Friday, January 2, 2015

Charles Walters | Lili

before and after
by Douglas Messerli

Helen Deutsch (screenplay, based on a story by Paul Gallico), Charles Walters (director) Lili / 1953

In 1961, at the age of 14, at a time when I was utterly infatuated with Broadway musical theater, I purchased the MGM Stereo disc to the musical Carnival, staring Anna Maria Alberghetti, James Mitchell, Jerry Orbach and Kaye Ballard. Along with West Side Story, How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying (which opened that same year), and She Loves Me (which appeared a couple of years later), it quickly became one of my favorite of listening experiences. I haven’t heard that now quite-damaged record for decades.
     Although I listened to these recordings and numerous others that I had purchased with my newspaper monies I was supposed to be saving for college, I had seen very few musicals in person, and was forced to simply conjure them up through the extensive liner-notes and the pictures inside the album. You probably couldn’t have been able to convince me that I actually hadn’t seen these productions, so real did my imagination render what was missing. And amazingly, probably in about 1962 or 1963, a production of Carnival was produced in Cedar Rapids at Coe College, which must have been part of a traveling company or, more likely, a student production. To me, witnessing only my second “Broadway” musical (if you exclude high school productions; I’d previously seen an amateur production of the local Cedar Rapids theater company of Damn Yankees), it was almost as magical as the recording—although no one could sing Mira like Alberghetti (as I recount in My Year 2007, I later met Alberghetti at a Los Angeles County Museum of Art event) and there was no man so handsome and sauve in my childhood imagination than James Mitchell as Marco the Magnificent!

     The libretto by Michael Stewart, was based on the movie Lili, with a screenplay by Helen Deutsch. For Christmas this year, I bought a DVD of that 1953 film which Howard and I watched on New Year’s Eve.

     Carnival is certainly a better version of Paul Gallico story. But there is still some charm, along with a great deal of syrupy sentiment in Charles Walters’ rendition of Lili. The story is so slight that it’s hard to imagine that it actually supports the 81 minutes of screen time. A young waif, Lili (Leslie Caron) suddenly appears in a small provincial French town, hoping for a job with a local baker whom her father had known. But the baker has apparently died since she has written him, and his shop is closed. The naïve girl, accordingly, has nowhere to go.

     A next door shopkeeper momentarily takes her in, offering her a bed; but it quickly becomes apparent that he is determined to sexually abuse her. A local carnival magician, Marcus the Magnificent (Jean-Pierre Aumont), visiting the shop in search of handkerchiefs to use in his act, rescues her, and, she, amazed by his magic tricks and handsome demeanor, follows him, along with the carnival’s puppeteer, Paul Berthalet (Mel Farrar) and his partner, Jacquot (Kurt Kasznar), back to the location in which the players are setting up their stands. 
     Unable to get rid of the likeable pest, Marcus arranges a job for her waiting tables at the carnival dining hall; but Lili is so inept at the job and so awestruck by Marcus’ performance with his sequined-gowned assistant, Rosalie (Zsa-Zsa Gabor), that she stops working, her agape, and she is quickly fired. Depressed by her lack of future possibilities, the young girl is almost suicidal until nearby puppets, one by one, call out to her, and engage her in conversation. The young engaging boy puppet, Carrot Top, along with his friends, the thieving fox Reynardo, the cowardly giant Golo, and the vain ballerina Marguerite, engage Lili in a conversation, she responding so naturally and innocently to them that a crowd gathers round to watch their interchanges, the slightly bitter puppeteer realizing that Lili is a natural draw for his show.

     Paul and Jacquot offer her a place to sleep and a share of their sales; and after a few days she and the puppets grow to be such a hit that agents from another show are drawn to visit the “act.”

     Over these few days of her employment, Lili gradually discovers from Joacquot that Paul is bitter because he had been a great dancer, whose career was suddenly destroyed by an accident which crippled him. Still, Paul, who spends much of his time drinking and sourly commenting on the world around him, frightens the young girl, who, like the child she still is, does not quite connect the friendly puppets with whom she enjoyably communicates are being manipulated and voiced by Paul.

    A visit in Lili’s trailer from Marcus, clearly attracted to the budding young beauty, further infuriates Paul, as he attempts to explain to Lili that, in her innocence, she is encouraging a sexual relationship with the intruder. When he finds Paul wedding ring on the couch, he slaps the girl, insisting that she is determined to become a whore. 
     Meanwhile, Marcus and Rosalie, to whom Paul is secretly married, have been offered a venue elsewhere and plan to leave; Lili, now recognizing that he and his assistant are married, pays Marcus one last visit, apologizing for her childish infatuation with him and telling him that she now plans to leave the circus.     Two  impresarios, who have been watching Paul, Jacquot, and Lili’s performances, praise Paul’s talent and offer the puppeteer and his company a better situation. As Lili prepares to leave, the puppets attempt to lure her back. She briefly returns to them to say goodbye, but cannot be talked out of departing, and soon returns to the road, dashing Paul’s plans for a new life.

    As she leaves the city behind, she is suddenly joined by her four puppet friends, who have suddenly grown to adult-size creatures, each of whom dance with her in a ballet-dream sequence that reminds one a bit of a fantastical scenes out of Fellini films. In this final encounter with her imaginary friends, Lili suddenly realizes that what truly existed behind their words was a loving (but very human—sometimes selfish, vain, and even cruel) Paul. As a suddenly grown-up woman, Lili rushes back to the carnival.
     Even if we have been thoroughly engaged by the somewhat magical theatrics of this tale, and enchanted, at moments by Caron’s performance—which The New York Times critic Bosley Crowther lavished with adjectives such as “elfin,” “winsome,” “gracious,” “charming,” “vital,” etc.—we can’t help but doubt that, as a suddenly grown woman, Lili can again return to the totally innocence engagement with her puppet friends upon her return. It is the man behind them she now desires, and, in that fact, surely the magic spell of theater will have been broken. If she continues to enact her previous role, she will now do so as an actor.
     Will Paul, now that he perhaps realizes that his real gift is puppetry rather than dancing, be able to contain all of those contrary aspects of self (Carrot Top, Golo, Reynardo, and Marguerite) within him? Has Lili unmasked his personae, forcing him to now become simply the loving and kind man in is at heart? 
     Now that the carnival has clearly gone out of business, will these individuals be able to continue such daringly genuine-seeming performances? We can only fear that that the element of utter belief and wonderment has been consumed by desire, that art has been replaced by life. And in that recognition, we also realize just how much pretense was necessary to move our hearts throughout this film from the very beginning. Art, in short, is consumed in Lili by the real. And reality, in turn, makes all that preceded it somewhat childish, awkward, gangly, even kitsch., Caron, with her saucer-large eyes reminds us at moments of the wide-eyed, crying Keane paintings of lowbrow collectors? There is something slightly embarrassing, accordingly, about the whole sentimental fable which we’ve just experienced. And all of this helps to reiterate those many uncomfortable moments when we sense that the men surrounding Lili are about to reveal the work’s pedophilic propensities, while the alcoholic rages of Paul hint at the possibility of a truly brutal abuse. Perhaps it’s no accident that we’re never permitted to witness Lili’s reunion with puppeteer and the figures he’s manipulated to get her love.
    If Carnival is a superior work, it is perhaps because the stage musical, in its presentation of the more lurid aspects of the carney-life—evidenced in scenes with the Incomparable Rosalie (Kay Ballard) and the circus proprietor B. F. Schlegel (Henry Lascoe) singing “Humming,” and in the hammy self-preening ballad sung by Marco the Magnificent (James Mitchell) “Sword, Rose, and Cape”—Bob Merrill’s musical displayed the seedy reality of this fly-by-night circus in opposition to Lili’s distorted view of it. In the musical we know, right up front, that, despite Lili’s desires for “Everything to be the same” as in her remembered childhood in Mira, everything thereafter will be different, while Walters Lili pretends things always stay the way they were before.

Los Angeles, January 2, 2015

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