For a spy, love is the deadliest enemy.
Julie Andrews vs. Rock Hudson: spygirl vs. flyboy. Who's zoomin' who?
A seismic shift in cinema took place in the late '60s. After a decade filled with overstuffed musicals and epics, more personal films began to take hold. With the ascendance of names like Scorsese, Rafelson and Ashby, movies assumed a different attitude, forsaking extravagance for revelation. But opulence wouldn't go down without a fight; from Hello Dolly to Paint Your Wagon to Funny Girl to Oliver the big-budget musical was still breathing, if barely. Then, in 1970, along came Darling Lili and the death knell rang a little louder.
Darling Lili represented two artists at the top of their careers. Though Julie Andrews had suffered through two pretty big flops, Star and Thoroughly Modern Millie, she was still riding high on the success of The Sound of Music. Her husband, Blake Edwards, had spent much of the decade directing a range of films, from the harrowing (Days of Wine and Roses) to the hilarious (The Pink Panther, The Great Race). Though Darling Lili marked the beginning of the director's most fertile and financially successful period, the film itself was troubled from the beginning of production.
Facts of the Case
Darling Lili is a true curiosity. An odd amalgam of songs, intrigue, and comedy, it's a good example of when Blake Edwards works and when he doesn't. At once a stylish craftsman and a crude yuckmeister, Edwards often seemed to lose his way in the course of his films. That's Life, for example, is a mostly measured and heartfelt look at marriage and aging that boasts two excellent performances from Julie Andrews and Jack Lemmon (The China Syndrome). But the tone of the film is jarred by some very out of place bits of comic shtick, including a scene of a badly mangled man in an emergency room who appears to be near death but who, upon hearing that his roommate has crabs, sits bolt upright and screams straight into the camera.
It's almost as if Edwards didn't trust his dramatic sense and felt the need to undercut it with wildly overplayed comedy. Edwards made similar missteps in his remake of the French film The Man Who Loved Women and one of his biggest hits 10, both of which were sold as mature, adult comedies. Which they were, except when they weren't.
Edwards' coarseness often got the best of him, particularly later in his career. Such films as Switch and Skin Deep, with its glow-in-the-dark condom hijinks, are good examples of the leering, dirty-old-man vulgarity to which the director sometimes succumbed.
Granted, broad comedy is what made Edwards Edwards, from the Pink Panther series through the underrated S.O.B., but he sometimes seems incapable of knowing when to underplay it, as in Darling Lili when a wheelchair-bound soldier takes a Disneyesque header into a lake. As a result, watching an Edwards' film is akin to girding yourself against the possibility that a boorish dinner guest might belch at an otherwise civilized gathering. (Note his gagged-up entrance at last year's Oscars, where he ostensibly shot across the stage in a motorized wheelchair—embarrassingly shticky and out of place.)
Edwardsian overkill imposes itself in Darling Lili, the story of Lili Smith, a music hall entertainer spying for the Germans in World War I. Opulent musical numbers vie for screen time with biplane battles and banter between Andrews and Rock Hudson's (Seconds) American fighter pilot. The combination makes for a prime example of late-60s feature film excess. Indeed, the original cut of Darling Lili was 136 minutes, but was reedited and released at 107 minutes. Much of the excised footage is included on the DVD, but it adds mostly to the spectacle, rather than the story.
Edwards elicits winning performances from both Andrews and Hudson. The performers match each other in tenacity and verve and their relationship is the best thing in Darling Lili. Hudson's casual charm is a winning counterpoint to Andrews' formality and virginal image. Their interplay infuses the film with a realism that's missing from the cartoonishly conceived supporting characters.
Jeremy Kemp, as the German colonel who is Lili's contact and sometime lover, fares less well in a stock role. Given the broad performances of many of the supporting characters, Kemp appears uptight and discomfited, as if he wandered in off the set of Where Eagles Dare.
Technically, Darling Lili is a disjointed affair composed of European locations and Hollywood soundstages. The dogfight sequences combine well-shot biplane footage with some of the sorriest-looking rear-screen projection ever witnessed. The bifurcated nature of the film makes Darling Lili more a chore than a charm salvaged by the acting of Andrews and Hudson.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Not surprisingly, where Darling Lili succeeds is in the musical performances. A combination of original songs by Henry Mancini, as well as such rousing WWI tunes as "It's a Long Way to Tipperary," are woven throughout the story and Andrews' performance of them is typically assured, enough to help the audience suspend disbelief about the borderline-preposterous premise.
Darling Lili, despite its many flaws, is worth a look on a cultural level, as an illustration of the waning days of the big-budget Hollywood musical. Sure, there have been some notable ones since—Chicago, The Phantom of the Opera—but Darling Lili really represents a blast from the musical past and offers some insight into why the genre faded away.
The film is found guilty of crude comedy in service of a corny story and sentenced to join the list of other Blake Edwards duds, including Sunset and A Fine Mess.
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