‘Lili’ and the magic of storytelling

For reasons I’m not sure I entirely understand, I happened last week on this clip from the old movie, Lili. It features the song “Hi Lily, Hi Lo,” which was a very big hit when I was a very little boy. I realized, somewhat to my own surprise, that this might be my favorite song in the world.

The situation here is that Lili, an orphan in post-war France, has just lost her job in a carnival, and has been rejected by a man she thought she loved. She is contemplating suicide when the puppeteer, speaking through his puppets, engages her in conversation. Soon she is having a wonderful time. Then comes the song. I’ve watched this clip again and again, and I’m fascinated by the storytelling skill of the screenwriter, Helen Deutsch.

Notice something strange in the scene? The song is (as the lyrics say), a sad song. And indeed, most of the many performers who’ve covered it since have slowed it down and sung it soulfully, with a different chorus. But Deutsch is doing a subtle and interesting thing here. She’s creating deliberate ambiguity. The words of the song don’t match the mood of the scene. That would be a great writing error if the writer didn’t know what she was doing. But this ambiguity creates a tension in the mind of the viewer. And that tension’s like Chekhov’s famous gun – if you hang it on the wall, you’ve got to use it before the play is over.

The ambiguity here is in Lily’s personality. Although she has suffered in life, both through bereavement and rejected love, she is still quite naïve. She doesn’t understand what the song she’s singing means.

But she will. That’s what the story is about. To add resonance, she’s (all unawares) singing with the puppeteer, the man she eventually will love. And at this point she doesn’t know he exists, and he doesn’t know how to express his feelings in person.

The subject of Lily’s naivete brings up a second point that impressed me. There’s a basic problem in the plot of this story. The main tension rises from the fact that Lily interacts with the puppets as if they were real people. She does it so well that she becomes part of the act. But that seems like a stretch. We’re told she’s only 16, but is any 16-year-old that unaware? Seems unlikely, unless they’re mentally retarded, which would make the romance that follows pretty creepy.

Here’s the background: Helen Deutsch based her script on a story by Paul Gallico, “The Man Who Hated People.” But Gallico’s setting was very different. Gallico set his story in New York City, in a TV station. The puppet show in the story was modeled after “Kukla, Fran, and Ollie,” which was a very popular program in the early days of television. Fran was an attractive young woman who stood beside the puppet stage and interacted with the puppets.

It would appear that Helen Deutsch recognized that such a setting wouldn’t work in a movie. It just overshoots plausibility that a girl in New York (she’s called Millie in the story), working in TV, could really be that innocent.

So Deutsch moved the story to France and a carnival. A European carnival is an ancient institution, overlaid with a glamor of magic. If you set the scene right, and work carefully, you can just persuade the viewer to suspend disbelief enough to believe (for an hour and a half) that a naïve young French girl might be innocent enough – or voluntarily delusional enough – to believe the puppets are real people.

Movies have always been magic. Perhaps part of the problem with movies today is that moviemakers no longer believe in the magic of the medium, or of storytelling, and have substituted CGI magic.

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