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Wednesday, January 28, 2015

LILI (1953)

Baby-boomers are deservedly fond of this pocket-sized, sentimental musical. Really a semi-musical with just the one song (‘Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo’) and a pair of mini dream-ballets. (Note that M-G-M’s Original Soundtrack ‘lp’ -- see below -- takes up just one side of a 10" disc.*) As for sentimentality; well, it’s pretty tough-minded for kid-friendly fare featuring an attempted rape, a barely averted suicide, plus a girl’s dream of sexual awakening. And that’s just the first act! Leslie Caron is perfectly cast as an orphaned gamine who falls twice: first for Jean-Pierre Aumont’s suave circus magician; then another kind of fall, this time right into Mel Ferrer’s puppet act as a serendipitous naïf interlocutor. From there, we have only to wait for Lili to ‘see’ behind those puppets to hit a happy ending. Yet the series of small revelations experienced in a mere 80 minutes are unexpectedly devastating. There’s real surprise in the amount of emotion coming from Helen Deutsch’s beautifully structured script and Charles Walters’ no-frills helming; it could easily have been a very sticky fable. But with its fine supporting cast and undersold uplift, you’re easily won over by all the care and detail work in here. It keeps beating your expectations: that simple grey painted backdrop for the final ballet; the lack of villains; letting Caron do her own vocals (hurrah!); and truly outstanding portrait work from lenser Robert Planck. Look sharp for a magnificent shot of Caron taken from behind the puppets, framed by the blue tulle of a puppet’s dress as she sings along. Back in the silent days, a close-up like that might have made a career. Especially with Caron perfectly poised between gawky youth and the beauty revealed in GIGI/’58.

LINK: *B’way got around to making a proper musical out of LILI in Bob Merrill’s CARNIVAL. (An early stage direction credit for Gower Champion who stars on Side Two of our LILI ‘lp.’) A forgotten charmer, it was enchantingly revived by NYC’s ENCORES! in 2002 with Brian Stokes Mitchell in the Mel Ferrer role; Douglas Sills, hilarious in the Jean-Pierre Aumont part; Anne Hathaway, fresh out of Juilliard & instantly making a name for herself as Lili; and a fine foursome of puppets from the Muppets Workshop stealing every scene they were in. Especially when they pretended to be reading their lines out of prompt books. Here’s a LINK to a bit of Hathaway live on stage:

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