Thursday 13 December 2007

Lilly Turner (1933) William A Wellman

Lilly Turner marries carnival magician Rex Durkee as the film opens but things aren't going to last. Maybe the signs are in the first words spoken after the ceremony, when Rex Durkee tells everyone he's the happiest man in the world but she's only the sweetest girl in Buffalo. Maybe it comes when he has to borrow the fare for their honeymoon from her or maybe it come when he lets her know on the train that they aren't actually going to have a honeymoon after all. Whenever it comes, it's very obvious that he's no class act. He cheats on his wife, does a runner when he finds out she's pregnant and then it turns out that he's a bigamist and wasn't legally married to her anyway. All in six months.

So she reacts by marrying the act's barker. She loses the baby and he's a drunk (a happy and decent one, but still a drunk), so life's just one bundle of laughs. They leave the carnival and join up with a medicine show, hawking snake oil, while everyone and his dog seem to be trying it on with Lilly. And don't take that quite literally: this is certainly a precode but they weren't quite that enlightened back then. Lilly hasn't been entirely true to her drunken husband, given that their marriage was really a favour to a pregnant woman, but eventually she falls for a cab driver who she gets hired into the show as the replacement strongman when the original goes insane.

Of all the actors here, the one I know least is the lead. She's Ruth Chatterton and was a big star in her day, her day primarily being the precodes. She only made 26 films, from 1928 to 1938, and this is my third. The big one was Dodsworth, in which she played the memorably bitchy wife of Walter Huston's lead character, but she was also excellent in The Lady of Scandal opposite Basil Rathbone. She does a fine job here, going from enthusiastic young bride to be to wronged woman to straight faced con artist to fresh faced lover to drunk. It's not a flashy performance but it carries all that's needed and more. Her one line when she runs into her sort of first husband is delivered perfectly and she has a great talent for sarcasm.

The cab driver, really an engineer working a cab, is George Brent, who was Chatterton's husband at the time, though their marriage only lasted two years. There's plenty of talented backup for them. The drunken barker husband is Frank McHugh, who does seem a little strange with a five o'clock shadow; the fake doctor at the medicine show is Guy Kibbee who was born to play such a part and the insane strongman is Robert Barrat, who was the communist turned capitalist in Heroes for Sale. He overacts shamelessly here but everyone else is solid. There's also a brief part for Ruth Donnelly and another for Grant Mitchell as a real doctor.

Lilly Turner is a very precode character in a very precode film. She starts out with all the best intentions and does nothing wrong, only to find herself in a highly unfortunate situation that society of the time couldn't approve of: an unmarried mother to be. She then gets out of it through the kindness of another, becoming half of an open marriage, very progressive for the times. In defining just what makes a precode, I often look at a film from the perspective of whether it could have been remade under the code: either as is, with changes or however it could be done. This is one of those films that simply could not have been remade, as the aberrations from the code are the entire point.


Mitali said...

I saw this film a few days back - a copy that I had taped off of TCM a year back at least. It was a very unique film. I wasn't sure I wanted to keep it, then I decided to go ahead and keep it since sometimes, you learn to appreciate things you didn't care for in the past. I gained a new appreciation for Ruth Chatterton through this film. Robert Barrat was new to me and he completely fooled me with his German character, until I saw him turn up as Barbara Stanwyck's pimp/dad in BABY FACE a few days ago. That was a revelation. -Mitali

Hal C. F. Astell said...

Glad you enjoyed! I gained my first appreciation for Ruth Chatterton here, as I'd never previously managed to find one of her films. I didn't find Barrat very believable though I did in Heroes for Sale. I think I need to start paying attention to him. I gave his filmography a quick onceover and I think I've seen him in 27 films without really having a clue who he was. I have a feeling he's going to become much more visible to me now and turn up all the time, just like Friedrich von Ledebur who played many of the same sort of roles a couple of decades later.