Continuing my efforts to watch as many William Wellman pre-Codes as possible, I’ve now seen Lilly Turner a couple of times. This movie sadly isn’t available on DVD as yet – I believe it sometimes turns up on TCM in the US, though, and is well worth looking out for. It strikes me there are easily enough early Wellman movies for a second Forbidden Hollywood collection focusing on him, though it’s more likely the lesser-known titles will turn up as Warner Archive releases.
This was the second time Ruth Chatterton had starred in a Wellman film (the first was Frisco Jenny the previous year. Once again she plays a woman who is forced to be tough by circumstances, but who still clings to a few battered ideals. This time, her character, Lilly, is a woman working in a succession of travelling carnivals. Wellman clearly enjoys creating the sleazy, down-at-heel circus atmosphere. The whole film feels varied and lively and, packing a lot of plot, dialogue, melodrama and black humour into just 65 minutes, moves at a breathless speed. (As with Wellman’s So Big!, it was originally longer and some footage was cut before release – Walter Brennan was among the actors whose scenes were deleted.) George Brent gets top billing opposite Chatterton, but he only comes into the film fairly late on – and to my mind Frank McHugh really has the main male role, as the heroine’s second husband. Robert Barrat is also superb as a tormented strongman, with a heavy German accent he was breaking in for Heroes For Sale.
Released in May 1933, just a month before Heroes For Sale and in the same year as Wild Boys of the Road, this is another Wellman’s Depression-era movie which focuses on people who don’t have much and have to keep moving from one place to the next. “It’s the same town every night, just with another name,” comments Lilly in one scene (I’m quoting from memory). The Great Depression is only mentioned explicitly late in the movie, as most of the film, based on a stage play by Phillip Dunning and George Abbott, is set in the years running up to it – but its atmosphere is there in the background all the way through.
At the very start of the film, the young Lilly (Chatterton was 40 but once again playing a woman in her early 20s) impulsively marries the rakish Rex (Gordon Westcott). As soon as they leave in a train, he announces that the honeymoon is over before it’s begun – and Lilly finds herself trailing after him as he works as a carnival magician, sleeping with other women behind her back. As this is a pre-Code, some of the carnival scenes see Lilly dancing sexily while wearing very revealing clothes.
After Rex is exposed as a bigamist, a series of melodramatic plot twists see Lilly hastily marrying carnival barker Dave Dixon (McHugh), who is kindly and a loyal friend, but a hopeless drunk. It’s stated explicitly that there is never any sexual relationship between them (Lilly has brief flings with other men) – but they do love each other all the same, and I think probably their odd, dysfunctional love story is the central relationship of the film. I’ve mainly seen McHugh in comic roles, and Dave is quite comic too, but it’s very black comedy – his recurring joke about needing booze as medicine because of his laryngitis gets that little bit less funny every time. I don’t want to take anything away from McHugh as a comic actor, but it is interesting to see him playing a character with more depth this time.
The mismatched couple move through a succession of carnivals, working their way downwards, until they end up at a travelling show run by the wonderfully sleazy quack Doctor McGill (Warner character actor Guy Kibbee, who is just brilliant in the part). Here Lilly meets civil engineer turned taxi driver Bob Chandler (George Brent, who was Chatterton’s real-life husband), and they fall in love – but the question is whether she can break away from her whole hard-bitten way of life to start again. Brent plays a working man here, as he does in Wellman’s The Purchase Price, in contrast with his usual rich and suave screen personality. Again he is a “good boy” who is slightly out of his depth and not sure whether he really approves of the heroine because of her sexual past.
Both McGill and strongman Fritz (Barrat) are always making passes at Lilly – she enjoys sparring with McGill, but is dismayed by Fritz, who is mentally ill and eventually carted off to an asylum, leaving Bob to take over as strongman. There are some powerful scenes of Fritz in a cell with shadowy bars on the wall – James Van Trees’ cinematography is excellent throughout, and these scenes are some of the most atmospheric, along with some long sequences of torrential rain. This must be one of Wellman’s films with the most rain, pouring down on a circus tent in one scene and forcing a van off the road into the mud in another.
I won’t give away all the plot twists, but will just say that, if you like Wellman and pre-Codes, and if you are a fan of that gritty early Warner style, this is well worth an hour of your time!