Film Passion 101 Blogathon: LILI (1953)

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By Lara Gabrielle Fowler

As passion for classic Hollywood is such a specific niche, most classic film fans have a story about how they became interested in it. Some who are passionate about classic film can trace it to their childhood, and some came to love classic movies as adults. Most of the time, there is one specific film that fans are able to pinpoint as the driving force behind their love of old Hollywood.

This is the focus of this year’s CMBA blogathon, Film Passion 101. Members are to write about the film that was the impetus for their love of old Hollywood, and the story that goes along with it. For me, the story goes back to my earliest childhood and the movie was Lili, released in 1953 and starring Leslie Caron and Mel Ferrer.

I was lucky enough to have grandparents who always lived close by and were a large part of my growing up. There was always talk of movies around my grandparents’ house–my grandmother loved movies and was very knowledgeable about them. Growing up in a large Russian Jewish immigrant family in Winnipeg, Canada, my grandmother had been very poor as a child and life was difficult. Her escape was the movies, and she developed a keen fascination for the lives of the personages onscreen. She soon became a movie expert, something she held onto for the rest of her life and when she became a nurse, she worked at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital where many major movie stars received treatment. After I became enamored of classic movies, she would regale and delight me with stories of all the big stars she took care of.

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My grandmother, circa 1946.

Almost as soon as I was born, my grandmother started showing me movies. I saw The Red Shoes, Les Demoiselles de Rochefort, and Brigadoon almost before I could walk, and I still treasure those memories. But it wasn’t until I saw Lili at age 5 that I really became obsessed with movies.

In many ways, Lili is not a children’s movie. It has dark themes, including strongly suggested sexual abuse and attempted suicide of the main character. Even the puppets, used as a tool of the puppeteer to get the attention and love of the main character, are bizarre and slightly creepy. But at the age of 5, all of that went right over my head and I was taken immediately by the beautiful colors, the catchy music, and the main character’s sincere interaction with the puppets.

Lili is a young orphan who goes to find a baker friend of her father’s who her father said would help her. When she gets to the address, she finds that he is dead but the shopkeeper who owns the business gives her a room in exchange for work. After he sexually assaults her, she flees. She is rescued by a carnival magician, who offers her a job as a waitress for his dinner show (where he is assisted by the sexy Rosalie, played by Zsa Zsa Gabor) at the circus. But Lili is more interested in watching the show than waitressing, and she is fired. Not having anywhere to go, she climbs the ladder to the diving board at the circus where she intends to jump. Halfway up the ladder, she hears a voice calling out to her from down below, asking her to stop. The voice is coming from a puppet on a puppet stage with red hair and freckles, and she warily comes down and starts engaging in conversation with the puppet, called “Carrot Top.” Soon, several other puppets join in the conversation (“Reynardo,” a fox, “Marguerite,” a ballerina, and a giant named “Golo”) and they begin to sing a song that Lili had sung with her father. A crowd forms, and Lili is given a job with the puppet show.

The puppeteer, Paul (played by Mel Ferrer), is a former dancer who suffered a leg injury in the war that ruined his career. He started puppeteering to make ends meet, but he finds it inferior to his career as a dancer. He soon falls in love with Lili, but fears that she will reject him due to his impairment. Lili, meanwhile, is in love with Marc, the magician who saved her from the shopkeeper. Soon, Marc decides to leave the act, taking along Rosalie, his sexy assistant, who soon reveals that she is his wife. Lili is heartbroken, and invites Marc to her trailer where he tries to seduce her. Paul walks in, and his plans are thwarted. Afterward, Lili finds Marc’s wedding ring in her couch cushion. She tries to run after him, but Paul, thinking that she is running after him for love, stops her and slaps her for being a fool.

Lili decides to leave the carnival. She gives Marc back his ring and tells him that every girl has to wake up from her selfish dreams. As she leaves, she is stopped by Carrot Top and Reynardo, who ask her to take them with her. She remembers that there is somebody behind the curtain and pulls it back, revealing Paul. They have an argument, Paul telling her that several impresarios from Paris have come to offer him a job, and Lili telling him that he is incapable of love and accusing him of hiding behind the puppets. He responds that he is the puppets, with all their different personas. Lili concludes the argument by walking away and intending to leave Paul forever. As she leaves the carnival, she thinks of all the puppets and a small dream sequence ensues with the puppets, all life-size, turning into Paul. She rushes back to the carnival and falls into Paul’s arms…while the puppets applaud.

The relationship between Lili and Paul is a complex one. On the one hand, Paul wants to love her but doesn’t know how. He was mean and abusive to her, and the fact that Lili ends up with him at the end is a bit troublesome–in that she is essentially going back to a man who abused her. On the other hand, it can be said that this was Paul’s awakening, and he now knows how to love. From a modern feminist standpoint, it is a difficult ending to come to terms with, and is certainly a male-centered one. As an adult, I have trouble with the ending, but it’s difficult to think of a better one, especially in a film made under the code where Lili could not have broken up Marc’s marriage.

Whenever I would go over to my grandparents’ house, my grandmother would take me to the video store to pick out a movie and for several years, it would ALWAYS be Lili. I memorized the exact location of movie in the store, and would always make a beeline right for it. I loved it so much that I would watch it again and again, until finally my grandmother made an executive decision to try to expand my horizons. One day I discovered that my grandmother had brought a different movie home from the store herself–Meet Me In St. Louis. At first I was terribly distraught that I couldn’t watch Lili, but Meet Me In St. Louis simply expanded on what Lili had started. I was officially a bona fide classic movie fan at the age of 7.

My grandmother passed away in 2010, and I miss her terribly. But I thank her every day for showing me Lili and introducing me to classic movies because without her and without that movie, I wouldn’t be the classic film fan I am today. Thank you to my grandmother, and thank you to the CMBA for hosting this blogathon, providing me with an opportunity to write this story.

See you next time!

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19 responses to “Film Passion 101 Blogathon: LILI (1953)

  1. “…Tomorrow I’ll probably love again…”

    I find it fascinating that “Lili” with its mix of melancholy and hope should have touched your young heart. I truly believe stories come to us when we are ready for them. Who would have guessed where your lovely grandmother and this movie would lead you.

  2. You are one lucky woman to have had a grandmother like yours. And the movies she introduced you to were extremely well-chosen. I have to say, too, that weaning you from “Lili” with “Meet Me in St. Louis” was brilliant. Lovely memories, Lara.

  3. Wasn’t that ingenious to go from “Lili” to “Meet Me in St. Louis?” A smart lady, my grandma 🙂 Thanks for reading!

  4. I love all of the personal stories presented in this event. You were indeed lucky to have such a loving and – may I add – tasteful grandmother. I came to Lili much later in life and I have to admit those puppets did kind of creep me out – but I still know what you mean about the colors, the carnival and the charm of the heroine. I enjoyed this immensely.

  5. Thank you, Marsha! When I watch “Lili” as an adult, I wonder how the movie didn’t completely scare me off as a kid. I was a pretty easily frightened child, but for some reason “Lili” didn’t scare me in the least. I’m so glad you liked the post! And yes, my grandmother was all of those things you mentioned. I miss her.

  6. I’ve not seen Lili and was surprised to learn it had those dark elements. Still, it sounds like a really good movie and I can see why a little girl would love it so much.

    It sounds like you had a wonderful grandmother. It must have been tough, indeed, to lose her…

    Thanks for sharing these memories with us.

  7. Love it! As someone who has been on the giving and receiving end of the “kid watching the movie over and over” phenomenon, I have to applaud your grandmother’s good thinking. Great fun!

  8. Thank you! Yeah, my grandmother knew me well!

  9. My parents were my link to classic movies, and I’m so thankful that they encouraged me to indulge in them. Cable wasn’t around until I was a teenager, so I had to watch the listings for classic movies showing on the weekends or on the late show. Now my parents generation (and your grandparents generation) is disappearing and it’s up to us to carry on the classic movie legacy — even though we’re totally removed from the era in which they were created. As for “Lili,” you’re critique of it is dead on. I also didn’t get how utterly disturbing it was until I was an adult. I do, however, remember vividly how upset I was at the way Paul treated her even when I saw it as a little girl. –Lucinda

  10. I love your story. I want to hear more about your grandmother. The stories of classic movie fans are always interesting to me, so thanks for sharing.

    About the abusive relationship in the movie, I understand how a favorite movie can make a person conflicted. I feel the same way about My Fair Lady’s ending.

    Cheers,
    Java

  11. Yes, I read something the other day that said 75% of silent movies have disappeared. Tragic. It’s up to us to make sure that doesn’t happen with these movies.

    In terms of Lili, it really is dark and disturbing. Very French in that way, though. I see it from an entirely new perspective as an adult.

  12. Thank you, Java. My grandmother was a wonderful woman. Quiet and shy much of the time, but when it came to things she was passionate about–things like movies and Democratic politics–her face lit up. She had a very interesting life–married to my grandfather for 55 years until his death and when he died, her health declined. She died just a few years later.

    I have issues with the ending of My Fair Lady, too. It just makes me sad to see women, fictional or otherwise, going back to their abusers.

  13. I’m ashamed to admit it, B.L. (short for Backlots), that I’ve never watched this movie all the way through. But it was a joy reading your piece and the history surrounding it; I particularly identified with the grandparents angle since my mother’s father was a big fan of the classic stuff (he had a talent for being able to identify character actors in movies, something that I think I inherited from him). First-rate essay.

  14. Lara,
    Your grandmother had such sophisticated taste in movies and what a beauty she was. Thanks so much for sharing her photo and your early experiences with her watching the classics. We can see now where you developed your exquisite taste in cinema. : )

    I haven’t seen Lili but your fond memories of it and the cute stories you’ve told her about always picking it out at the video store have me making a mental note of it. Very sweet!

    Such a fun read!
    Page

  15. Lara, I loved hearing about your grandmother and how her love of classic film influenced you. Your love of LILI reminded me of when one of my nephews would visit my Dad. On one occasion, Dad showed him KING KONG and for the next three years, that was one movie he wanted to see whenever he visited. (By the way, I also thought the puppets in LILI were a little creepy–but Leslie was charming!)

  16. My pleasure! You should go out and see Lili. It’s dark and very delicious.

  17. Thanks Ivan. Give Lili another chance. It’s a bizarre movie, but if you go into it knowing that, it’s great. I’m so glad your grandparents were the same way. It seems to be a common theme!

  18. Thank you, Page. Yes, we have my grandmother to thank for that! You should go out and see it, it’s a great one.

  19. Wow, yes, kids have a way of wanting to see the same thing over and over. Great that it was King Kong and not some dumb modern “kids’ movie.” Some of these classics are far better for kids than the schlock they put out today specifically for kids. Thanks so much for your comment!

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