Darling Lili represented an early attempt by Julie Andrews to escape the saccharine-drenched virginally pure image that had haunted her since Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music. In Darling Lili she got to pay a bad girl. A rather sweet and likeable bad girl, but a bad girl nonetheless. The movie also has the distinction of having contributed considerably to the death of the traditional big-budget Hollywood musical, and its spectacular commercial failure took Paramount to the brink of bankruptcy.
Julie Andrews is Lili Smith, a beloved music hall singer who also happens to be a spy for the Germans. Her latest target is Major Bill Larrabee, famed air ace and commander of the eilte Eagle Squadron. The German spymaster von Ruger (who is also Lili’s lover) wants information on Allied air tactics and other military secrets to which Larrabee has access. Lili sets out to seduce the major, which turns out to be very easy indeed. But this is the movies, so of course she begins to fall in love with him. He situation becomes more difficult when she learns that French Military Intelligence have discovered that Bill is the source of recent very damaging security leaks and they are fairly sure he is passing secrets to a woman working for the German intelligence service.
In retrospect it’s very easy to see why this film bombed at the box office in 1970. Casting Julie Andrews as a German spy was bad enough, but casting her as a German spy who uses sex to obtain military secrets was too much for audiences at the time. And to compound the sin, she’s presented as a very sympathetic spy who is totally unrepentant. And the idea of Mary Poppins having sex, and even doing a strip-tease!
The other aspect of the movie that undoubtedly alienated contemporary audiences is the bewildering mix of styles and genres. The film is a combination of sophisticated romantic comedy, crude slapstick, wartime adventure, spy thriller, musical, satire and romance, and it switches between genres with alarming rapidity and frequency. Today such blending of genres is commonplace (possibly too commonplace) but in 1970 it must have seemed confused rather than audacious. And to further estrange the movie from audiences there’s a noticeably mocking attitude towards patriotism and the military virtues, which might have appealed to the youth audience but was unlikely to endear itself to the type of people likely to see a Julie Andrews musical.
The very things that led to its being box office poison in 1970 are likely to be the things that a modern audience will enjoy. Once you realise you’re not meant to take any of it seriously, and that the plot is suppose to be ludicrously contrived, there’s much to enjoy. Julie Andrews is funny and charming, and she’s even sexy in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way. It’s all gloriously overdone. Everything is too colourful and too shiny. There’s too much of everything. Director Blake Edwards is being too clever and too knowing. Julie Andrews is too self-consciously a star. In other words, we’re talking delicious high camp here. Darling Lili is enormous fun and I enjoyed every minute.