Lili DVD Review: When Is a Musical Not a Musical?

Question: When is a musical motion picture actually not a musical, despite the fact that it contains every cinematic musical element contained within the confines of its short 81-minute runtime? Answer: When it’s Lili. One of many Technicolor MGM romantic dramas with singing added produced during that bodacious period of filmmaking when audiences actually craved such things, Lili tells the tale of a young naïve country French lass named Lili (Leslie Caron, still riding on the success of An American in Paris) who follows a handsome fellow (Jean-Pierre Aumont) around one afternoon after he saves her from a lecherous shopkeeper.

As it turns out, the man is a magician in a traveling carnival — a dapper, eloquent, womanizing magician with an extremely jealous assistant (Zsa Zsa Gabor) and two goofy colleagues: puppeteers Paul (Mel Ferrer) and Jacquot (Kurt Kasznar). Though infatuated with Marcus the Magnificent, Lili’s mere 16 years of age have not yet prepared her for the turmoil puppy love brings with it, so her inexperienced fantasy world doesn’t quite mash with his seasoned one. It’s all irrelevant, of course, as the one true man for Lili is the relatively quiet Paul, who Lili refers to as “the angry man” — a nickname that justly suits him, as Paul used to be a highly-successful dancer before a severe leg injury in WWII canned his career.

And so, Paul attempts to woo the young lass via his puppets (one of whom is named Carrot Top) — something that is far creepier by today’s standards than it probably would have been in 1953 (as is the name Carrot Top). Lili, meanwhile, has long, elaborate musical-esque fantasies about her suitors. Oddly enough, the only song in this non-musical musical is one that is repeated several times, “Hi Lili, Hi-Lo,” is performed by the carnival folk in the picture (and which was a trivial hit for a spell on the music scene), while the dream sequences — where one might expect full-on, lavish productions — are just accompanied by incidental music.

Perhaps director Charles Walters and screenwriter Helen Deutsch simply had enough of the regular formula, and wanted to try something different. They succeeded, of course, and Lili became a popular title for moviegoers (most likely a shitload of young girls who were infatuated with older carnies), only to slip off the radar several decades down the line. Fortunately, the folks at the Warner Archive Collection — much in the same way Jean-Pierre Aumont did at the beginning of the movie — have rescued Lili from an uncertain fate as an anonymous dead body found on the beach and brought it to DVD-R.

The movie is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio with a more-than-adequate mono English soundtrack. Colors are very rich and fanciful all-around, though the movie has that early Technicolor look to it wherein everything looks like a 3D film shown in 2D. Warner has gone the extra mile here by including the movie’s original theatrical trailer as the one and only special feature. Frankly, I’m a bit disappointed they didn’t include a disclaimer warning the audience that there were creepy puppets in the film, or to warn any youngsters that may view the film to not join carnivals for the sake of a schoolgirl crush on its performers.

Oh, well, I’ll get over that, I guess.

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Luigi Bastardo

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