Darling Lili (1970) is a musical comedy spy film set in France towards the end of the Great War. Written by Blake Edwards and William Peter Blatty, and directed by Edwards, the film did poorly upon release and the name Darling Lili became synonymous with a box office flop. As the years have gone by, however, Darling Lili has become much more appreciated as a film, and the poor response can be attributed to an oversaturation of the movie market with movie musicals attempting to capitalize on the success of The Sound of Music in the late 1960s. Julie Andrews starred as the titular Lili Smith and sang most of the movie’s soundtrack and Rock Hudson played across her as the charming, although hyper-masculine William Larrabee.
Inspired by the story of Mata Hari, a Dutch burlesque performer and prostitute convicted of being a German spy during the Great War, Darling Lili follows Lili, a famous British singer secretly spying for the Germans, as she is assigned to spy on Major William Larrabee, an important officer known for being a playboy. Unfortunately for her mission, she happens to fall in love with him while attempting to seduce him for information on a secret mission called “Crepe Suzette.” Lili becomes convinced that Mission Crepe Suzette is a code word for his affair with the burlesque dancer of the same name and becomes incredibly jealous, framing Suzette as a German spy. The story is fraught with idyllic picnic dates and horrible communication skills, with a fun sprinkling of classic mid century racism and gender roles. One particular moment that is certainly wince worthy today is when Larabee first romances Lili by having a fancy picnic outside her window, complete with a band of “Hungarian g*p*sies,” a horrible caricature of the Romani people getting drunk and entertaining the two leads.
The cast of this film gave a phenomenal performance, Julie Andrews as the obvious standout. Her comedic timing and incredibly earnest nature made the romance of the story, which was some peculiar mix of sweet and uncomfortable, much more bearable.
The script was, in just one word, confusing. Often, it was hard to follow the spy storyline, especially with the cuts throughout to long, loud battle scenes between fighter planes. The storyline almost sets up Lili to be much cleverer than she actually is, especially within her fit of jealousy. In one scene, Lili’s uncle and spy director informs her that no other information about Mission Crepe Suzette (a mission Lili had overheard Larrabee mention and brush off to her) has leaked and therefore it must either be incredibly important or Larrabee lied to her, which Lili convinces herself means he has a secret relationship with another woman. While Larrabee attempts to seduce Lili, she keeps delaying the act, requesting they move to a different room or laughing, angering him. She then claims he called her another woman’s name, Suzette, refusing to have sex with him until he convinces her that there is not other woman and to tell her the truth about Mission Crepe Suzette. As an audience member, this seemed like a ploy to get him vulnerable and desperate enough for sex that he would tell her about the top secret mission, which would be an incredibly brilliant manipulation on her part. However, the film never lets Lili be that clever. Of course, she does not believe him and storms away convinced he is having an affair.
Moreover, it was hard to tell for most of the film if it was meant to be a comedy or not. There were some hilarious moments, like when Lili slams open a door as a clap of thunder booms, then enters the room with a cheerful smile on her face, or when she watches Suzette, the burlesque dancer that Larrabee actually was having an affair with, perform and the camera would cut between Suzette’s striptease and Lili’s insecure expression. But for most of the film, the genre seemed to flip every scene, from convoluted spy drama, to lighthearted romance, to serious satire of the Great War, to racy slapstick comedy, and back again. It does not allow the characters to be as fully dynamic as they could be, and while the Great War sets the circumstances of the plot, the war seems to have no impact on the characters, even though it had a lot of potential to really focus on the satire shown in several scenes.
Darling Lili is a fine enough movie, best to watch casually. It certainly shows itself to be a product of its time at many points, and it feels far too long for the story it tells, at two and a half hours. The acting and cinematography is excellent, and the issues of the film reside entirely in the script, which is not only confusing, but just seems confused itself. The script cannot decide what audience it is serving and seems out of place in all the niches it could fall into. While the story is cute enough to enjoy, it leaves a lot to be desired for the modern viewer. Darling Lili does an okay job at telling the story it was attempting to tell, but had so much potential to delve deeper into aspects of the war and how the star crossed lovers dynamic of German spy and British general could have played out in a war time romance as seen in the books we have read.