The William Wellman Blogathon: Lilly Turner (1933)
Lilly Turner (1933) is one of those First National Pictures where the opening credits show each of the main characters in the film – you know what I’m talking about? I always enjoy seeing these credits – there’s something about them that makes me feel like I’m about to experience something. And in the case of Lilly Turner, I was right.
The first performer that we see in the credits for Lilly Turner is, fittingly, Ruth Chatterton who plays the title role. We only see her for a few seconds, but in that brief span of time, we find out all we need to know about this dame. She’s smoking a cigarette and staring directly into the camera, with an expression on her face that’s somewhere between a scowl and a headache. She seems to be issuing a silent challenge:
“Go ahead. I dare you.”
It makes for a perfect opening to this William Wellman-directed feature, which is practically spilling over with pre-Code goodness – just when you think you can’t take one more tragic event or any further scandal, you turn around and BAM – there’s another dab of disgrace for ya. You’re welcome.
The film opens with the wedding of Lilly Turner to vaudevillian Rex Durkee (Gordon Westcott), who only has to say a few words to the wedding guests and we can tell he’s a pretty massive tool. We get a big ol’ hint of things to come when we learn that Lilly’s mother is totally against the union: “If she’d only wait until she knows him better.” Another touch of foreshadowing arrives courtesy of one of Lilly’s gal pals, who’s seated in the living room next to her own buxom mother, waiting for the ceremony to begin. Gazing admiringly at Rex, she makes a comment about his good looks, adding: “Lilly’s lucky.” And her mother shoots her a look of disgust and emits a contemptuous “Hmph.”
And we don’t have to wait long to find out that Mother (both of them) knows best. Before the couple even boards the train, Rex is mooching money off of his wife, and seconds after the locomotive pulls away from the station, Lilly learns that they’re not headed for New York, as planned, but instead, on a vaudeville tour that includes stops from Scranton to Carbondale – with Lilly as his scantily clad assistant.
Not enough pre-Code for ya? How about this? As Lilly’s husband continues to show his true colors, their marriage quickly deteriorates – but then, she learns that she’s pregnant, and a short time later, Rex takes a powder. But that’s not all. Lilly finds out that Rex’s divorce from his previous wife is, shall we say, non-existent, and that she’s not legally married. She’s helped out of this dilemma (the pregnant without benefit of clergy dilemma) by her pal, Dave Dixon (Frank McHugh) – an unendingly sweet guy who happens to be a hopeless alcoholic; Dave marries her so that her child will have a name, but I’ll bet you can guess what happens. That’s right – the baby dies. (Womp womp.)
Into all of this chaos, suffering and misery walks a shining beacon of light and hope in the form of Bob Chandler (George Brent), a taxicab driver who joins the traveling medicine show that employs Lilly and Dave. With Bob, Lilly finds true love, resulting in such happiness that even she can hardly believe it: “I feel like I’ve been born all over again,” she gushes – and then adds: “Whoa, Lilly – you’re talking like an Easter card.”
But if this movie has taught you anything, it’s this: (1) happy times are not as entertaining – cinematically speaking – as bad times, and (2) there’s always room for more bad times. And boy, do they keep on rolling. But I’ll let you find out the rest for yourself. Suffice it to say that the remaining 20 minutes or so that are left in this film are crammed with insanity, obsession, sacrifice, tragedy – and one of the wildest fight scenes you’ll ever want to see. (And, incidentally, just in case I haven’t conveyed this so far, Lilly is no pushover or delicate flower. She’s one of the baddest, take-no-crap pre-Code dames you’ll ever want to see!)
Lilly Turner’s not on DVD, but it airs from time to time on TCM. If you ever get the chance, please be sure to check it out.
P.S. You know how I love trivia – here’s a few tidbits for ya:
- The actor who played Rex Durkee – Gordon Westcott – was in numerous pre-Codes, including Heroes for Sale (also directed by Wellman), Footlight Parade, and Fog Over Frisco. Westcott – whose real name was Myrthus Hickman (!) – died on Halloween 1935; three days earlier, he’d received an injury to his skull when his horse fell on him during a polo match. He was just 31 years old. Several months before his death, Westcott was named in a $307,315 damage suit by 25-year-old Hazel Beth McArthur, who claimed that she’d met Westcott in a Los Angeles tent show in 1926 and married the actor, with whom she lived for more than a year, but that he’d fled to New York after learning that McArthur was pregnant with their child. McArthur further stated that she didn’t discover until 1932 that Westcott was already married and that their marriage was invalid. (Incredibly ironic, given the plot of this film, huh?) With Westcott’s tragic end coming just seven months after the suit was filed, it’s not likely that McArthur saw any of the money she was seeking, though I could be wrong. What is a fact, however, is that the daughter she gave birth to in 1928 grew up to be actress Helen Westcott, who can be seen in such films as The Gunfighter (1950) and With a Song in My Heart (1952), and TV shows ranging from Perry Mason to The Twilight Zone.
- One of the writers of the Lilly Turner screenplay was Gene Markey, who also penned such classics as 1933’s Midnight Mary (another film helmed by William Wellman), Female (which also starred Ruth Chatterton), and Baby Face. (He worked on all four of these films with writer Kathryn Scola.) Markey was a movie star magnet – he was married a total of four times, and his first three wives were Joan Bennett, Hedy Lamarr, and Myrna Loy. (Dayum!!)
- Warner Bros. tried to re-release Lilly Turner in 1936, but the Production Code office put the kibosh on their efforts by refusing to issue the requisite approval certificate. (I wouldn’t wonder!)
Do yourself a favor and check out Lilly Turner if you can.
You only owe it to yourself.
This post is part of the William Wellman blogathon, sponsored by the fabulous Liz over at Now Voyaging. Click the banner to the right to read the great offerings that are part of this event! You’ll be glad you did.