Monday, December 1, 2014

LILI: A Garland Valentine

Charles Walters directed Leslie Caron to a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her starring role in Lili.  This poignant 1953 film is like an indie musical drama that was produced and  released by a major Hollywood studio.  Lili was made at MGM, the top shop for deluxe musicals in Hollywood's golden age.  In this post-World War 2 story, Caron is a lonely and desperate French orphan, so desperate that she briefly considers suicide.  She is a poor teen.  An older man tries to sexually molest her.  She is saved by a traveling carnival act -- specifically the puppets in a carnival act.  She joins them in song.  Lili is a born entertainer, a charismatic talent with that little something extra.  Lili joins the carnival.  She's great for business.  Audiences love her.  She's a star.  But, inside, she's still a lonely and insecure girl soon to blossom into a lovely and warm young woman.

Before Gene Kelly and Bob Fosse, Charles Walters was a dancer/choreographer/film director.  In addition to Good News, High Society, The Tender Trap, Please Don't Eat the Daisies and The Unsinkable Molly Brown (which earned Debbie Reynolds a Best Actress Oscar nomination), Walters directed MGM superstar Judy Garland in two of her best musicals -- Easter Parade, co-starring Fred Astaire, and Summer Stock, co-starring Gene Kelly and containing her iconic "Get Happy" number. 

Garland had three great male dance partners in her MGM years.  There was Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly....and, in the photo to the left, former Broadway dancer Charles Walters.

Judy has an all male chorus and Walters wins as her featured main dance partner in the wonderful "Embraceable You" number in 1943's Girl Crazy co-starring Mickey Rooney.  Vocally and dance-wise, Garland was in fine form for this MGM musical comedy.

In Presenting Lily Mars, she was transitioning from the teen character roles she had opposite Mickey Rooney to leading lady grown-up parts with different male co-stars.

Garland was even more glamorous and, dance-wise, more dazzling in the big, swanky "Broadway Rhythm" production number finale to 1943's charming Presenting Lily Mars.  Charles Walters was her partner in that number too.

This production number with Walters shows what a graceful, solid dancer Garland was -- even though she was primarily known as  a singer.  True, she wasn't a Cyd Charisse or an Eleanor Powell, but she could certainly hold her own dancing with Astaire, Kelly and Charles Walters.

Look at her in this ritzy production number.  Look at Judy's "Portland Fancy" barn dance number with Gene Kelly in Walters' Summer Stock.  Amazing.  And she had nowhere near the extensive dance training that Kelly did.  Charles Walters knew first-hand that Judy Garland was one of the most awesome triple threat talents in Hollywood movie history.  That singing voice was extraordinary.   She could dance.  She was a gifted actress whom, I feel, was dramatically under-utilized in that respect.  She had the chops, in her teen years, to play Emily in Our Town if MGM had purchased that project for her after 1939's The Wizard of Oz.  She had the emotional depth to play Jane Eyre as effectively as Joan Fontaine did in the 1940s.  We saw the range of her musical and dramatic power in 1954's remake of A Star Is Born, the performance that brought her a Best Actress Oscar nomination.

Her only non-musical during her MGM years was Vincente Minnelli's excellent World War 2 love story, The Clock.  Watch Garland's dramatic debut in that.  She could've beautifully handled a sophisticated remake with music of 1939's Love Affair -- which Deborah Kerr did with Cary Grant in 1957's An Affair to Remember.

Garland's personal problems were heavy when she shot Summer Stock.  The 1950 hit musical comedy was her last completed feature for the studio.  She was released from her contract during her troubled Annie Get Your Gun shoot and replaced by Betty Hutton.  Walters had been working with Garland on Annie Get Your Gun.

Why do I bring all this up about Judy Garland?  Lili was based on a short story in a popular magazine.  When I first saw Lili, I saw it on a network TV program for kids when I was a youngster.   As I got older and read about Charles Walters' working relationship with and his long affection for Garland,  Lili seemed to have another heart to it.

Lili is director Charles Walters' valentine to Judy Garland.

The story echoes Garland's life during her 15 years under contract to MGM.  Lili is a fatherless girl who gets a job working for a colorful carnival.  The shows are colorful but the work is hard.  Like a Hollywood studio, it's a dream factory and Lili has a factory job.  The carnival employs Lili as a waitress.  That's not the right job for her.   Here dreams are better than her reality.  Her spirit is bruised.                    
MGM didn't quite know what to do with the uniquely talented Garland while grooming her for success.  She was pretty -- but not a glamour girl like young, sexy Lana Turner.  Girls like Lana carbonated many male hormones on the lot and made Judy feel insecure despite her extraordinary talents.  Early on, MGM tried making Judy a brassy little girl with a big Martha Raye style (Thoroughbreds Don't Cry, 1937, starring Mickey Rooney).  You see this in Judy's first scenes in Broadway Melody of 1938.  Notice her softness later in the movie when she sings "Dear Mr. Gable (You Made Me Love You)."  That tender number clicked with the public.  Brassy was not right for young Judy.  That was like the carnival first making Lili a sexy waitress.  Dream factory MGM softened Judy's image and let her be more herself.  When MGM finally let her make the 1939 fantasy musical, The Wizard of Oz, Judy became a star.  She was 16, her father had died and she was the family breadwinner.  With her soulful natural acting talent and unique singing voice, she was the perfect Dorothy to follow the yellow brick road with Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion.

When Lili sings "Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo" with the carnival puppets, she becomes a carnival star overnight.  She's great for business the way Judy was a major box office star for MGM.  Leslie Caron got what Judy Garland should've received for The Wizard of Oz, but didn't.  Caron got a Best Actress Academy Award nomination for a role that seems simple, but it's not.  If Caron doesn't believe fully in those puppets and see them as real characters, if she doesn't have a touch of wistfulness in her soul, the whole film falls apart.  Garland was not a star when she was shooting The Wizard of Oz.  It's now Hollywood history that MGM wanted to borrow Shirley Temple for the lead but couldn't get her because she was too big a star at 20th Century Fox.  Garland got the part and the rest is history.  She was 16 and working with veteran actors in their 30s and 40s.  The production was resting on her shoulders because, if her performance didn't work, the whole film would fall apart.  Hers is a rich, sincere, touching performance that holds up today.  She was as perfect for the role of Dorothy as Vivien Leigh (1939 Best Actress Oscar winner) was perfect for the role of Scarlett in 1939's Gone With The Wind.  Was Judy nominated for her golden work?  No.  She was given a special juvenile Oscar, a mini-version.

After The Wizard of Oz, young Judy became MGM's top musical comedy female star of the 1940s.  But, like Lili, she was still an insecure kid on the inside who didn't feel she could compete with the glamour girls on the lot.  She fell in love with the suave, sophisticated and smart Artie Shaw, one of the most popular big band leaders/musicians of the era. They dated.  Artie broke Judy's heart when he married sexy blonde Lana Turner.  Artie and Lena did a movie together (MGM's The Dancing Co-Ed in 1939).  Think about Shaw when you watch Jean Pierre Aumont as the carnival magician in Lili with Zsa Zsa Gabor as the magician's glamorous, sexy blonde assistant.

The debonair, dapper wolf puppet could represent the clarinetist.  (Shaw had a number of marriages, by the way.  After a divorce from Lana, one of his 8 wives was Lana's MGM buddy, Ava Gardner.  Ava was another gorgeous glamour girl under contract.)                                              
Carrot Top the puppet could probably be a representation of Judy's co-star in several of her star-making MGM movies, the energetic and boyish Mickey Rooney.  The gentle giant who can't quite express his feelings eloquently is another puppet the puppeteer hides behind.  He's the angry man, a performer who can dance no more due to a war injury.  We know that secretly he has fallen in love with the naive French girl.  She learns some hard and heartbreaking lessons about life while working for the carnival.  Lili says, "We don't learn.  We just get older, and we know."

Maybe Paul, the angry and injured ex-dancer, could represent a bit of Charles Walters' heart.  Paul secretly fell in love with Lili.  Walters was a gay male.  Perhaps he wished he could've been lucky like Vincente Minnelli.  Perhaps he wished he could've directed and married Judy Garland -- like Minnelli did.  Minnelli was a giant talent in the famed Arthur Freed unit of musicals.  Just a thought.  Minnelli worked on Judy's "Love Affair" number in 1940's Strike Up The Band co-starring Mickey Rooney.  Minnelli took her stardom to new heights, directing the star's classic Meet Me in St. Louis performance.  Charles Walters was the dance director for that 1944 Minnelli film.  He staged "The Trolley Song" number. The musical was MGM's biggest box office hit since 1939's Gone With The Wind.  Minnelli directed, fell in love with and married her, tapping her acting depth and transforming Garland into a glamorous movie musical superstar.  Together, they gave us Liza Minnelli.

Lili is a compact little musical drama, only 81 minutes.  This coming of age story ends with a ballet choreographed by Charles Walters.  It's a lovely, symbolic number.  Like Dorothy and her fantasy friends The Wizard of Oz, Lili and her fantasy friends dance down a road of life.

This ballet advances character.  It's an emotional reveal for Paul.  We discover his love for Lili.  She discovers it too.

When I was a young adult, I read that MGM had shelved Lili for a while.  The studio heads weren't sure if the public would like it.  But when it was screened for folks on the lot, the response was quite enthusiastic.  Hearts were touched.  Besides Leslie Caron's Oscar nomination, the film got an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay and Charles Walters was nominated for Best Director.

Lili went into production when Judy Garland was gone from MGM and no longer married to Vincente Minnelli.  If you look at Minnelli's Gigi, the story of an older man falling in love with a young lady he's seen grow from a playful teen into a desirable young woman resembles Minnelli's relationship with Judy.  He was in his early 40s when he fell for and married the 20something Judy.
I never read that Charles Walters used Judy as an inspiration when directing Lili, but notice that this tender film is, in a way, the Judy Garland MGM story.  It could be Walters' valentine to her.  Watch it when you can and then leave me a comment here.

In 1961, Lili was turned into a hit Broadway musical called Carnival.  Charles Walters' Lili is available on Warner Archive DVD.


  1. I loved Lili when it first came out and try to catch it whenever it comes on TV. I was a Garland fanatic ever since I saw A Star Is Born. I found your connection of these two fascinating, and very plausible.

  2. I don't get many comments on my blog pieces, so I am always really thrilled when someone takes time to read my posts and leave a comment. Bev, thank you so much. LILI is an often-overlooked gem in the MGM musical crown, in my opinion.


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