Lilli in her later years found a comfortable niche in a variety of supporting roles as well as turning her hand to painting and writing novels, and a very interesting biography “Change Lobsters and Dance”. During the heyday of her marriage to Rex Harrison they were one of the main theatrical couples of the era, entertaining everybody from Churchill and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor at their home in Portofino, Italy, and she was also involved in the Carole Landis scandal, and Rex’s marriage to the ailing Kay Kendall.
She was born in 1914 in Prussia, making her theatrical debut in 1932. Being Jewish the family fled to Paris as the Nazis came to power, and Lilli then moved to England. Early film roles included Hitchcock’s SECRET AGENT in 1936, A GIRL MUST LIVE and Will Hay’s GOOD MORNING, BOYS. THUNDER ROCK in 1942 is a good anti-war film of the time, by Roy Boulting, where Lilli is one of the ghosts from a shipwreck invading the mind of Michael Redgrave as a journalist who retreats to a lighthouse – the young James Mason is also effective here. Leslie Howard’s THE GENTLE SEX in 1943 finds her as the self-reliant European girl among newcomers (including Joan Greenwood and Rosamund John) doing their bit for the war effort. It’s a perfect period piece now.
She married Rex Harrison in 1943 and they co-starred in THE RAKE’S PROGRESS in 1945. Hollywood then beckoned and the Harrisons moved to California. Lilli found interesting roles in Fritz Lang’s CLOAK AND DAGGER with Gary Cooper and in Rossen’s BODY AND SOUL in 1947 with John Garfield.
Rex, ever the philanderer, was also busy but found time to romance Carole Landis which led to one of the more notorious scandals of the time, when Landis committed suicide and Rex had found her and left the scene. A dilemma for Lilli was what to wear at the funeral of one’s husband’s mistress? She settled for navy blue instead of black. The Harrisons though were now not welcome in Hollywood and moved to New York where several successes on the stage included “The Four Poster” (also filmed) and “Bell Book and Candle”.
Their next film was, frankly, a pot-boiler: THE LONG DARK HALL in 1951 where Rex is accused of the murder of his girlfriend, of which he is innocent, with Lilli as the understanding little wife waiting at home in the suburbs! However, as she relates in her memoir, it paid for their villa in Italy, in the then quiet village of Portofino. It would be their bolt-hole away from the theatre and cinema. THE FOUR POSTER followed in 1952. Television work kept her busy, including THE LILLI PALMER SHOW, until a German film in ’54 FEUERWERK (or OH MY PAPA from its hit song) a story about circus folk with the young Romy Schneider.
In 1958 was an interesting remake of the 1930s MADCHEN IN UNIFORM, this one co-starred Romy Schneider as the lonely orphan forming a forbidden attachement to Lilli’s attractive, sympatheic new teacher at a strict Prussian Girls Academy.
By this time though, Rex had become involved with madcap English actress Kay Kendall (who was in New York with him during the stage run of “My Fair Lady”). Both Rex and Lilli relate in their memoirs how Kay’s doctor called them in to advise that Kay had incurable leukaemia and if Rex was not able to look after her, she would have to be told. So they decided to divorce so Rex could marry Kay for her final years. Lilli had confided her problems to good friend Noel Coward who was horrified at the dilemma she was in. Lilli though had met Argentine actor Carlos Thompson and they married in 1957, the year Rex married Kay (who died two years later in 1959 after completing the delightful comedies LES GIRLS, THE RELUCTANT DEBUTANTE and ONCE MORE WITH FEELING for Cukor, Minnelli and Donen).
Hollywood came calling again in the shape of the production team of Perlberg and Seaton at Paramount with 3 films for Lilli, showing her at her most poised and elegant.
BUT NOT FOR ME in ’58 has her as Clark Gable’s ex wife, amusingly watching from the sidelines (before winning him back) as he romances ambitious young actress Carroll Baker. It’s a fascinating look at Broadway at the time with Gable as the producer and Lee J Cobb as a drunken playright. Ella sings that song over the credits as Gable’s car glides through the Manhattan of the 50s.
CONSPIRACY OF HEARTS from the Rank Organisation, was onhe we liked a lot in 1960,where Lilli is the very elegant Mother Superior of a convent in Italy where the nuns save Jewish children from the Germans. Add in young Sylvia Syms, Yvonne Mitchell as the crotchety nun, David Kossoff as a rabbi and Albert Lieven and Peter Arne as dastardly Germans. It’s a superior tear-jerker.
Back in Hollywood Lilli was Fred Astaire’s ex-wife now comfortably married to Gary Merrill in THE PLEASURE OF HIS COMPANY as daughter Debbie Reynolds gets married to Tab Hunter. Enter Fred as the charming father and complications ensue in this pleasing film of the play.
She was also very effective in the 1962 Seaton film THE COUNTERFEIT TRAITOR as the love of agent William Holden. There is a harrowing execution scene by firing squad. She was also Maugham’s Julia in a French film with Charles Boyer ADORABLE JULIA which was fun to see recently, with Jean Sorel as the young man professing love to actress Julia but who has his own agenda. Lilli’s Julia is indeed adorable as she deftly handles every situation.
When I arrived in London as a teenager in the mid-60s, Lilli was on the stage (her final stage role here) in Coward's SUITE IN THREE KEYS with Coward himself and Irene Worth, but I had not yet started my theatre-going!
The mature Lilli now settled into some interesting supporting roles. OPERATION CROSSBOW in 1965 finds her as the Dutch hotelier looking after agents George Peppard and Tom Courtenay as engineers who are their way to the munitions factory which has to be destroyed. THE AMOROUS ADVENTURES OF MOLL FLANDERS was also amusing to see again recently, not quite a TOM JONES but a jolly period romp it features almost every English character actor of the period (1965). Kim Novak is Moll, but the quartet of Lilli, George Sanders, Angela Lansbury and Vittorio De Sica (as impoverished aristocrats!) make for enjoyable viewing.
More European roles followed and then in 1968: SEBASTIAN with Dirk Bogarde, a swinging 60s spy caper; another thriller NOBODY RUNS FOREVER, and as Jocasta in the arty OEDIPUS THE KING with Christopher Plummer and Orson Welles, and HARD CONTRACT in 1969, as well as DE SADE, a psychedelic period romp with Keir Dullea as De Sade and Lilli as an icy Madame de Montreuil. Cue lots of topless beauties as an endless “orgy” goes on and on …. More assorted tv roles followed until THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL in ’78, with Lilli as the sister of Laurence Oliver, an old friend.
Lilli was on the LOVE BOAT in 1984, and was Michael Caine’s mother in the dreary THE HOLCROFT COVENANT in 1985, and her final credit was the tv PETER THE GREAT in 1986. She had by now written a well-regarded novel “The Red Raven” and her autobiography. She died of cancer in 1986 aged 71. Her husband Carlos Thompson committed suicide 4 years later. When Rex Harrison died in 1990 part of his ashes were scattered on her grave at Forest Lawn.
It is always a pleasure catching up with Lilli as her charm and elegance is evident in even the most mundane role.