Audrey Hepburn personified the zeitgeist as the 1950s equivalent of today’s “pixie girl,” and generation after generation has continued to identify with her image. Yet the Dutch-born gamine did have rivals, and the best of these was Leslie Caron.
A fine dancer as well as an actress, the French (and heavily French-accented) Caron became a star dancing with Gene Kelly in Vincente Minnelli’s Oscar-winning An American in Paris. She was brought to Hollywood by M-G-M, but they didn’t really know what to do with her. Choreographer turned director Charles Walters saw something in her, however, and got the OK to make Lili, a modestly-budgeted fantasy about an orphaned teenager who joins a traveling circus and becomes a sensation as part of a puppet act.
Yes, this is a film featuring puppets. Really cute puppets.
Though set in France, the studio-shot Lili looks exactly like Hollywood’s idea of Europe. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It lends an unreal quality that suits the film nicely, and is nicely preserved on Warner Archive’s no-frills burned-on-demand DVD. Walters, cinematographer Robert Planck and Metro’s crack design team employ muted colors for the opening (the credits are partially black & white, unusual for a Technicolor production) and “village” scenes, to heighten the theatricality and unreality of Lili’s new life in the circus.
All this serves as backdrop for a drama about a 16-year-old girl who talks to puppets as if they’re real. Indeed, when she’s deep in conversation with them, she forgets that there’s an audience watching, or a man behind the curtain—a particularly ill-tempered puppeteer played with sour conviction by Audrey Hepburn’s future husband, Mel Ferrer.
Caron has, in interviews, affectionately referred to the character as that “little half-wit,” but the reason Lili is so touching—and her progress into becoming a young woman so believable—is that Caron and Walters collaborated without sentimentality. Lili may be naïve, but she’s not stupid. And she’s still a disarming character.
Lili is a film that’s completely free of the era’s angst (and the era’s angsty acting style), and was a surprise smash hit. Caron next re-teamed with Walters (and screenwriter Helen Deutsch) for The Glass Slipper, an imaginative reworking of Cinderella that’s even better than Lili. The secret to the film’s fairy-tale atmosphere is that all of the explicitly magical elements are removed. (Though the “magic” of coincidence, destiny and other staples of romance remain.) The Fairy Godmother becomes, in the delightful person of Estelle Winwood, the village’s loopy old dame, collecting words as well as other people’s property; the prince has been demoted to mere duke’s son; and coachmen are bribed to take Cinderella to the ball instead of being transformed from rodents.
The Glass Slipper is a musical, but dancing, rather than singing, dominates. It seems like the design scheme is as well developed (and better-budgeted) than in Lili, but it’s hard to tell. The Warner Archive transfer is fine, but the original materials are a mess. The contrast between the stable (but more expensive) Technicolor process used in Lili and the unstable (but cheaper) Eastman Color film used in The Glass Slipper is stark. In some scenes, the colors change from shot to shot. Hopefully, Warner will be able to do a full restoration someday.
In both films, Caron is delightful, even otherworldly, but she has a flinty center that the eternally girlish Hepburn lacked. It may have made her less accessible, but she’s as compelling a screen presence as her more successful counterpart.