Lili (1953) is an American film. An MGM release, it stars Leslie Caron as a touchingly naïve French girl, whose emotional relationship with a carnival puppeteer is conducted through the medium of four puppets. The screenplay by Helen Deutsch was adapted from “The Man Who Hated People,” a short story by Paul Gallico which appeared in the October 28, 1950 issue of The Saturday Evening Post.
It won the Academy Award for Best Music, and was also entered into the 1953 Cannes Film Festival.
Leslie Caron and Mel Ferrer’s rendition of “Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo” was released as a single and became a minor hit, reaching #30 on the pop music charts.
Following the film’s success, Gallico expanded his story into a 1954 novella entitled The Love of Seven Dolls. The film was adapted for the stage under the title Carnival!.
Naive country girl Lili (Leslie Caron) arrives in a provincial town in hopes of locating an old friend of her late father’s, only to find that he has died. A local shopkeeper offers her employment, then tries to take advantage of her. She is rescued by a handsome, smooth-talking, womanizing carnival magician, Marc, whose stage name is Marcus the Magnificent (Jean-Pierre Aumont). Lili is infatuated with him and follows him to the carnival where, on learning that she is 16, he helps her get a job as waitress. Lili is fired on her first night when she spends her time watching the magic act instead of waiting tables. When Lili consults the magician for advice, he tells her to go back to where she came from. Homeless and heartbroken, she contemplates suicide, unaware that she is being watched by the carnival’s puppeteer Paul (Mel Ferrer). He strikes up a conversation with her through his puppets — a brash red-haired boy named Carrot Top, a sly fox, Reynardo, a vain ballerina, Marguerite, and a cowardly giant, Golo. Soon a large group of carnival workers is enthralled watching Lili’s interaction with the puppets, as she is seemingly unaware that there is a puppeteer behind the curtain. Afterwards, Paul and his partner Jacquot (Kurt Kasznar) offer Lili a job in the act, talking with the puppets. She accepts, and her natural manner of interacting with the puppets becomes the most valuable part of the act.
Paul was once a well-known dancer, but suffered a leg injury in World War II. He regards the puppet show as far inferior to his old career, which embitters him. Lili refers to him as “the Angry Man.” Although he falls in love with Lili, he can only express his feelings through the puppets. Fearing rejection due to his physical impairment, he keeps his distance by being unpleasant to her. Lili continues to dream about the handsome magician, wishing to replace his sexy assistant Rosalie (Zsa Zsa Gabor).
Soon, Marcus receives an offer to perform at the local casino and decides to leave the carnival, to the joy of Rosalie, who announces to everyone that she is his wife. Lili is heartbroken and innocently invites Marc to her trailer. His lecherous plans are interrupted by Paul, and he leaves. When Lili finds Marc’s wedding ring in the seat cushions and tries to chase him, Paul stops her, calls her a fool, and slaps her.
Two impresarios from Paris who have been scouting the show come to see Paul and Jacquot. They recognize Paul as the former dancer and tell him that his act with Lili and the puppets is ingenious. Paul is ecstatic about this and the offer but Jacquot tells the agents that they will have to let them know. He then tells Paul that Lili is leaving.
Lili takes the wedding ring to Marc and tells him that every little girl has to wake up from her girlish dreams. She has decided to leave the carnival. On her way out, she is stopped by the voices of Carrot Top and Reynardo, who ask her to take them with her. As they embrace her, she finds they are shaking. She remembers there is somebody behind the curtain and pulls it away to see Paul. Instead of telling her how he feels, he tells her of the agents’ offer. She confronts him about the difference between his real self, seemingly incapable of love, and his puppets. He tells her he is the puppets, a creature of many facets and many flaws. He concludes by telling her, “This is business.” “Not any more,” retorts Lili, who walks away.
Walking out of town, she imagines that the puppets, now life-size, have joined her. As she dances with each puppet in turn, they all turn into Paul. Coming back to reality, Lili runs back to the carnival and into Paul’s arms. They kiss passionately as the puppets applaud.
Leslie Caron – Lili Daurier
Mel Ferrer – Paul Berthalet
Jean-Pierre Aumont – Marc
Zsa Zsa Gabor – Rosalie
Kurt Kasznar – Jacquot
Amanda Blake – Peach Lips
Alex Gerry – Proprietor
Ralph Dumke – Mr. Corvier
Wilton Graff – Mr. Tonit
George Baxter – Mr. Enrique
The New York Times included it in their 2004 Guide to the Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made, as did Angie Errigo and Jo Berry in a 2005 compilation of Chick Flicks: Movies Women Love.
Bosley Crowther, reviewing the movie at its opening, had nothing but praise for the movie, rejoicing that “at last Leslie Caron’s simplicity and freshness… have been captured again in the film.” He showered other encomia on Caron, calling her “elfin,” “winsome,” the “focus of warmth and appeal,” praising her “charm,” “grace,” “beauty,” and “vitality.” He said screenwriter Helen Deutsch had “put together a frankly fanciful romance with clarity, humor, and lack of guile,” and admires the choreographer, sets, music, and title song.
The movie was not universally liked, though; Pauline Kael called it a “sickly whimsy” and referred to Mel Ferrer’s “narcissistic, masochistic smiles.”
Walton and O’Rourke, famous in puppeteering circles, made the puppets. They mostly worked in cabarets and did not appear on television. Lili is the only known filmed record of their work. Walton and O’Rourke manipulated Marguerite and Reynardo, George Latshaw was responsible for Carrot Top, and Wolo handled Golo the Giant. According to Kukla, Fran and Ollie director Louis Gomavitz, Burr Tillstrom was approached to create puppets for the film, but turned it down.
The score was composed by Bronisław Kaper and conducted by Hans Sommer, with orchestrations by Robert Franklyn and Skip Martin. Kaper’s music received the Oscar for “Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture.”
Lyrics for the song “Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo” were written by Helen Deutsch for her previously-published short story “Song of Love.” Kaper’s setting of the song was performed by Caron and Mel Ferrer in the film; the performance was released on record and reached # 30 on the charts.
Four excerpts from the score were first issued by MGM Records at the time of the film’s release. The complete score was issued on cd in 2005, on Film Score Monthly records.