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A movie for die-hard Julie Andrews fans, Blake Edwards' Darling Lili is a crash landing for her great talent after the epochal fiasco of Star!. This picture isn't any better conceived, being a limp romantic 'romp' that wants to be too many things: A touching story of WW1, a Mata Hari spy picture, a musical and an Inspector Clouseu-style comedy. Ms. Andrews had proven she could do all of those things ... but not at the same time.
Darling Lili also became a big topic among leading film critics in a debate about the future of the movies -- it came up frequently in the big Easy Rider paradox, as an example of fossilized, hopelessly clueless Hollywood filmmaking. That charge was unfair, but it didn't matter ... Blake Edwards' valentine to his wife Ms. Andrews played to a lot of empty theaters.
Darling Lili bombed so badly on its first appearance that director Blake Edwards reluctantly volunteered to recut it, which accounts for the 'director's cut' qualifier on this disc. The odd part of that claim is that since Edwards did the reworking , the shortened non-roadshow version is the Director's Cut! More on that subject below.
Julie Andrews plays an impossible character in an impossible storyline, just the sort of result one might expect from people working backwards from 'commercial' story elements. She's a beloved music hall star singing patriotic wartime songs for England, along with a number of new Henry Mancini songs of a highly anachronistic nature. Her patriotism is just a front, however, because she's also a nefarious German spy, squeezing top military secrets out of generals. BUT that doesn't make her a murderous black widow or an undercover slut because they were all old men and apparently gave up their secrets over champagne and her sparkling company, and we don't hear about any of them having to face a firing squad. BUT she targets a handsome young flyer (an unusually cardboard Rock Hudson) and loses her heart to him. Although she's putting Bill's life on the line (traitorous soldiers face firing squads too) she sees no problem continuing to wrest from him the secret of "Crepe Suzette." The various Doris Day-style jealousies, cute fights and making-up scenes continue as if there were nothing larger at stake. Lili Schmidt/Smith sings a joyous song every ten minutes or so. Because she's neither devious nor dangerous, there's no irony. Any tension the story has is allowed to melt into nostalgic goo for a, 'we all love each other' ending. It's not something to get worked up about.
Edwards surrounds this impossible characterization with a comedy world that defeats any sense of period or consistent tone. Two French military agents flop around in terminally unfunny Inspector Clouseau gags. Crepe Suzette turns out to be a rival entertainer and arouses Lili's jealousy. Just like in old-fashioned star vehicles, this other woman is denied close-ups so as not to invite comparison with Andrews. The dance she does in 1917 France is pure 1940s American burlesque boom-cha-boom stuff. Lili watches in horror, as if she really were a 'Polly Wolly Doodle' kind of personality.
Finally, all of the above is grafted into a 'flying ace' story told completely straight. Rock Hudson and a limp comic-relief pal battle The Red Baron, both blue-screen matted into elaborate panoramas of aerial combat. 1 Like several parts of the show, it seems to be a different movie altogether. It only joins up at the very end, when Julie dashes across a green field to greet Rock's airplane, exactly like Maria Von Trapp in The Sound of Music.
Darling Lili isn't funny and Ms. Andrews isn't very sexy in it, no matter how many oo-la-la situations Edwards and his gagwriter pal William Peter Blatty (yes, that William Peter Blatty) come up with. There's no chemistry between her and Hudson. The tragedy is that anyone should conclude that any of this is the fault of Julie Andrews, who proved herself a great and versatile actress with both drama and comedy in The Americanization of Emily, which with Mary Poppins is easily her best screen work. The problem is a fundamentally inconsistent character in a dumb story, and a Hollywood system that thought it could make a foolproof attraction just by throwing millions into a picture with Julie Andrews on the marquee.
Blake Edwards had to suffer through the post mortem on Darling Lili, as the Hollywood community and the critical establishment that previously championed him now clucked over the debacle of his fall from grace. The maker of a long and almost unbroken string of popular hits now hit a serious bankability problem. His work for most of the next decade would not be well received, except by old-school film critics.
Edwards realized that this was the turning point for both he and Julie Andrews. After six years atop the mountain of praise, everyone was taking potshots at Andrews' squeaky-clean family image, associating her only with Disneyfied fare. Peter Cook and Dudley Moore had already made her a joke in their Bedazzled and now she was blamed personally for box office woes industry-wide. Blake Edwards' later, caustically successful S.O.B is supposed to be about this period in Andrews' career.
Film critics made matters worse, as 1970 was in the middle of the great auteurist debate (Well, "great" only if one followed film critic chat). This was when critics were defending the works of older directors with auteurist arguments -- "A great director makes only one film, expressing more of his inner genius as he goes along." By this standard Howard Hawks' awful Rio Lobo was a great movie because it was true to his personality, in other words, just like movies he made before. Andrew Sarris placed Blake Edwards in a favorable position in his pantheon of auteurist achievement, "The Far Side of Paradise". For Sarris, Edwards' diminishing line of comedies (The Great Race, What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?, The Party) were consistent in style, and therefore elevated in worth.
Less perplexing but still unnecessarily defensive was the 'old man's film' debate, the idea that laureate filmmakers that have earned their stripes should be allowed to make personal elegiac pictures that express their purest wisdom, now that the need to be so ruthlessly competitive was gone. This defense may have fit some great talents like Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford and Billy Wilder, but it was a little early to start building a shrine to honor Blake Edwards; he hadn't even turned 50 yet. As it was, Edwards would strike back with a string of decidedly more personal pictures, including a big hit or two, a decade later.
Darling Lili really can't support any of these arguments, as it is what it is, a rather flat film that cost altogether too much money. It has plenty of fans (most films do) and there's no reason not to fixate on whatever pleases one (Andrews, airplanes) and enjoy it if one can.
Paramount's DVD of Darling Lili looks and sounds fine in an enhanced transfer and DD 5.1 audio. This is the 107 minute version, approximately 29 minutes short of its original length. Those numbers may be rubbery, as the original's opening and closing overture and exit music are a part of this presentation. I don't remember if the original movie had an intermission. Part of the film's clunkiness in 1970 could be chalked up to the style of filming, which took place two years earlier. Many scenes are long-lens coverage of people walking along rivers or luxuriating in beds, until the camera racks focus to reveal a giant flower in the foreground. This Elvira Madigan visual device was already a terrible cliché and by 1970 was reminding people of TV commercials. The style later became associated with feminine hygiene ads reluctant to show their products directly. 2
An anemic trailer is included that is little more than some dirty still frames set to music and voiceover, but fans will be able to get a look at some of what the long version consisted of: A separate gallery has eight or nine deleted scenes, also presented in top condition, as if there were a possibility the whole original show might have made it to DVD. The footage I checked out included some interminable comedy business with the two French agents, more aerial combat and more 'date' footage. Surely the film's plot didn't seem as rushed with an extra half-hour of incident, but when I saw the long version of Darling Lili in 1978, huge sections of the picture seemed repetitious and static.
Obviously Paramount didn't think Darling Lili was worth making into a two-disc, two-movie set, or even worth encoding a second play sequence that would re-order the missing scenes back into the film. Even that wouldn't be so easy, as some of the deleted scenes are just additions or extensions, and not entirely new.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Darling Lili rates:
1. And expensive! According to Roger Corman, Darling Lili shot aerial footage in Ireland for two entire summers and cost a fortune. Corman came along, rented the same planes and shot Von Richtofen and Brown's aerial footage in two or three weeks. Don't worry, Darling Lili's sequences look better, at least the wide angles.
2. This must sound awfully tasteless, but every time my editorial employers saw dailies for any product where some TV commercial director used this shallow pull-focus effect, they'd say, "There's another tampon shot!"