Long forgotten by almost all but Julie Andrews fans, Darling Lili was the box-office disaster that not only nearly killed Andrews and director Blake Edwards' careers but nearly destroyed Paramount as well (grossing only $5m against a then massive $25m budget) and even inspired two films - Blake Edwards' thinly-veiled version of his side of the film, S.O.B., and, of all things, The Godfather Part III (it seems the studio were partially baled out by investors who turned out to be, ahem, friends of Italian opera and who were particularly difficult to dislodge). Part of the last burst of absurdly expensive epic musicals that followed in the wake of the Sound of Music's success, it was never originally intended to be an all-out musical - instead, Edwards saw it as a period romantic comedy vehicle for his wife. Unfortunately, since his wife was Julie Andrews, the studio thought it might be a better investment to turn it into a musical - her character is a musical hall singer who moonlights as a spy for the Germans in the First World War after all. The film ended up spending more than a year-and-a-half in post-production as new scenes and musical numbers were added (it's not too difficult to spot them, since Hermes Pan's staging is far more confident than Edwards', who tends to be unsure of quite how to showcase Andrews at times, though a bizarre burlesque striptease number seems spectacularly out of place) and various lengths were tested before a 143-minute roadshow version opened to much derision or indifference. Edwards subsequently re-edited the film for US TV to one of the few director's cuts that's substantially shorter than the theatrical one, in the process turning it from a misfired musical romantic comedy to a slightly darker misfired romantic comedy with a few songs instead.
The biggest problem is that not only is there no chemistry between Andrews and Rock Hudson (who reportedly loathed each other) but they share surprisingly few actual scenes - much of the early stages of their romance are played out in montages while he has little dialogue in many of their scenes: not altogether surprising with Andrews' husband directing. Indeed, for much of the first half of film, the badly photographed and made-up Hudson barely registers as the air ace she's assigned to uncover military secrets from only to find herself falling in love with him. He's fine when he actually gets something to work with, but that's not until a lengthy failed seduction scene also involving a pair of bumbling French detectives watching from a rainy rooftop before inevitably falling unnoticed from a great height (something of a signature Blake Edwards gag).
Unfortunately, Edwards' and William Peter Blatty's script never really provides enough laughs to compensate for the lack of sparks between the leads. The film gets particularly messy at the end, with the final scene unbelievable in all the wrong ways even as fantasy (no-one on the Allied side seems to mind in the slightest that she was a German spy), but there are compensations en route. The eternally typecast Jeremy Kemp does his best urbane German aristocrat routine again and, a few clumsily inserted back-projection shots aside, Anthony Squire's aerial sequence boasts some truly remarkable dogfight footage that puts films like Flyboys to shame. Shot in Ireland with many of the planes collected for The Blue Max, it's both beautifully shot and boasts some remarkable `for real' stunt sequences. On the balance the film is more good than bad, but not quite good enough.
While the Region 1 NTSC DVD is the shorter 107-minute director's cut with some (but not all) of the deleted scenes included as extras, the Region 2 PAL DVD is the roadshow version complete with overture. Boasting a decent widescreen 2.35:1 transfer, the only extra is a teaser trailer largely made up of still photos.