Saturday, August 24, 2019

Liliom(1934): A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Hollywood.. or What Happened When 2 Germans and a Frenchman Met in Budapest

This is my contribution to the "Vive La France Blogathon" hosted by the dynamic duo of Christian at Silver Screen Modes and Patty a.k.a The Lady Eve at The Lady Eve's Reel Life. Click here for more cinematic inspiration from the land of the City of Lights and beyond.

Liliom (1934)

Why "Liliom"? This French film takes place in Budapest and was directed by Fritz Lang, who made a stop in France on his way from Germany to America. So, what makes it so French? Mainly, this guy:

Is that you, Charles Boyer?
Mon dieu! Was there ever an actor more French than Charles Boyer? The French typically do not transplant well to Hollywood. Yes, Chevalier was the charming boulevardier and Louis Jordan was quite dreamy in any language, but French mega-stars like Danielle Darrieux, Michele Morgan and Jean Gabin dabbled but headed back home after a few films. Even great directors like Renoir and Clair found the atmosphere in Hollywood inhospitable. But Boyer - boy was he the American's image of a French man. He was smooth, he was sophisticated, he paid attention to the fit of his clothes, his lower lip pouted in that sexy French way and he was slightly untrustworthy where the ladies were concerned. This was the Boyer I was used to:

Hmmm... I know you're a rogue, but you're so suave.....
But this is not the Boyer of "Liliom." In "Liliom" we get the pre-Hollywood stardom Boyer, and he is rougher, shaggier and more dangerous than the impeccably groomed continental into whom he was transformed.

The story of "Liliom" has had several incarnations, the most famous being the basis for the 1945 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, "Carousel." Based on Molar's play, it depicts the story of Julie, a chamber maid, and Liliom, a carousel barker, who flirts madly with the ladies to drum up business for the owner of the ride, who happens to be in love with him. The owner's control over Liliom makes his love affair with Julie difficult, but ultimately he decides to leave the carousel and strike out on his own with her. 

Liliom and Julie: love at first carousel ride
Having no particular skill or desire for honest employment, Liliom becomes filled with resentment towards society (shown in his self-fulfilling prophecy of his treatment by the local police) and towards Julie, whose devotion never waivers no matter how badly he treats her. Upon learning of Julie's pregnancy, Liliom allows himself to be dragged into a scheme of robbery and ultimately kills himself rather than be caught and confined to prison. On his deathbed, he confesses his guilt and accepts that he will have to face God for what he has done. Julie is left to raise their unborn child alone. 

We next find Liliom in purgatory, sitting before the magistrate who looks exactly like the police chief he faced on earth. He is given once chance to earn his way to heaven. Bringing something special (a star) to his daughter, he meets her and tells her of the himself, the father she never knew. He tells her the truth of himself, but she refuses to believe he was such a bad man and their confrontation results in Liliom reverting to type and striking her.  The magistrate is unhappy with Liliom, who simply states he can only be himself, and it appears that he is headed for a trip to hell, However, back on earth, when his daughter tells Julie of her meeting with the stranger, she asks if it was possible for someone to strike you and have it feel like a kiss. Julie says yes, and because his daughter, like Julie, felt the love through Liliom's anger, he squeaks his way into heaven.
Purgatory is a lot like earth... unfortunately for Liliom
If you know "Carousel, " you can see (and hear) how heavily it rests on this story. Songs are based on dialogue from the film and Billy Bigelow and Julie, although transported from Budapest to Maine, are exactly like the Julie and Liliom of Budapest.

Speaking of the love story of Julie and Liliom (or Billy), it is a hard one to watch. It's difficult not to be mad at Julie. Liliom beats his wife and treats her terribly, yet she stands by him and offers unconditional and gentle love. Of Course, Liliom knows he's a scoundrel - it's his signature move - but the story is not about Liliom's love for Julie. It is about the gift of Julie's love for the unworthy Liliom and how he squandered it. The cop on Heaven's beat gives him that one last chance and, true to character, he almost blows it. Because he is still the same man he was on earth, Liliom does not know how to show love, but, as we knew from Boyer's sensitive portrayal in those rare quiet moments, he does love. And so he is saved. Barely.

Lang's depiction of purgatory has the look of his German expressionist films. It is eerie, mesmerizing,  romantic, dark and somewhat magical. His view of justice, both on earth and beyond, validates Liliom's view that, for the non-privileged, it is a rigged system.

This cop is everywhere!
It is interesting to see Boyer in his natural French element, before the transformation. His star power is undeniable. Boyer had a few false starts earlier in Hollywood, never seeming to click, but shortly after this film he made one more trip across the Atlantic and made his mark. Poorly received at the time, "Liliom" was viewed as a French/Hungarian/ German mish-mash. Lang, however, always had a soft spot for the film and, seen today, it is impossible not to make those mental comparisons with "Carousel" or to deny that Charles Boyer was one Frenchman who was going to survive the transplant from his native land to Hollywood. An actor of charm, depth and staying power, he became our ideal of the sophisticated, romantic Frenchman, a true Hollywood creation.


Charles Boyer

With Hedy Lamarr in "Algiers."
Can you blame her for coming wiz him to the Casbah?
More than just a leading man, Boyer shared the screen with such imposing leading ladies as Marlene Dietrich, Ingrid Bergman, Greta Garbo, Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland. From cads to heroes, his range and work remains impressive. I like him more and more each time I see him.

Terrorizing Ingrid Bergman in "Gaslight." 
He was married to the same woman, British actress Pat Patterson, for 44 years. 2 days after her death, Boyer committed suicide, a tragic end, yet somehow befitting our ideal of the romantic Frenchman.

Madeleine Ozeray (Julie)

Ms. Ozeray had a sterling and important career both on the French stage and in French film. Judging by her success in her native country, she was wise to stay put.

Fritz Lang

The master of German expressionism made a number of unforgettable classics in Germany ("M," "Metropolis") before making that one stop in France (to evade the Nazis) and then sailing on to Hollywood where he had a few more classics up his sleeve (Scarlet Street," "The Woman in the Window," "Rancho Notorious" - to name a few).

Franz Waxman

A German Jew who, in 1934, received a beating from Nazi sympathizers in Berlin. "Liliom" was his first original film score before relocating to America, where his great work included the scoring for such films as "Sunset Boulevard," "Rebecca," "The Bride of Frankenstein," "The Philadelphia Story," and "A Place in the Sun." Again - so glad he and Lang stopped in France on the way to Hollywood.