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Lili (1953)

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!

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

 
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Posted by on November 12, 2016 in Movies

 

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The Man With a Cloak (1951)

themanwithacloakIt’s difficult to know exactly what to call The Man in a Cloak. It’s not a mystery, it’s not a Gothic thriller, or a romance or a drama. It’s sort of a gaslight crime drama…except no crimes are ever actually committed…just skirted around. In fact, not much of anything happens.

Madeline Minot (Leslie Caron) arrives in New York from Paris in 1848 (a year of multiple revolutions throughout France, the Italian peninsula, the Hapsburg Empire and Prussia ). She is the fiance of a French revolutionary who is estranged from his Bonepartist grandfather, Charles Thevenet (Louis Calhern). She has come to ask that Thevenet leave his vast fortune to his grandson, who is in dire need of the money for his cause.

But Thevenet is not sympathetic to his grandson’s cause, though he is a sucker for a pretty face. But he also seems to owe his servants. It’s a peculiar arrangement. Lorna Bounty (Barbara Stanwyck) is an ex-mistress, sort of housekeeper, companion, and she has been living with him for ten years, along with the butler, Martin (Joe De Santis), who looks more like an ex-thug, and the cook, Mrs. Flynn (Margaret Wycherly). They are all waiting for Thevenet to die and do not welcome the intrusion of a pretty face to steal their fortune.

In the meantime, Madeline receives unexpected help from a mysterious stranger/poet (Joseph Cotten) who calls himself “Dupin” and spends most of his time getting drunk.

It’s an interesting premise, but somehow the film never quite jells or goes anywhere dramatically. We don’t even get a proper murder. There’s a lot of talk about danger and evil, but nothing very dreadful occurs. Mostly, it is a struggle with Lorna and the servants against Madeline and Dupin, each trying to ensure that Thevenet leaves their side the money.

I think the The Man in the Cloak is more interesting for the story it doesn’t tell than the story it does. Who are these three people, living together in the house for ten years, obviously from very different backgrounds, who don’t even like each other? Lorna was Thevenet’s mistress, once a star, but clearly seems to believe that he owes her for all he took from her. We don’t know how Martin and Mrs. Flynn came to work for him, but one cannot help but think there is a story there, too.

Lorna basically runs the house and I have to admit that it tickled my funny bone at the thought of a house full of evil domestics. Martin clearly hates Lorna, but can’t help desiring her at the same time. Lorna barely tolerates him, often mocks him and can’t stand the way he slurps his tea. Mrs. Flynn is always laughing at both of them. They are only united in their hatred for Thevenet and desire for his money.

On the other hand, Madeline feels sorry for Thevenet, but it feels misplaced, because Thevenet clearly committed many dark deeds in pursuit of his fortune. To be honest, it was hard for me even to cheer for Madeline to win the money. Perhaps I’m simply biased in Barbara Stanwyck’s favor, but Madeline’s fiance really had no more right to the money than anyone else.

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Leslie Caron, Louis Calhern, Barbara Stanwyck, Joseph Cotten

There are also some interesting parallels drawn that are never fully explored, especially between Dupin and Thevenet. Both men are drinking themselves ill, both men are suckers for Madeline’s pretty innocence, both are conscious of being rather disreputable, and both have people after them for their money. Except that Dupin has no money and Thevenet has too much. But both owe something which they do not repay.

Ultimately, Dupin’s character doesn’t seem quite dark enough. The film isn’t dark enough. Even Lorna seems rather cool about losing everything in the end. One can’t help but wonder what it all adds up to. Though perhaps that’s the point. The irony is that the money the Bonepartist Thevenet sentimentally leaves to his revolutionary grandson will help form the Second Republic that is taken over by Napoleon III in 1851.

The cast, however, is excellent, which makes one wish the film had been better. It is a great idea that is never developed. Leslie Caron seems somewhat overshadowed, but that’s not her fault so much as the plot’s. Barbara Stanwyck is the real force in the film…along with Louis Calhern. It’s unique…worth a look if you are into gaslight dramas or are a fan of Barbara Stanwyck.

 
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Posted by on November 1, 2016 in Movies

 

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Gigi (1958)

22f11555026If I had a time machine and could go anywhere at all, I would go back to the opening night of My Fair Lady in 1956. My Fair Lady has what is for me one of the most glorious, exhilarating, beautiful, even magical, scores of any musicals. However, while My Fair Lady was enjoying its sensational run on Broadway, the composer Frederick Loewe and lyricist Alan Jay Lerner came to Hollywood and helped turned Colette’s novella Gigi into a musical.

The stories are so similar, it’s almost impossible not to compare the two. Critic Bosley Crowther even joked that Gigi “bears such a basic resemblance to My Fair Lady that the authors may want to sue themselves.” The first time I saw it, my reaction was tepid. The music just never seemed to take off and soar like it does in My Fair Lady. However, on viewing it a second time, I have to admit that as a movie, Gigi might be more successful than the later 1964 film adaptation of My Fair Lady. Vincente Minnelli directed, some filming was done in Paris and on the whole it feels far more fluid and attractive than the more stage-bound and slightly stiff My Fair Lady (which I still watch frequently because it’s the closest I’ll ever get to the opening night in 1956 and I really shouldn’t complain).

The story occurs during the turn of the century in Paris. Gigi (Leslie Caron) is being raised to be a courtesan by her grandmother, Mamita (Hermione Gingold), and Aunt Alicia (Isabel Jeans). Meanwhile, Gaston Lachaille (Louis Jourdan) is wealthy and bored, while his uncle, Honore Lachaille (Maurice Chevalier), seems to love every minute of his life as a roue. The only people Gaston feels like he can relax with is Gigi and Mamita…until he realizes that Gigi’s no longer a child and he offers to make her his mistress.

When I watched Gigi this second time, it struck me that though the musical is called Gigi, it’s not really about her as much as it is Gaston (though I suspect that is not the case in the novella). Gigi seems like an enigma to me. We never find out why she’s like she is – unaffected, innocent despite being trained up as a courtesan, dissatisfied with the prospect of being a courtesan and playing the games of love. What makes her so different? Was it her grandmother’s doing?

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Louis Jourdan, Leslie Caron, Maurice Chevalier, Hermione Gingold

Hermione Gingold as Madame Alvarez – “Mamita”-  provides an unexpected center and heart for the film, suggesting all sorts of depths of character. She’s savvy, has a sense of humor, knows how to ingratiate herself with men, even Gaston. She was, after all, a professional courtesan, though she doesn’t seem to have made out as successfully as her very wealthy sister Alicia. Was she, perhaps, not as hard-core as her sister? Alicia is the one who really preaches to Gigi about pleasing men and making sure you get the right kinds of jewels from one’s lovers and so on.

But Mamita, after all these years, seems to harbor a soft spot for Honore Lachaille, though he was untrue to her while they were together, and carries a touch of sadness and wistfulness. Life didn’t really give her all that she wanted, it seems. And she lets her daughter work in opera, even though she cannot sing. Whatever makes her daughter happy, apparently. Ultimately, Mamita has the same approach with Gigi. They seem to be an unorthodox bunch.

I have not seen Louis Jourdan in much (except in the beautiful Letter From an Unknown Woman), but he evidently did all his own singing, somewhat in the style of Rex Harrison. Initially, when we meet his character, he seems like a crank. He’s “bored” with everything, while his uncle, Honore, finds so much to enjoy in life. However, as the story progresses, one begins to understand why Gaston is so bored and to feel less sympathy with Honore’s attitude towards life and women.

Gaston pretty much does what everyone tells him to do – especially Honore – and what society expects of him. Ironically, the film shows how a promiscuous society can be just as much a prison as excessive puritanism, with its own rules and codes of conduct. Gaston hops from mistress to mistress, without love or affection. He must defend his “honor,” pretend to be a cheerful bon vivant and at all costs never appear ridiculous. Why? Because that’s what everyone does and he hasn’t yet realized that he neither needs nor wants to live that way.

The best songs in the film, in my opinion, are the ones that Gaston sings. They reveal his character and show his inner thoughts and how he comes to understand himself better – especially in the song “Gigi” when he realizes that he loves her. Lerner and Loewe seem especially good at using music this way. They do the same thing in My Fair Lady when Professor Higgins sings that he’s “grown accustomed to her face.” And the songs are long enough to make the transformations feel plausible.

leslie caron & louis jourdan - gigi 1958I was watching a video on youtube recently, where a film editor explained that emotions take time and film editors have to take that into account and not rush the scene along. What Lerner and Loewe do is use music and song to give us that time. Those moments, for me, are some of the most compelling in Gigi.

One of the best scenes is when Gaston realizes that Gigi has grown up and he loves her – something that comes as a complete shock to him because it never before occurred to him that she was someone he could love (like how we put certain people off-limits for ourselves. It doesn’t occur to people to love siblings or cousins because it is not really an option. It’s partly a social construct, a mental block we put up. Gaston discovers that he doesn’t need to have that mental block about Gigi).

The other song is between Honore and Mamita, as they sit and reminisce. It’s such a gentle song, witty and amusing, but with a touch of sadness and a layer of irony. Honore clearly does harbor fond memories of Mamita, but the lovely things he tells her (like how he loved her so much he had to have an affair with another women to remind him that he was not the marrying kind) sound so nice we want to believe them, but it is clear that Mamita does not, but she harbors no rancor towards him.

I still can’t entirely decide what I feel about this movie. It’s charming, I like it, the story is intriguing, but the music never quite captures my imagination the same way that My Fair Lady does. My Fair Lady is sheer exhilaration. The acting in Gigi is good. I was especially impressed with Louis Jourdan and Hermione Gingold this time around. Perhaps the greatest mark of its affect on me is that I would like to watch it again and give the movie a chance to grow on me, because I suspect I will like it the more I see it.

 
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Posted by on June 10, 2016 in Movies

 

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