Lilly Turner (1933) provided a bravura role for star Ruth Chatterton, and another opportunity to display her versatility. Lilly is a hard-luck dame with lousy taste in men. First she marries a no-good bounder who promises her the world, but instead turns her into a cootch dancer in a carnival. Then she finds out her “husband” already has a wife. Left alone and pregnant, Lilly marries an alcoholic pal (Frank McHugh), and the couple joins a traveling medicine show. Things go from bad to worse when a psychotic strongman in the show develops an obsession for her. When a genuine nice guy, played by Chatterton’s then-husband George Brent, comes into her dreary life, Lilly tries to grab some happiness. But it may be too late.
After a distinguished career on the New York stage, Chatterton was part of the wave of theater performers who had gone to Hollywood at the beginning of the sound era. Already in her mid-30s and not conventionally pretty, Chatterton was nevertheless a great success in films, bringing a sense of “class” to the medium, and was twice nominated for Oscars®, for Madame X (1929) and Sarah and Son (1930). Unlike many stage actors of the era, Chatterton did not use exaggerated diction or grand gestures. Her acting style was naturalistic, her way of speaking staccato, distinctive, and charming, her facial expressiveness small but precise. Although her normal speech was cultured, in Lilly Turner Chatterton is playing a working class character, so she drops her g’s, but it seems natural, not affected. In his book about pre-code film actresses, Complicated Women (2000), Mick LaSalle called Chatterton “a vision of total female authority, circa 1930. Even in weepies, she was commanding. Short and slightly plump, Chatterton was convinced she was beautiful, and she convinced everybody else, too. She had a baleful stare and yet a surprisingly mischievous, almost childlike, smile. She was a diva.”
Lilly Turner was the second film together for Chatterton and director William A. Wellman. A “man’s man” with a preference for action films and a contempt for divas, Wellman was not happy when he was assigned to direct Frisco Jenny (1932) with Chatterton. The dislike was mutual, but after three days of icy silence between them, director and star called a truce, recognizing each other’s talents, and becoming great fans of each other. Frisco Jenny would be Chatterton’s favorite film. While she and Wellman were happy to work together again, Lilly Turner was not as good as Frisco Jenny. For Wellman, Lilly Turner was just another programmer, one of six that he cranked out in 1933 under contract at Warner Bros. In spite of the grim story, Wellman gives the carnival scenes a certain seedy vitality. And reliable character actors Guy Kibbee as the medicine show boss, and Frank McHugh as Lilly’s bibulous husband get a chance to play characters with a few more facets than their usual one-note comedy roles. Mordaunt Hall noted in the New York Times that Kibbee “does remarkably well by the part.” But as for Chatterton, she “is not in her element in such a narrative, for she is obviously far better suited to a more sophisticated subject.” The Variety reviewer wrote that the film “fails to measure better than fair,” but had praise for Chatterton’s efforts, saying “Picture is Miss Chatterton’s all the way, star making every effort to give what the story lacks and what is missing in the direction.” In spite of such reviews, Lilly Turner was a box-office success.
Lilly Turner is clearly a pre-Code film, dealing frankly with Lilly’s sexual affairs, and that may be the reason why it wasn’t seen for many years. According to studio records, in 1936, Warner Bros. tried to reissue it, but was denied a Production Code certificate.
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