Lili (1953)

12 Nov

lili_film_posterI can’t quite make up my mind about Lili. Is it sweet or a trifle disturbing? Is it a musical or a movie with musical numbers? Is it too short or just not fleshed out by the actors? I’m not even quite sure if I liked it or not. I think I did.

The story is based on a short story by Paul Gallico, which was later turned into a novella while the film was still playing in the theaters. The story is darker, from what I understand, which might account for the feeling that there is something dark beneath the surface of the musical.

Lili (Leslie Caron) is a naive sixteen year old orphan who falls in with a carnival and falls in love with the magician, Marco the Magnificent (Jean-Pierre Aumont), a shameless ladies man who is secretly married to his assistant, Rosalie (Zsa Zsa Gabor), but doesn’t want anyone to know. He gets Lili a job as a waitress at the carnival, but she’s too clumsy (it was funny to see Caron playing a clumsy child, since she is neither clumsy nor a child – she was 21).

But when Lili thinks she must part from Marco and tries to commit suicide, she is prevented by puppeteer Paul Barthelet (Mel Ferrer), who uses his puppets to coax her away from the tall ladder she was going to jump off. There is an instant and charming rapport between her and the puppets and Paul asks her to join his show and their show soon attracts the attention of several important men from Paris who want to take the show out of the carnival.

Paul himself has fallen in love with Lili, but is completely unable to express it. A deeply gloomy and morose man, Paul was formerly a dancer, until his leg was injured during the war (I assume WWII). Now, he is angry at most everything and the only way he can express himself is through his four puppets: Golo the giant, Carrot Top, Marguerite the ballerina and Reynardo the fox.

lili1953_81426_678x380_01252016050229In fact, in a curious way, the heart of the film is between Lili and the four puppets, who she bonds with almost as if they were real, forgetting that Paul is the one behind them. In fact, it is her relationship with the puppets that forms the basis of her romance with Paul, when she finally realizes that everything she loves about the puppets is really coming from Paul.

I have to say, however, that I’m not at all sure how I feel about Mel Ferrer’s performance. He is almost too creepy, a possessive lover just waiting to happen. A bit stiff, too. Leslie Caron, however, seems perfect. She make her naive character relatable and believable as she grows wiser to the world. She also gets a few dances in the film, with the big one being the dream-dance where she comes to realize that behind each puppet she loves is the man she loves.

Jean-Pierre Aumont is also quite convincing as the magician who is all flash, but no substance. One also can’t help but feel for his long-suffering wife, determined to stay with him even though she knows what kind of man he is. It’s hard not to predict a grim future for her.

But on the whole, there is something very charming about the idea behind Lili, though something just doesn’t quite work and I can’t put my finger on what it is The film is only 80 minutes. Did it need to be longer? Know the characters better? Was it Mel Ferrer I found unconvincing? But still, something fairy-tale-ish and charming remains behind. It’s a unique film. It is set in a carnival, which forms the backdrop of the story, but the real world is between Lili and the puppets. A world of affection, gentleness, human frailty and forgiveness, wisdom, vulnerability and perfect trust.

This post was written as part of the At The Circus Blogathon, hosted by Critica Retro and Serendipitous Anachronisms. Be sure to look up all the other great posts!


“Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo” – music written by Bronsilaw Kaper and lyrics by Helen Deutsch.


Posted by on November 12, 2016 in Movies


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26 responses to “Lili (1953)

  1. Summer Reeves

    November 12, 2016 at 4:18 pm

    Hi Christina!, Thanks for your post, I look forward to reading it in depth.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. thoughtsallsorts

    November 12, 2016 at 10:18 pm

    This looks interesting. I’d never heard of it but now would like to watch it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      November 13, 2016 at 1:30 pm

      I wasn’t familiar with it, either, until one day when I was looking up Leslie Caron’s filmography. It’s definitely a unique film and worth a watch…especially if you enjoy Leslie Caron or musicals! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Katrina Morrison

    November 12, 2016 at 11:54 pm

    I know what you mean about this film, Christina…I have tried to watch it several times and I could not get into it. Leslie Caron is charming, but her cheerful and positive pace did not work with Ferrer’s dark and gloomy character. I just didn’t buy it. I might give it another try since you like it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      November 13, 2016 at 1:31 pm

      Yes, you’re right – somehow I don’t quite buy the romance between the two of them. It always seems to come back to that…even though there are many other things I liked about the film.


  4. The Animation Commendation

    November 13, 2016 at 6:19 am

    Haven’t heard about this one.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      November 13, 2016 at 1:33 pm

      I came across it while looking through Leslie Caron’s filmography. I always loved her in Father Goose (with Cary Grant) and her dancing and have been trying to see more of her films.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Patricia Nolan-Hall (@CaftanWoman)

    November 13, 2016 at 9:23 am

    I share your ambivalence toward Lili and have never been able to pin it down to any one thing in particular. Oddly enough, time away from the film makes the memory a charming one. ‘Tis a puzzlement.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      November 13, 2016 at 1:35 pm

      I know what you mean about memory making it more charming. There is something very winning about the story idea – it’s odd how it doesn’t feel like it quite comes together. Is it the cast? Something missing in the story?

      You said it best – “Tis a puzzlement!”


  6. Michaela

    November 13, 2016 at 10:39 am

    I actually really enjoy this film. Leslie Caron is perfection and I like Mel Ferrer’s performance. I think the movie definitely has a dark undercurrent, which makes sense because I think the movie is trying to tell us that life isn’t always fair. These characters aren’t perfect and they’re all living with some kind of pain.

    Some people say this is Charles Walters’s best film; he was even nominated for a Best Director Oscar, the only time the Academy acknowledged him in any capacity, which is a shame. I can’t remember correctly, but I think in the number with Caron, Aumont, and Gabor, Walters subbed in for Aumont for the dancing because the actor was hopeless at it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      November 13, 2016 at 1:49 pm

      That is a great shame he was not more honored and acknowledged! You know, it’s funny how – after discussing Charles Walters with you several days ago – I inadvertently picked a movie that was directed and choreographed by him. I was so excited to see that when I put Lili on. 🙂 The next movie I’m very curious to see is The Glass Slipper, also directed by Walters. Have you seen that one?

      That’s a good point about the dark undercurrents. It has a strong fairy tale feel, but like a fairy tale hovering over a harsher reality. It would be interesting to see it several times and see how it hits me on repeated viewings.


      • Michaela

        November 13, 2016 at 7:31 pm

        I love The Glass Slipper! It is a little offbeat, kind of like Lili, but it’s actually one of my favorite versions of the Cinderella story. I actually wrote about the film when I first started my blog. If you’re interested, you can check it out here:

        (It’s effusive, I know, but there’s just something about The Glass Slipper that I really enjoy, and when I really enjoy something, I tend to babble.)

        Liked by 1 person

        • christinawehner

          November 14, 2016 at 9:20 am

          Offbeat sounds fun! I was watching a clip of the fair godmother helping Caron on with her corset and I had to laugh – it looks so fun.

          Effusive is good! I don’t think there is a better recommendation for a movie than hearing someone tell how much they love it! 🙂

          Thanks for the link!


  7. Le

    November 14, 2016 at 1:58 pm

    I like this film, but I also found Mel Ferrer too bitter. Who could have been a better leading man to Leslie Caron? Paul Newman, maybe?
    Her musical number when the puppets come alive reminded me a lot of The wizard of Oz and the We’re Off to See the Wizard number.
    Thanks for joining us, Christina, it was great to have you among our guests!

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      November 14, 2016 at 8:53 pm

      That’s a good question about who would have been better. Paul Newman would have been interesting. I think I know what you mean about how the dream has a kind of wizard of oz vibe. I liked how they used the dream to show that she really loves him, too.

      Thanks so much for hosting!!


  8. Joe Thompson

    November 14, 2016 at 9:36 pm

    Hi Christina. I agree with your feelings about Lili. It does seem to be a little creepy. I think the problem may be Mel Ferrer, who often played sneering bad guys, as in Scaramouche. He was good in War and Peace, but he played a much more complicated character than any in Lili. I think he may have been a better director than an actor, or at least a leading-man actor. Good essay.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      November 15, 2016 at 1:21 pm

      Thanks! Yes, I think I agree with you about Mel Ferrer in this film. And he didn’t seem to have any chemistry with Leslie Caron, either. I’d forgotten he was in Scaramouche! You’re right – he seemed much more believable as the villain in that one.


  9. RS

    November 14, 2016 at 11:56 pm

    I was a senior in high school when this came out. I was never a big fan of Leslie Caron…from the time I first saw her with Gene Kelly. Went to see this, and as a high school student, found it didn’t move me at all. Thought it seemed like a failed fairy tale. Ferrer was definitely NOT a romantic lead. She seemed unreal…with her puppets. Couldn’t relate. love, Nana

    christinawehner posted: “I can’t quite make up my mind about Lili. Is it sweet or a trifle disturbing? Is it a musical or a movie with musical numbers? Is it too short or just not fleshed out by the actors? I’m not even quite sure if I liked it or not. I think I did. The story”

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      November 15, 2016 at 1:53 pm

      Hi Nana! “A failed fairy tale…” that has a nice alliterative sound to it! 🙂 I’m going to print out a list of all the movies that were released in 1953, so you can show me which ones you saw that year. I’d like to go on a quest to see how many I’ve seen, too.

      I think my very favorite Leslie Caron film is actually Father Goose. Did you see that one when it came out?


  10. Virginie Pronovost

    November 15, 2016 at 6:19 am

    To be honest, I’m not sure if it’s the kind of movie I would like! But of course I really enjoyed your article 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      November 15, 2016 at 1:22 pm

      Thanks! Yes, it is somewhat idiosyncratic. It’s a film that wants to be a fairy tale, but seems like it needs to be something else.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Eric Binford

    November 23, 2016 at 9:30 am

    I think, as you suggested, the problem is Mel Ferrer. First, he is not a very good actor. Very, very bland. He’s kinda cold too (he is everything Caron is not). I think a better actor could have found a way to make the character more likable (e.g. Kirk Douglas was an expert at playing charming heels!). Ferrer’s uninteresting performance in War and Peace was a (huge) problem too. Anyhow, it’s an odd little film. I liked Caron’s performance and the look of the film.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      November 23, 2016 at 1:17 pm

      True, he didn’t seem to be able to convey what the character was feeling inside to offset the outward coldness. I’ve been trying to think who I would have cast instead, but have so far come up empty (I think it’s the fact he’s supposed to be an ex-dancer that’s partly causing that). 🙂 I agree – Leslie Caron is great, though!

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Summer Reeves

    January 8, 2017 at 10:28 pm

    Oh, I always found this film and those puppets so creepy. This is a great post and you articulated what has always bothered me about this film perfectly! Fascinating and well-written post, thank you for your contribution to #AtTheCircus!

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      January 9, 2017 at 9:42 am

      Thanks! And thank you for hosting! It is a rather fascinating film, isn’t it? Especially in how we all react to it. It seems like it presents itself as a charming tale, but then there is this dark undercurrent to it.



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