If Lily Tomlin or Bette Midler or Roseanne Barr had looked into the magic mirror and asked, "Who's the funniest woman of them all?" it wouldn't have answered with any of their names. The funniest woman of them all was Beatrice Lillie. For a long time she was billed as the funniest woman in the world, and nobody sued for false advertising.
Alas, since 1975, when she suffered a stroke, Beatrice Lillie reigned in exile. If she was still funny, the world did not get to see it. When she died Friday at the age of 94, the Canadian-born star everyone had thought of as the epitome of British wit finally and officially surrendered the crown.All the funny women, and many funny men too, owe something to her, and to her quixotic, stately knockabout style. Beatrice Lillie was a dignified woman who did undignified things and made them hilarious. Her humor was inspiringly silly, incongruous, mad, wonderful. She sang nonsense songs like "I Heard My Goldfish Yodeling" and people were convulsed.
Lillie had become a huge star long before television arrived, but as with many other legendary performers, TV vastly extended her audience. She appeared on musical and variety specials with Bob Hope and Bob Newhart and others and, in the early '60s, on "The Jack Paar Program," where Paar played perfect foil.
On one show she told Paar a story about having been at the Savoy Grill while the Germans were buzz-bombing London. Everyone ducked onto the floor, she said, ducking onto the floor to illustrate, and the conversations she recalled hearing were, " `That's my drink; no, that's my drink.'
"All we thought about was our drinks."
In fact, the war took her only son Robert, killed in 1942; she went on to entertain troops, tirelessly. Her husband Sir Robert Peel had died in 1934, leaving her with a title she tended to use self-mockingly: Lady Peel. Paar and others referred to her as Auntie Bea. Whatever one called her, she was uniquely unique, a thoroughly and singularly legendary dame to rank with Dietrich and Garland and Garbo.
As Paar watched, Lillie rose that night to sing one of her songs, one that supposedly detailed her latest and most passionate hobby: "I pick up bits of paper with my toes." She kicked off her shoes and did a languid, lanky soft-shoe, actually soft-shoeless, all about the stage. For unexplainable reasons, it was enchanting.
She was wearing long white gloves and a proper hat. She was, to quote the title of her memoirs, "Every Other Inch a Lady." One would not have called her a comic or a clown. She was a comedienne, and the muse seemed born in her, not something she ever could have learned or adopted. Maybe it was in the genes, maybe in the brain cells; wherever it was, you'll never be able to synthesize it in a lab.
If you could, then every generation would be able to have a Bea Lillie of its own.
To see her in person was inevitably and absurdly memorable. In 1964, she starred on Broadway in "High Spirits," a musical version of Noel Coward's play "Blithe Spirit," about a man haunted by the antic ghost of his dead wife. The man was played by Edward Woodward, now TV's "Equalizer," and Tammy Grimes was the ghost.
Lillie played Madame Arcati, the zany medium who sang an ode to her Ouija board called "Talking to You": "I'm a happy medium, it's true; 'cause I'm happy talking to you."
The song wasn't much-Coward directed the musical but did not do the score-and on the original cast album, one might wonder about its alleged status as a show-stopper. But onstage, Lillie supplemented the song with a dizzy array of crazy moves and dance steps, swooning and swaying, doing encore upon encore as the audience cheered her on.
Her film work was scarce. Anglophiles and lovers of sophisticated comedy cherish her work in "On Approval," made in 1934. Much, much later, she played a rascally landlady who sold flappers into white slavery in the 1967 movie musical "Thoroughly Modern Millie." She gave the film its only laughs.
And in 1956, Lillie was the last of the cameos to be seen in Michael Todd's all-star spectacular "Around the World in 80 Days." Lillie played a slightly berserk revivalist who stopped Phileas Fogg in his tracks as he raced the clock to his London club. "The Devil never sleeps, brethren," Lillie told the crowd gathered around her. "Even now as we stand here, he is hurrying some poor soul to his doom."
Then Fogg (David Niven) rushes by.
Miss Lillie ruled the world stage in an era of richly amusing people, and she had been one of the most amusing of all. She had that "talent to amuse" her friend Coward had written so eloquently about in a song, and perhaps-we probably will never know-she had it in her outlook on life until the very, very end. Heigh-ho, if love were all!