Tuesday, April 18

Good 70s Films: Darling Lili

1970 Musical Comedy Drama
From Paramount Pictures
Directed by Blake Edwards

Julie Andrews
Rock Hudson
Jeremy Kemp
Lance Percival
Michael Witney
Gloria Paul
André Maranne
Jacques Marin
Bernard Kay
Doreen Keogh

It is a film that is hardly ever mentioned and I am certain I can hear good thing in some quarters.  There are specific reasons for that, too, and we will elaborate on some of the history.  For the moment, let's just say that not only do I think this qualifies as a good 70s movie, I have always regarded it as a fun musical-comedy romp, gorgeous to look at and featuring engaging performances from the two leads.

The story that Edwards fashioned with William Peter Blatty (yes, the very same WPB who would write The Exorcist a few years later) appears like an homage to the famed Mata Hari.  Here we have a WWI English music hall entertainer who also happens to be a German spy.  She is ordered by her superior to get to know a certain American dawn-patrol air squadron major and find out how planes are going to figure into future maneuvers.

The major is besotted with her at first glance and no one is doubting that her espionage will be successful.  What she does not reckon on, it seems, is that she would fall for her quarry.  She pumps him for information and they laugh and fight and make love. When she hears something about Operation Crepe Suzette, she blows her stack, fearing her amour is not on the up-and-up with her. Imagine that!  How dare he?  Or did he?

Her anger sets in motion the film's final act in which she plants an incriminating code book and then alerts the French authorities who have been long been encircling her. She does not consider that her duplicity will wind up blowing her own cover.  The finale becomes more adventuresome with firepower exhibited in car chases, aboard a passenger train (don't you love it when things get murky on trains?) and in those glorious and colorful vintage planes. Edwards adds a touch of slapstick, a staple of a number of his films.   

We know it all ends well, don't we?  It's a musical...!    

It's a musical with a score I have always enjoyed.  Included are four tunes from the era, It's a Long Way to Tipperary, Pack Up Your Troubles, Keep the Home Fires Burning and Mademoiselle from Armentieres.  Six more songs were written by Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer... the title tune sung over the opening and closing credits, A Girl In No Man's Land, Smile Away Each Raining Day, I'll Give You Three Guesses, Good Will Ambassador (sung by sexy Gloria Paul in striptease mode) and the Oscar-nominated Whistling Away the Dark which you may enjoy at the end of this piece and is the film's opening segment.  This would be the last full score that the prolific and beloved Mercer would write. 

Darling Lili has long been hailed as a gorgeous movie.  Filmed on location in France, Belgium and Ireland, there is a pastoral look that's just picture-postcard perfection.  The indoor sets are dripping in golden wealth, the architecture stately, the period cars and planes great fun and Andrews' clothes are among the most dazzling she's ever worn on the screen. While I'm heaping praise, I don't think she's ever been photographed more beautifully. Director of cinematography, Russell Harlan, outdid himself on this one.

I wish I could take the time to name all the folks whose professionalism shows in spades here, but two that cannot be slighted are the director and cameraman of the aerial sequences, Anthony Squire and Guy Tabaray.  Beautiful, beautiful work.   

Whether or not this film changed Andrews' image... a hoped-for situation... may be a subject of some debate, but I give her an A+ on feminine wiles.  The part required them and the actress delivered.  The film demonstrates just how well she plays comedy and she is so good at it that it may interfere with the sexy image she was out to display.  She wasn't as brittle as she was in Star! or as wholesome as in The Sound of Music or as pure as in Hawaii, but she does bring an intended, musical-comedy sauciness to Lili.

A light moment on a hectic film

Hudson brings his usual likability to the role of the major.  He looks a bit worn out and a little heavier but he certainly had an uncanny way of knowing what was right for him and this is probably the last really decent movie role he enjoyed.  He and Andrews seemed an unusual pairing when I first heard of it (from different times on the Hollywood ladder... she was the anointed one at the time while his career was winding down) but they are a good match.

I just watched it again, of course, and it is simply not the horror that some people make it out to be.  Fine.  Musical-comedy may not be your thing.  But within that genre, this film is not even close to deserving the derision it has always received.  

The film isn't the horror but the behind-the-scenes action was.  It was Edwards v.s. Paramount from the get-go.  He claimed they interfered beyond what is reasonable and they claimed they had to keep an eye on him.  He would admit to his perfectionism which they labeled self-indulgence.

He spent money like it was going out of style and the budget soared.  While it's true he wanted nothing but the best for his intended bride, the weather is what played a large part in the ballooning costs.  Weather even caused a move of cast and crew and props and sets from France to Belgium... at great expense.

When the film began to cost around $70,000 a day, Paramount head
honcho Charles Bludhorn hopped a plane to Ireland where the company was then shooting.  He arrived to find cast and crew enjoying a picnic on a beautifully sunny day. He wasn't feeling so sunny about it and he harangued Edwards... for all the good it did.

For his part, Edwards understood their position but he wasn't a maverick for nothing. Most of his films did good business and this one was for his baby.  This was his Valentine to Andrews and it was going to stun the world with the new Andrews.  He would nod his approval to Bludhorn and tell him everything he wanted to hear but Edwards was determined his vision would be realized.

Julie and Blake

Edwards wanted to knock this one out of the park... this was the first of many productions with Andrews.  But both of them wanted to show her in a different light.  Just a little racier, perhaps, but a long way from nannies and governesses.  So he included in the film Andrews doing a faux striptease, a wrestling match with Hudson in bed and the two of them in a shower together (he's dressed). What could be more daring... for goodness sakes?

Andrews' press wasn't the best at these times either.  Working hectically caused her to miss two events.  The first was the London premiere of her previous movie, Star!  There were rumblings of how bad it was and when she missed the big premiere, it was thought she was inelegant not to attend and face the music.

When the Lili company returned to Paramount in Hollywood for interiors, a publicity shot was scheduled with other stars shooting there at the same time... Streisand, Wayne, Marvin and Eastwood. Hudson and Andrews were to join them.  After much stewing, someone was sent to fetch Andrews but Edwards wouldn't release her from filming a crying scene for a simple studio publicity shot. She later apologized to her fellow heavyweights.  

By the time Lili was completed, Edwards and his bosses were at war.  Paramount claimed it didn't like the finished product. The studio didn't see how it would recoup the costs. (They didn't.)  So
they refused to get behind it.  No publicity machine.  No reason for the stars to do the late-night talk shows.  Zippo.  And with no effort on the studio's part and with both camps badmouthing the other in the press, Paramount saw no reason to pour more money into Darling Lili.  It didn't seem too darling to them, particularly after the lackluster reception to two of their other behemoth musicals, Paint Your Wagon and On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.

Ultimately Paramount would have the final say by the time the film was released because it handled the editing without Edwards' input... an unthinkable violation. Years later a DVD would come out labeled Director's Cut.

Edwards took some solace, after recovering from his breakdown, when he and Mrs. Edwards made S.O.B., a film dedicated to mocking all that transpired on Darling Lili, 12 years earlier. It was a black-comedy, wicked, scathing and far-fetched.  And who should step up to release it?  Would you be surprised to hear it was Paramount?  Go figure, huh?

You want to know what the bottom-line issue has always been with this film?  It was too late making a movie like Darling Lili in 1970. I think we've made clear in previous postings that the 1970s was a revolutionary change in movies and they would never be the same. Fluffy musical comedies were NOT happening.  Andrews' musical forays had come and gone. She was as bright a star in the mid-late 60s as any actress could have ever have dreamed of but we weren't in the 60s anymore.  (She did have one more brilliant musical-comedy turn in her, but it would not become evident until 1982... and you just wait, you smart and smarter readers, til we get to the 80s.)

One final thing... piggybacking on that last paragraph.  Paramount has likely gotten over itself.  The Godfather and Love Story and others would change its fortunes.  Blake Edwards is gone. Andrews isn't singing or making any big movies.  Hudson's illness and death certainly eclipsed his work in this or any film.  

Once in awhile, there it is on the telly.  And we can now watch it and just give it a bloody break... wisely observing it doesn't look or feel like the big flop it's usually been branded. It's a perfectly charming film, a fun and entertaining musical-comedy-drama. And as a thoroughly devoted fan at the time, let me add it's a lovely two hours to spend with Miss Julie.

Here she is...

Next posting:
The Directors

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