…In relentless pursuit of all performances nominated and won!
Those of you familiar with the musical Carnival will already be acquainted with the narrative for Lili, the whimsical 1953 MGM film upon which the musical was based. It stars a young, petite, and beautiful Leslie Caron in her very first Oscar-nominated performance. The story is quaint, dated and corny at times, but nonetheless still holds up for an entertaining coming-of-age frolic, and it is also a feast for the eyes, colorfully and wonderfully filmed.
Lili Daurier (Caron) arrives in a small town in France, suitcase in hand, while a touring carnival is in residence. Her father, who was a watchmaker, has recently passed away, and she is coming to this town to find lodging and employment with a friend of his, who runs a bakery. Unfortunately, Lili finds out upon her arrival that the friend, too, has passed away a month prior and his bakery is closed. Young, innocent, and impressionable, with no place to lay her head for the night, poor Lili is in danger of being taken immense advantage of – which almost happens when a man who runs a neighboring shop offers to hire her, then attempts to seduce her. One of the carnival’s top acts, Marcus the Magnificent (Jean-Pierre Aumont), ventures into the store at the time and Lili is saved. Marc takes her under his wing (he is a ladies’ man himself) and introduces her to the carnival crowd. She is hired as a waitress, but fails to perform the duties of the job adequately and is fired (she was too enraptured with Marc’s performance). She forlornly contemplates suicide, but is saved by the voice of a puppet from the puppet booth – Carrot Top – who talks her down from the ladder and engages her in a little puppet show with his puppet co-horts Reynardo, Maguerite, and Golo the Giant. The puppeteer behind these acts is Paul Berthalet (Mel Ferrer), who was once a famous dancer during the war, but now due to a leg injury has taken the job with the carnival as master puppeteer as he is no longer able to dance. As a result, he has turned cold, embittered, and hard-hearted – and makes no bones about showing this to the world around him. Lili comes to refer to him as “the Angry Man”.
Lili’s charming moment with the puppets is noticed by a gathering crowd, and Paul and his assistant Jacquot (Kurt Kaszner) take Lili on as part of the act. They enjoy great success, but over time, Lili’s infatuation with Marc – who is, in fact, married to his act partner, Rosalie (Zsa Zsa Gabor) – irritates Paul to the point of confronting Lili and calling her (basically) an idiotic, young fool. Paul has obviously fallen in love with Lili, but can only express hints at his feelings through his puppets. Furious at Paul and newly distressed when Lili finds out Marc and Rosalie are, indeed, married and are leaving the carnival to do lounge acts instead, Lili prepares to flee the town. At the same time, Paul finds out that two talent scouts from Paris are interested in the act, but Jacquot warns Paul of Lili’s flight. Again, Paul attempts to woo Lili back through Carrot Top, which almost succeeds until Lili pulls back the curtain to reveal an emotional, but still stony-faced, Paul, puppets in hand. Lili confronts Paul with the stark reality of his cold-heartedness and incapacity to love versus the warmth and acceptance of his puppets, who are not real. He retorts that each one of his puppets are – in fact – him; that they all possess certain traits of his own. Unyielding, Lili leaves him. On the road, she dreams of a colorful and beautifully choreographed ballet in which she dances with the 4 puppets, now life-size, who each gradually morph into Paul. It’s a very sweet and magical touch to the close of the film. Lili – by many accounts now more mature and wiser to the ‘ways of the world’ since the beginning of the story – realizes that what Paul said about being each one of the puppets himself is true. She makes the ultimate decision to return to the carnival, and lovingly rushes into Paul’s arms. The puppets, peeking around the corner of the booth, applaud as “The End” appears across the screen.
Please forgive the synopsis and potential spoiler for those of you who have never see the film; upon reading it, however, I’m sure you will admit the plot is rather predictable. Still, Charles Walters, as director, does an admirable job bringing Lili’s bright and charming story to life on screen, and at its heart, Leslie Caron does an admirable job. She is sweet, naïve, and touching as the little, lost 16-year-old gamine just trying to find her place in the world. Coming up against cruelty and hatred isn’t something she bargains for, and Caron relates this with sweet, innocent grace and polish. It’s a short film (running at only 81 minutes), but in that small space of time, Caron squeezes in enough acting chops to show a progression of maturity through her interactions with Paul. Mel Ferrer, with a cool handsomeness, plays a good Paul – but as the famous film critic Pauline Kael mused at the time, his smiles still come off as a bit ‘narcissistic’ and ‘masochistic’ (I’ve read and heard that Ferrer’s personality was much the same; it’s hard to believe he was married to the engaging Audrey Hepburn). If you are a fan of the musical and would like to see where it originated, take an afternoon jaunt to the French countryside with Lili and check out this film. You’ll enjoy it (and I’m sure you will have the catchy song “Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo” in your head for the rest of the day). You may almost see, as well, why it became a musical, for it practically begs to become one. The two musical/dance numbers Caron participates in (with Aumont, Gabor, and Ferrer) are wonderful.
Caron lost the 1953 Oscar to newcomer (and Ferrer’s wife) Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday, but would go on to garner a second well-deserved nomination in 1963 in The L-Shaped Room. On a final, personal note, yours truly played Jacquot in my high school performance of Carnival in 1992… it was a delightful role. Good memories.