A German spy masquerades as a singer during World War I to obtain secrets from an American pilot and she begins to fall in love with him.
A welcome new DVD life might be in store for Darling Lili, an underrated film whose reputation is mostly locked as one of the big, expensive flops that helped reshape Hollywood at the turn of the seventies. Julie Andrews was still at the height of her popularity when she began shooting this musical-comedy-drama with new husband Blake Edwards directing; budget overruns, studio interference, and the changing box-office climate all doomed the movie's disastrous 1970 release.
Even fans of the picture would have to admit that the weird storyline had something to do with it, too. Andrews plays a World War I singer in London and Paris who's actually a spy for the Germans (part of her cover is singing popular patriotic songs, such as "Pack Up Your Troubles" and "It's a Long Way to Tipperary"). Her new assignment is to get information from a famous pilot (Rock Hudson), but naturally she falls in love with him along the way. The movie's WWI aerial sequences (shot in Ireland) are a little like the film's approach: soaring, graceful, and disconnected from any carnage that might be happening in the trenches. However, if you can appreciate Edwards' slapstick prowess and commitment to the screwball-romance style of filmmaking, there's much to admire.
For one thing, Edwards photographs Julie Andrews with the loving devotion of a new husband. For another, his feeling for the widescreen frame as a big playground for lush color and busy action is well-served by the DVD release--this is a visually gorgeous movie. The new songs by Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer include the superb opening number--evocatively shot--called "Whistling in the Dark." The DVD is billed as a "Director's Cut," but is shorter than the original release, a result of Edwards himself reportedly retooling the picture after 1970 (the disc has a whopping hour's worth of additional scenes). Whichever way it's sliced, Darling Lili was always going to be a strangely mixed movie, with Pink Panther-style bits sitting next to Mata Hari skullduggery. Fans of Julie Andrews and the vanished elegance of visual storytelling will find much to savor nevertheless. --Robert Horton