Lili (1953): Popular, Oscar Nominated Musical, Starring Leslie Caron in her First Oscar Role

On the heels of her successful debut in “American in Paris,” Leslie Caron was made a bona fide star in the 1953 movie, Lili,” directed by Charles Waters, a second-rate but charming musical that became famous for its Oscar-winning score.

Technically speaking, “Lili” is a melodrama with songs rather than a genuine musical movie.
Leslie Caron received her first Best Actress Oscar nomination for playing Lili Daurier, a teenage orphan, who runs off to work as a waitress with a traveling carnival. She falls in love with a magician, Marc, (Jean Pierre Aumont), an older guy amused and bemused by Lili’s wide-eyed innocence.
However, she is fired for paying too much attention to Marc, and is taken for comfort by a bunch of speaking puppets, operated by Paul Berthalet (Mel Ferrer), a bitter former dancer, crippled by a war injury.
Paul is jealous of Lili’s affection for Paul, but he is the kind of emotionally detached guy who can only show his feeling through his work.
Lili thinks Marc is insensitive and cruel, until she learns he is married to Rosalie (Zsa Zsa Gabor in one of her few decent performances), who also works as his assistant. Zsa Zsa gets to play the big melodramatic scenes—“I want everybody to know that I’m your wife.” Feeling dejected, Lili wants to leave but the puppets (all voiced by Ferrer) beg her to stay.
The high moment of the film is the rendition of the Oscar-winning song, “Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo,” which is repeated through the tale, especially when Lili is down and depressed.
There’s also a dance with Marc, in which Caron and Zsa Zsa Gabor are wearing the same glitzy red dress, competing for his attention.
In a dream-fantasy sequence, Paul expresses his love for Lili in a duet dance (choreographed by Walters), in which he is clad in dark blue and she in light blue, which convinces her to go back.
The film was first offered to Vincente Minneli, MGM”s top musical director, but he turned it down (only to regret it when it became one of the blockbusters of the year), because it was too sentimental.
As the sensitive gamine, Caron is charming, practically carrying the whole movie on her shoulders. Minnelli would cast Caron in the lead role in his 1958 Oscar-winner musical “Gigi.”
By today’s standards the puppets’ look and sound seem simple and primitive, but in 1953, audiences were enchanted by the sentimental movie and it became one of the top-grossers of the year.
End Note
“Lili” served as inspiration for a 1961 Broadway musical, “Carnival,” with songs by Bob Merrill and Anna Maria Alberghetti playing the Leslie Caron role.
Oscar Nominations: 6
Director: Charle Waters
Screenplay: Helen Deutsch
Actress: Lelsie Caron
Cinematography (color): Robert Planc
Art direction-Set decoration (color): Cedric Gibbons, Paul Groesse, Edwin B. Willis, Arthur Krams
Scoring (Dramatic or Comedy): Bronislau Kaper
Oscar Awards
Oscar Context
The Directing Oscar went to Fred Zinnemann for the WWII drama, “From Here to Eternity,” which swept most of the awards, including Screenplay for Daniel Taradash.
The Cinematography Oscar went to Loyal Griggs for the Western “Shane,” and the Art direction to the historical epic, “The Robe.”