ON APPROVAL, a British drawing room comedy from 1944, has just been released on Blu-ray. At a glance, this film would seem to be Clive Brook’s showpiece, since he produced, directed and co-stars. He also adapted Frederick Lonsdale’s smash hit play from 1926.
But the truth is that ON APPROVAL does not belong to Clive Brook. The film project was co-opted by his co-star, the legendary musical comedy star Beatrice Lillie. Born in 1894 in Canada, she made her London debut in 1914. She played in a host of revues and musical comedy shows for more than seven decades, and was at home amongst Britain’s elite—from Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence to Winston Churchill. In 1920, she married Lord Robert Peel, 5th Baronet, and was very pleased to use the moniker of Lady Peel when the right circumstances arose.
Bea Lillie was an eccentric comedienne who rose to fame singing such ditties as “There Are Fairies at the Bottom of Our Garden” and “Get Yourself a Geisha.” Her stage performances are still talked about by those old enough to remember them. As for my own memories of Bea Lillie, I saw her onstage on Broadway in HIGH SPIRITS, the musical adaptation of Noel Coward’s BLITHE SPIRIT, in 1964. Her performance as Madame Arcati was so dazzling and off-the-wall funny that she stopped the show. It was the first and only time I ever have witnessed the power of a performer to connect so emotionally with her audience that the play fell to pieces for a time, and the audience wanted only Bea Lillie.
She never really clicked as a movie star, and her appearances in films were infrequent. That is why ON APPROVAL on Blu-ray is such a treat. As the character of Mrs. Wislack, she triumphs as a comically overpowering woman who is interviewing a potential husband by dragging him and two other friends to a remote water-bound Scottish estate. As soon as she appears on screen, her co-stars, Googie Withers, Roland Culver, and Clive Brook, take back seats. In each scene, she is masterful, driving, brittle and always very funny.
Bea Lillie also can be seen on DVD in a very fine silent film from 1926 called EXIT SMILING, where she plays opposite Jack Pickford, brother of Mary Pickford. For more modern audiences, she is best remembered as the demonically comical white-slaver Mrs. Meers in THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE from 1967. However, I must admit that her talents are underutilized here. And that is a shame.
There are certain performers, big stars, who earned their fame on the stage but whose talents survive only through their filmed roles. Bea Lillie is one. Al Jolson is another. Fannie Brice is a third. These performers had star quality, and it showed most luminously in live theater performances. Audiences today have only the performances that were recorded. That is why ON APPROVAL is a film to be celebrated. At least we have that much to keep of the fabulous Beatrice Lillie!
Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She teaches film studies at the University at Albany and has co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.
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