Time is often referred to as being ‘of the essence,’ but in Hollywood, timing is often even more essential. For many films, the year in which they are released can often lead to skewed perceptions that have more to do with passing trends than the film’s actual entertainment value. Such was the case for the 1970 musical espionage tale Darling Lili, which despite a unique script, a talented cast, and an award winning score became labeled ‘box office poison’ when it became a commercial failure upon its release. While timing proved to be the film’s weakness, the passage of time has proved kinder as critics and audiences have begun to warm up to the musical that dared to bring a little more than the standard snappy tunes and smiles into the genre.
|Espionage at its most heartwarming|
The story begins in World War I as British music-hall entertainer Lili Smith (Julie Andrews) leads a group of patrons in a patriotic song during a German air raid. The film then takes an interesting turn when Colonel Kurt von Ruger (Jeremy Kemp) arrives at Lili’s house after the show and is revealed to not be her uncle, as he pretends to , but actually an elite spy-master and Lili’s boss. This unexpected twist in turn leads to the revelation that while Lili seems to be an unassuming English singer, she is actually half-German, and leading a double life as a seductive spy. Von Ruger proceeds to assign Lili to her latest target, Major Bill Larrabbee (Rock Hudson), who is believed to be involved in a top-secret operation code-named “Crepe Suzette”. Unfortunately for the German government, Larrabbee has plenty of wiles of his own and the sultry spy soon finds herself up against a weapon that even she might not be able to handle; love. The ensuing plot contains enough spy-jinks, romance, history, and toe tapping numbers to keep even the most cynical cinephile entertained.
Despite the film’s original approach to the well-worn Mata Hari story, audiences were unfortunately simultaneously well past and unprepared for the story that director Blake Edwards was trying to tell. After the movie-musical’s hey day during the 1940’s and 1950s’, Hollywood released a series of flat efforts to capture the allure of an era that had already gone by. The loosening of Hay’s Code restrictions and subsequent release of several envelope pushing pictures sparked the public’s demand for more gritty stories that adults could relate to, which musicals were unable to satisfy. As the upheaval of the 1960’s continued, audiences found the glitz and optimism of musicals to be an unfulfilling way to pass time rather than the exciting escape that earlier audiences had regarded them as. By the time that Darling Lili hit theaters, the routine efforts of Hello Dolly!, Can Can, and Paint Your Wagon, had already soured audiences on the genre, ultimately leading them to spend their money elsewhere.
|The Western front just got a whole lot hotter|
While the use of song and dance in film was becoming a tired effort, Darling Lili was actually far more refreshing than its ad campaign would have indicated, and perhaps more fresh than audiences were prepared for. Instead of treating its espionage thrills with deadly seriousness as its predecessors like Mata Hari and Dishonored had done in the pre-code era, Darling Lili infuses its proceedings with just enough humor to poke fun at its genre trappings while still covering the expected spy territory. The film also takes the seductive spy stereotype into a modern direction as the usually wholesome Julie Andrews burlesques her way into international espionage with more va va voom than established glamour queens had been permitted to display in earlier spy films. Beyond its mere use of sex appeal and comedy, Darling Lili’s strongest suit is the way in which it subtly weaves these elements into a traditionally serious tale of love and honor in a world at war. The mixing of these diverse techniques created a story that is as three dimensional as the events and people it was attempting to chronicle, but unfortunately left audiences shaking their heads in confusion. For moviegoers hoping for a family friendly musical, the film’s more risqué element left something to be desired, and fans of spy thrillers were disappointed by the many musical and humorous interludes that took away from the story’s thrills, leaving moviegoers unsure of who the film’s target audience actually was. As a result, the film was left without a solid target base and ticket sales suffered, leading to a net loss for the film’s makers. Adding to the already low blow of low sales, Edwards had spent a significant amount of the film’s $25 million budget to recreate the aerial fights of WWI with complete historical accuracy, much to Paramount’s frustration. The constant studio interference, filming delays, and lackluster commercial box office performance left Edwards so distraught that he put his experiences into the cynical 1981 Hollywood satire S.O.B.
While the script may have left some scratching their heads, the cast turns in performances that are without question entertaining. Julie Andrews satirizes her good girl image in her portrayal of straight laced songstress by day and sultry spy by night, Lili. Beyond the simple balancing of dual extremes Andrews adds genuine emotion to her role and lends credibility to Lili’s dilemma as her political resolve gives way to emotional uncertainty. Similarly, Rock Hudson holds his own as Lili’s all-American love interest, Bill, as he infuses his rugged character with enough humor and charm to leave little question as to why Lili is swayed by him. The supporting cast lends excellent support to the story with Jeremy Kemp and Gloria Paul turning in scene stealing performances as Lili’s stalwart boss and a ditzy burlesque dancer.
Today, Darling Lili is no longer shorthand for cinema flop, and has actually gained a softened second look from critics and audiences alike. Through its daring effort to combine several seemingly incompatible genres into a cohesive, if unconventional, whole, the film earned its still disputed place in cinematic history. The score alone is worth the price of admission with WWI standards playing equally well as more swinging original Henry Mancini tunes, including the Oscar winning “Whistling Away The Dark”. The dynamic script and engaging performances will be sure to please fans of musicals, spy spoofs, and history buffs alike. For a truly explosive script that refuses to fit ‘in the box’, look no further than Darling Lili.
|Ever hear of knocking?!|
If you enjoy spies like Lili, don't forget to check out my full-length drama Through Enemy Eyes http://www.jacpub.com/Full-Length/Ennis_EnemyEyes.htm