss Lillie was encircled by the bended knees of the management holding up velvet pillows upon which rested a total of $7,500, for a second week. She pointed out that she was taking Bobby back to school in Switzerland; staterooms were booked for Saturday morning of the following week on the White Star liner Majestic. The Palace tried to buy or at least torpedo the ship. The Line said it would be willing to take Miss Lillie aboard as late as five Saturday afternoon.

So the Palace signed Beatrice Lillie for fourteen-fifteenths of a week. The forsaken performance was Saturday night. She ran out of the house with Bobby after the Saturday matinee and took a cab to the North River, where they ducked into a last-mail gangplank and got him to school on time.

Bobby was 22 years old when he was lost at sea in 1943 with the Royal Navy in the Pacific. At the time his mother was wearing a candy-striped dress on a sun-beaten platform under the guns of Gibraltar, singing to the garrison.

A Wink from Capone

Miss Lillie has been crossing and recrossing the Atlantic so constantly most of her life that she sometimes doesn’t know where she is at the moment. In conversation she is likely to refer to “London” when she means New York. During one of her early Hollywood fiascoes she was driving her British car in Beverly Hills, absentmindedly observing the English rule of driving on the left. She veered to pass an approaching car and her car bucked down over an embankment and fired her out on her head. She staggered to the nearest house, whose owner happened to be John Gilbert, the silent, film star. When he saw the earthstained tatterdemalion on his stoop he cried, “Good Lord, Bea! What happened?” The visitor gave him a radiant smile and said, “Heard there was a party. Came.”

At the moment she is recovering from a broken ankle, sustained during the first rehearsals of “Inside U.S.A.,” when she dashed for a taxi on a rainy street and fetched up with a shattered fibula. Two weeks later she was sashaying around in rehearsals with the ankle in tape. She opened in Philadelphia wearing a pair of black ankle-high desert shoes to support the taped fracture. The audience, unaware of the injury, hailed the funny fiat boots as an inspired bit of costuming. T he artist deliberately cozened the compliment. She uses the comedy invalid shoes as an important effect in her portfolio of tricks.

Beatrice Lillie owns an apartment on the East River in New York; she has had it since 1931. Two years ago she bought her first English property, a trio of connected Queen Anne cottages in red brick at Henley-on-Thames. In furnishing the Henley cottages, she v>as anxious to have 18th-century porcelain door knobs, fired with floral.

patterns. Surveys of the antique shops in Kensington Church Street failed to unearth any, so Miss Lillie bought some plain door knobs, dipped them in white enamel and painted her own flowers on them. The result amazed her. “Why, bless me. I’m a painter!” she exclaimed. The only art work she had done previously was to draw caricatures of AÍ Capone while attending his Chicago tax evasion trial in 1931.

During the Capone trial the gang chief had winked at her, which she had returned; now the muse of painting had winked. She dashed off and bought oils and canvas and started to make still-life paintings of bouquets. She produced two dozen flower pieces and a small Arizona landscape before “Inside U.S.A.” sequestered all her time. Her only patron as an artist is Robert Goldstein, the Vice-President of Universal-International Pictures, who has a corner on the market of Lillie canvases. Goldstein is an art collector of taste; his apartment walls display works by Marie Laurencin, Raoul Dufy, Mary Cassatt, Edouard Vuillard, Degas and a dozen still life canvases some of which are signed Beatrice Van Gogh. Goldstein gravely asserts that Miss Van Gogh’s work is hung on merit alone. Your art critic has viewed the work and concurs in the connoisseur’s opinion.

The “After Business”

Her taste in clothes is unique. She had her hair cut in an Eton Crop in 1926 and has retained the style ever since. She reverses an inflexible dictum of the international wardrobe by wearing American suits and English evening gowns by Matilda Etches. She initiated the craze for pyjamas for daytime wear in the middle-20’s. Couturiers have declared that she is the perfect woman for slacks. Every show she appeared in up until the 30’s featured a number in which she wore male evening dress which was a hallmark of a Lillie revue.

Miss Lillie says that, “a comedian is a comedian on or offstage.” A gregarious soul, she loves to clown at parties, keeping sophisticated professional friends laughing helplessly with her prodigious comic invention. She has mastered the tools of comedy. She says that the comedian’s art is “an inflexion of the voice, a tilt of the head, a knowing gesture of the hand. They do far more to produce laughs than the import of lines. This comes from experience. Knowing such tricks and artifices is to produce laughs where there are none in the script. It can he traced directly to an inborn sense of the grotesque.” As Alexander Woolcott noted, “She manoeuvres the Seltzer bottle with the casual grace of a lady sitting down to tea.” While beating a dead sketch into life with her bladderful of tricks, she cautions the other actors to look out for her “after business,” before they take up their cues. After business is the coy hackkick, the languid fillip of the hand, the sidelong stare from her bantering eyes, or the tiny shuffle off which turns a mere line into a big laugh. Devoted Lillie fans have watched a dozen consecutive performances of the same material without seeing her perform the same way twice. Audiences inspire her to try different twists; the function of her sketch director is largely to convince her to repeat nuances that brought down the house, instead of inventing toppers all the time.

Her best character hit in “Inside U. S. A.” is “Better Luck Next Time,” a sketch by Moss Hart, in which she portrays the superstitious dressingroom maid to a leading lady on opening night. The flighty maid, who has seen actresses and plays come and go,

tortures the nervous ingenue with predictions of bad luck, squeakings of her Ouija board, and reminiscences of the colossal flops she has heard fall outside the dressing-room door. It is a bit Miss Lillie has taken in her teeth and run with. By the time “Inside U. S. A.” is a month old, Mr. Hart will be a wise parent if he recognizes his own child. He might be the father of “Better Luck Next Time” but the offspring is being raised by mother.

There is a saying attributed to Ferenc Molnar that you could produce a Broadway dramatic hit by hiring

Ingrid Bergman to read the telephont book. If this is the case, you could produce a revue that would outrun it by having Beatrice Lillie recite some pages from “The Statistical Abstract of the United States.” A British reviewer, with unconscious irony perhaps, once wrote a notice for Chariot’s “Masquerade” which sets down the sure-fire formula for a Lillie vehicle. “All of Miss Lillie’s items are separated by songs, lively dancing, music, everchanging scenery, lights and dresses." That’s all you need in addition to Beatrice Lillie. ★