As the movie poster rightfully proclaims: “You’ll fall in love with LILI!” This charming, simple film stars Leslie Caron as a sad and lonely orphan who hooks up with a traveling carnival and falls in love with a womanizing magician (Jean-Pierre Aumont) and a crippled, embittered puppeteer (Mel Ferrer). The film could have easily been cloying but director Charles Walters moves the slight tale briskly and Caron never lets her character sink into bathos. But it is Bronislau Kaper’s lilting score that keeps things humming along.
Kaper was given the choice between scoring PLYMOUTH ADVENTURE and LILI. Miklós Rózsa composed one of his strongest scores for the Pilgrim tale, and Kaper went on to win the Oscar.
The score is anchored by the song “Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo,” with lyrics by screenwriter Helen Deutsch. The song went on to become a huge hit but was ineligible for Oscar consideration because Deutsch had printed her lyrics as a poem in a 1930s magazine.
Kaper said his score for LILI was special because he got to write both the score, including ballet music and all the songs. Plus, he liked the opportunity to compose music in which the dances had to be filmed to the music.
With only one song and a couple of dance numbers, LILI is hardly a conventional musical and M-G-M had no great expectations for the film. As Kaper remembered it, “When it was completed and before I scored it, the film was considered unreleasable by many people at the studio.”
Oddly enough, the usually acerbic Page Cook wrote, “Kaper’s music lavishes the whole with a depth of poetry that not merely enhances…but inhabits it. The film’s elements of what is real and what is not real, and what are being more important than what we are judged to be, is given sublime realization in Kaper’s shimmering comprehension of Lili and the puppets.” On the other hand, the equally acerbic Pauline Kael complained over the fact that Kaper was awarded for that “infernal score. Hollywood is shameless.”
Thanks to Caron’s endearing performance and Kaper’s delightful music, a classic was born. In 1961, LILI became the first film ever to be adapted into a Broadway musical. The stage version, called CARNIVAL, featured music and lyrics by Bob Merrill, and starred Anna Maria Alberghetti, James Mitchell as the magician, and Jerry Orbach as the puppeteer. “As immodest as this may sound, my score became the life of the movie.”