With Christmas on the horizon, I thought I’d offer up a film that makes the season bright. While not a holiday movie per say, it’s easy on the eyes, and a joy to watch.
I was just a small child when I first saw Lili, a warm and cozy film starring a very young and lovely French ballerina named Leslie Caron. With a dancer’s body and pixie-like look, she had many of the same physical qualities American audiences had grown to love in Audrey Hepburn.
Caron had made An American in Paris, and would go on to make several more films in the next few years, the most notable of which was M-G-M's GiGi.
Adopted for the screen by Helen Deutsch (National Velvet, I’ll Cry Tomorrow) from a short story by Paul Gallico, and filmed in glorious Technicolor—a major selling point in 1953, Lili was and still is a beautiful statement in simplicity: with a modest pastel pallet, simplistic Golden Book-like sets and costumes, and a plot to match.
It’s the story of a French teenager whose father has passed away, leaving her with no living relatives. What she does have, is the name and address of his old and trusted friend: a baker who had assured him that he would take Lili in, should the need arise.
But when her father dies, Lili’s letters to his friend go unanswered. Not knowing what else to do, she packs a small suitcase and sets out to find him, only to discover that he too has passed away.
Alone in a strange town, and with no money to keep her going, Lili enters a dry goods store, where the shopkeeper offers her a job as a salesgirl in exchange for bed and board. Alas, his intentions quickly prove to be more than a bit dishonorable, and when Lili rebukes his advances, he sends her on her way.
It is here that opportunity knocks, or at least walks in the door in the form of a dashing magician named Marc (Jean-Pierre Aumont), or as he refers to himself, "Marcus the Magnificent”. Part of a traveling carnival, Marc has come for a bit of wine and a few handkerchiefs, but seeing Lili’s plight, intervenes long enough for her to retrieve her belongings and make her get-away.
Rejoining circus pals Jacquot (Kurt Kasznar) and his partner Paul (Mel Ferrer) outside the shop, Marc heads back to the midway, only to find that Lili has been following them through the streets of town and onto the carnival's midway like a puppy dog.
In a world of over-produced sets and scenarios, the glitz, crowds and noise of a real carnival would take away from the sweet simplicity of the story. But in this 1953 production, there is no attempt at realism. The colors are soft and inviting, the sets are devoid of clutter, and the characters and plot are clearly drawn.
And so, with nothing to get in the way of the story, we quickly learn that Marc has a roving eye, and more than a working relationship with his assistant, Rosalie (a young and curvaceous Zsa Zsa Gabor, seen here at the peak of her beauty). But he also has a conscience, and understands that Lili is a very young and innocent sixteen, dangerously under-age, and more than a bit vulnerable. Displaying unusual valor and restraint, he trades a kiss on the cheek for a promise to help her secure some type of employment within the confines of the circus.
The result: a job as a waitress in the midway's cabaret, where Marc and Rosalie perform on stage to a packed crowd of winers and diners. Inept at her job and mesmerized by Marc's slight of hand, she forgets to wait tables, however poorly, and is once again relieved of her job, and sent on her way.
Later that evening, long after the carnival has shut down for the night, a despondent Lili is alone with her thoughts. Setting aside her suitcase, purse and her father’s treasured time piece, she begins to climb a nearby high wire ladder towards what we must assume will be a swift and irreversible solution to her problems.
Not far away, Fererr’s puppeteer takes it all in, and in an uncharacteristically compassionate gesture, calls upon his puppets to lure her down from the ladder and over to their small stage.
Lili is immediately drawn to the puppets. Naive for her years—even by 1953 standards, she talks to them as if they were living breathing confidants, effortlessly conversing with the foxy Renaldo, an egocentric ballerina named Marguerite, Golo the shy giant, and a red-headed boy named Carrot Top.
It is a sweet, child-like exchange, where Lili is drawn into the conversation, finding a life-line in the most unexpected of places. In no time at all, they are talking, confiding and singing the film’s theme song (also written by Deutsch) as a growing crowd of circus folk looks on. Those of you who are old enough to remember this film, will no doubt recall the lyrics to this cheerful ditty, and find yourself singing along with Lili and her friends…
“The song of love is a sad song,
Hi -Lili, Hi-Lili, Hi-low…”
Behind the curtain, the embittered World War II vet speaks for the puppets, his fingers enabling them to bow, dance and play patty-cake with the young girl. But make no mistake; the puppeteer is nothing like the puppets he manipulates, a war wound having ended his once lauded career as a dancer. The Paul we meet beyond the puppet stage is, in his own words, “self-absorbed and disenchanted”, with little time or tolerance for anyone, including Jacquot and the new arrival. His only interest in her is (at least at first) purely professional. Lili is good for business.
“We’re going to change the act and play it for adults.” he tells her. “You’ll go walking by, wearing that dress. Hair just as it is. The puppets will stop you and speak to you. After that you’ll just answer whatever the puppets happen to say—the way you did tonight.”
And so it is that Lili’s life takes a turn for the better, with a real job, a new home, a warm bed, and a passel of not-quite human but very dear friends. In time, she will also find love.
As you might expect, the new act is an instant crowd-pleaser, with Lili talking, singing and sharing confidences with the puppets, just as she did instinctively on that first night. She will grow up quickly here, as she follows her heart, and dusts off another.
Though, at first glance, Lili may appear to be a children’s film, there are some decidedly adult themes coursing through it. While extremely tame compared to today’s R-rated films, it still deals with adult subjects, which you may deem to be inappropriate for younger audiences. I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether it is age-appropriate for your family.
Aside from the plot, you might also want to take into account the fact that its pace is far slower and less frenetic than the films of today – too slow perhaps, for a generation raised on and accustomed to current crash-and-burn, mile-a-minute editing. Then again, maybe(hopefully) not.
In The Cutting Edge, a documentary about film editing, Stephen Spielberg and Martin Scorsese—two of the most lauded directors of our time—mourn the loss of the indulgent take, and yet they understand that people who have grown up watching music videos and computer games have the ability to grasp a situation far quicker than their parents and grandparents ever could, or can. Watching a stagnant screen where the actors do all of the work, bores them. Which begs the question: Is Lili old hat or old gold? To use a well-worn phrase, it’s all in the eye of the beholder.
If you are of an old-school frame of mind, or willing to take a trip back in time, I urge you to return to the if-not-thrilling days of yesteryear, than at least the simpler ones, where the music was sweet, the words discernible, the heroines chaste and the plot easy to follow.
Not quite a musical in the 1950s-Oklahoma/South Pacific/Seven Brides for Seven Brothers sense, where the actors break out in song at every turn, Lili is never-the-less musical. Though a brief dream-like dance sequence designed to showcase Ms. Caron’s way with ballet appears a bit dated to say the least, its catchy title tune and ‘noteworthy’score, including a wonderfully whimsical piece laid under Marc’s magic act, more than make up for it.
Warmly received by audiences and critics alike, the film advanced several careers. Bronislau Kaper would take home an Oscar for Best Music Score of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture, with nominations going out to Caron and Deutsch, director Charles Walters, cinematographer Robert Planck, Art Directors Cedric Gibbons and Paul Groessee, and set decorators Edwin B. Willis and Arthur Krams.
I think it’s safe to say that a film like Lili would never be green-lighted today. So simple is its dialogue, and so slight its plot, it wouldn’t stand a chance against the multi-billion dollar blockbusters and off-beat Indie films that have taken over your local cinemaplex. How lucky for us that it is available on DVD, where its talented cast, clever Walton and O’Rourke’s puppets, Bronislaw Kaper’s Oscar-winning score, and the movie’s picture-perfect costumes and sets continue to delight ladies and gentleman and children of all ages.
A final note: Both Deustsch and Lili would find their way to Broadway in 1961. A full-fledged musical, the newly-dubbed Carnival! starred Anna Maria Alberaghetti as the winsome waif. Though producer David Merrick would eventually replace Deutsch with theater veteran Michael Stewart (Bye Bye Birdie), she still managed to garner two Tony nominations for her part in the resulting libretto.