Lili (DVD Review)22 Oct, 2012 By: Mike Clark
Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
Stars Leslie Caron, Mel Ferrer, Jean-Pierre Aumont, Zsa Zsa Gabor.
Leaving aside her brief professional reinvention with a Best Actress Oscar nomination for the Brit unwed pregnancy drama The L-Shaped Room in 1963, Leslie Caron’s career is substantially based on three hits at MGM in the ’50s and, if you like, Joshua Logan’s saccharine/Hollywood-ized hit take on Marcel Pagnol’s French staple Fanny (1961). Of the Metro’s, An American in Paris and Gigi (both directed by Vincente Minnelli) took Best Picture Oscars. The third, Lili, wasn’t nominated for best picture but did get director Charles Walters a nom. It was a fairly substantial hit that no one expected — helped, no doubt, by the memorable “Hi-Lili Hi-Lo” title tune. Tastes change, and movies that were once “players” lose their reps, but it’s still kind of surprising that Lili never came out in the home entertainment catalog-title heyday that predated “made-to-order.”
I still like it — and per Andrew Sarris in his Walters entry for The American Cinema, so did the movie-hating iconoclast H.L. Mencken when the famed essayist (the one Gene Kelly does a fictionalized takeoff on in Inherit the Wind) was cajoled into seeing it late in his life. It’s a delicate little thing with lush MGM Technicolor that needs a memorable fantasy production number at the end just to reach the 81-minute mark. As with many movies, there’s a lot to be said for quitting while you’re ahead.
Adapted by Helen Deutsch from a Paul Gallico story that had a television setting, Lili is set in a carnival — and, in fact, it was later turned into an early ’60s Broadway musical, Carnival was the title, and it won a Tony for lead Anna Maria Alberghetti. No one was ever able to sex up Alberghetti for the movies very much, but Caron was another story. Lili plays into the child-woman part of her persona that the two Minnelli Oscar-winners mined as well — the “woman” half defined here by a hot-cha! dream sequence about half-way through the picture in which the waif Caron plays suddenly transforms herself into a babe in torrid evening-ware, competing via dance with a supposedly flashier type (Zsa Zsa Gabor) for the affections of the latter’s husband (a philandering magician played by Jean Pierre Aumont). As we all know from the get-go, Caron/Lili should be matched up with Mel Ferrer’s puppeteer — a now lame former dancer who has understandably turned bitter and now channels his nicer side through the carnival puppets whose voicings he controls. Don’t take bets that she won’t see the error of her ways.
MGM didn’t bring out Lili until a year after production, though it turned out to be one of just a few interesting pictures (and most of these were musicals) that emerged from the early MGM reign of production chief Dore Schary, who succeeded Louis B. Mayer. It took off to the tune of an Oscar win for best scoring and five additional nominations: for Caron, Walters, Deutsch, color cinematography and art/set decoration. Yet after a March New York opening, MGM didn’t put in general release until July, and my hometown movie palace (nearly 3,000 seats) didn’t get it until late August, when the short running time mandated an acid-head pairing typical of the day: in a double bill with the Dan Dailey baseball drama: The Kid from Left Field (a pairing I’d certainly pay to see this afternoon).
Two pulchritudinous footnotes are probably worthy of mention. One is that for all the jokes made about her, Zsa Zsa was a factor in two major movies of the period: Lili and John Huston’s Moulin Rouge (before long, though, it would be Country Music Holiday and the immortal Queen of Outer Space). The other is that the first of Lili’s two fantasy sequences didn’t lie: at the very least until 1995’s wonderful Funny Bones, when she was 64, Caron still looked pretty hot on screen.