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What does the phrase "smiling to beat the band" mean?

In Vera Farmiga's new film Higher Ground, a character describes her uneasiness with door-to-door religious solicitors in this way: "Really nice, but in a creepy way. Too nice. It's like they're smilin' to beat the band."

What does that phrase mean?

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Beat the band is an idiom for to the greatest possible degree.

It's like they're smiling as big as can be.

It's another form of "to beat all", akin to "that beats everything".

From the American Heritage Dictionary in Dictionary.com:

Idioms & Phrases
to beat the band

Also, to beat all. To the greatest possible degree. For example, The baby was crying to beat the band, or *The wind is blowing to beat the band , or *John is dressed up to beat all . This idiom uses beat in the sense of "surpass." The first term may, according to one theory, allude to a desire to arrive before the musicians who led a parade, so as to see the entire event. Another theory holds that it means "make more noise than (and thereby beat) a loud band." [Colloquial; late 1800s]

It has another meaning as well, which is not used in your example:

to beat the band
very briskly; very fast. He's selling computers to beat the band since he started advertising. She worked to beat the band to get ready for this.

  • Fascinating! Thanks for the thorough response, much appreciated! – Michael Sep 4 '11 at 3:19

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