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Fantasy and whimsy are among the most difficult kinds of stories to translate well to film. They require the lightest of touches, or they become cloying. And they also require a very special kind of star. Leslie Caron was one of those stars, and Lili (1953) was that rare fantasy film that worked beautifully.
Lili (Leslie Caron) is a sad and lonely 16-year old orphan who joins a carnival and becomes involved with the members of the troupe: Marc (Jean-Pierre Aumont), a womanizing magician; Rosalie (Zsa Zsa Gabor), his sexy assistant; and Paul (Mel Ferrer), a crippled, embittered puppeteer. Unable to reach out to Lili, Paul can only do so through his puppets. Lili, simple and innocent, responds to the puppets as if they were human friends, and pours out her heart to them.
Lili is based on a 1950 magazine story by Paul Gallico, "The Man Who Hated People," about an anti-social television puppeteer. Gallico drew his inspiration from a then-popular television show, Kukla, Fran, and Ollie, which featured the puppets of Burr Tillstrom. In 1954, the year after Lili was released, Gallico published a reworked version of this story as a novella, Love of Seven Dolls. The setting was changed to a carnival in France, but it was darker in tone than Lili.
Gallico was a prolific author who began as a sports writer, worked as a war correspondent, and wrote nonfiction, children's books, short stories, novels, and screenplays. Among the dozens of films based his work are The Pride of the Yankees (1942), The Clock (1945), The Three Lives of Thomasina (1964), and The Poseidon Adventure (1972).
Leslie Caron was a teenager dancing with Roland Petit's ballet company in Paris when she was seen by Gene Kelly, who chose her as his co-star in An American In Paris (1951). She was signed to an MGM contract, but had not had another role worthy of her talents until Lili. Caron's waifish charm, musical talents, and absolute conviction when acting with the puppets earned her rave reviews, and an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. She lost to another charming waif, Audrey Hepburn, for Roman Holiday (1953).
Although he had directed Caron in An American in Paris, Vincente Minnelli was not impressed by Lili, and decided against directing it. Charles Walters, a reliable veteran of such musicals as Easter Parade (1948) and Summer Stock (1950) was then recruited to helm the project. MGM had no great expectations for Lili, and it was hardly a conventional musical, in spite of a catchy title song, "Hi Lili, Hi Lo," which became a huge hit. But the ads promised, "you'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll love Lili"... and audiences did. So did the critics. The New York Times called it "a lovely and beguiling little film touched with the magic of romance and the shimmer of masquerade." Film Daily placed Lili sixth on "Ten Best" list for 1953. Even the curmudgeonly writer H.L. Menken, who considered movies a waste of time and rarely saw one, was persuaded to see Lili, and loved it. Along with Caron's Best Actress nomination, Lili was nominated for five other Oscars: Director, Screenplay, Cinematography, Art Direction, and Score. Surprisingly, "Hi Lili, Hi Lo" was not nominated for Best Song. Bronislau Kaper's lilting score, however, was the only Oscar winner for the film.
In 1961, Lili became the first film ever to be adapted into a Broadway musical, called Carnival, starring Anna Maria Alberghetti, James Mitchell as the magician, and Jerry Orbach as the puppeteer. It ran for 719 performances.
Director: Charles Walters
Producer: Edwin H. Knopf
Screenplay: Helen Deutsch, based on a story by Paul Gallico
Editor: Ferris Webster
Cinematography: Robert Planck
Costume Design: Mary Ann Nyberg
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Paul Groesse
Music: Bronislau Kaper; song "Hi Lili, Hi Lo," by Kaper and Adolph Deutsch
Principal Cast: Leslie Caron (Lili Daurier), Mel Ferrer (Paul Berthalet), Jean-Pierre Aumont (Marc), Zsa Zsa Gabor (Rosalie), Kurt Kasznar (Jacquot).
C-81m. Closed captioning.
by Margarita Landazuri