You've read it here before, but it bears repeating: William Wellman was on fire in the Pre-Code era. He has as much claim as any director on the role of cinematic bard of the Great Depression. His recognized peaks of achievement in this mode are the 1933 films Heroes For Sale, tracing the ups and more-frequent downs of a World War I veteran, and Wild Boys of the Road, chronicling the travels of vagabond teenagers. Wellman's Lilly Turner isn't in the same league as those films, but it's a lively mix of grim comedy and lurid melodrama bordering on outright horror. It was a follow-up teaming of Wellman and actress Ruth Chatterton after the hit period piece Frisco Jenny. In the title role, Chatterton plays a starstruck young woman who marries a magician, expecting him to be big time star, only to find herself assistant to a small-time carny character in more ways than one. He gets her pregnant only to leave her on the fly when he's exposed as a bigamist. Lilly's only pal, the alcoholic barker Dave Dixon (Frank McHugh), steps up and marries her to make her baby legitimate, but the child dies in the hospital. Lilly's relieved; as far as she's concerned, the kid wouldn't have stood a chance in her world.
After an unhappy stint in another carnival, aborted when Lilly and Dave quit before he can be fired for his boozing -- he needs the stuff, he claims, for chronic laryngitis -- the platonic couple end up working for Doc McGill (Guy Kibbee), who rents out storefronts for "free" lectures where he sells his quack medical tracts. While Dave brings in the crowds, Lilly appears as "the perfect example of womanhood," a product of Doc's health regimen. Her male counterpart is Fritz (Robert Barrat), a Teutonic strongman prone to headaches. Both he and Doc try to hit on Lilly -- Doc tells her she "brings out the beast in me" -- with Dave hardly the wiser. Disaster strikes the show when Fritz suffers a breakdown and has to be taken to an asylum. When a cab driver slings a drugged Fritz across his shoulders to send him to the nervous hospital, everyone realizes that they have a replacement for their strongman. Bob Chandler (George Brent, aka Mr. Ruth Chatterton) actually has a degree in civil engineering and dreams of building railroads, but during hard times people aren't even using the roads that already exist. You might not think that playing strongman in a storefront medicine show would make more money than driving a cab, but Bob's new job has the added benefit of proximity to Lilly. That makes up for any shortfall, but after a while proximity isn't enough. As Bob continues to apply for engineering jobs, he pressures Lilly to dump Dave and grows jealous when he and Lilly encounter one of her old carny boyfriends. Meanwhile, Fritz breaks out of the loony bin and, still obsessed with Lilly, tracks down the medicine show. It's up to Bob and/or Dave to stand up when their woman is in peril....
With McHugh and Kibbee on hand this is a prime showcase for the WB stock company, but Chatterton quietly dominates the picture with an understated world-weariness, plus one drunk scene. She passes the good actor's test of playing a bad actor as Lilly lifelessly recites Doc McGill's patter and fails to conceal her gum-chewing indifference to the various roles he assigns her, but still commands our attention. If any character actor could claim to steal the picture, it'd be Robert Barrat as Fritz. Wellman put Barrat through his paces in 1933, casting him as a hypocritical comedy-relief Communist inventor in Heroes For Sale and a benevolent judge in Wild Boys of the Road. For Lily Turner Barrat goes berserk and Wellman milks it for all its worth. He stands out in two horrific scenes. He escapes from his cell by disassembling his bed and using a piece as a crowbar to pry apart the bars of his window, advancing toward Wellman's camera as his face contorts with the strain. When he catches up with the medicine show he flings Bob, Dave and Lilly about like rag dolls. When Dave finally jumps on his back, hopelessly trying to force him down, Fritz pries the little man loose, holding him with one hand while raising his fist for a finishing blow. Wellman holds the moment to maximize the horror as Dave begs for mercy before Fritz punches him through a window. It makes you think Barrat really missed his calling. He could have competed with Karloff for heavy roles.
Lilly Turner is an actors' picture, but Wellman gives it much-needed atmosphere, including plenty of his signature rainfall. The film is always convincingly tawdry and seedy even if it never plunges to the sociological depths of the director's other Depression epics. It may border on camp for some observers, but Warner Bros. nearly always manages to give its Pre-Code melodramas sufficient grit to keep them interesting eighty years later, while the studio's unbeatable stock company keeps them entertaining. This isn't exactly prime Wellman, but it'll do in a pinch. Here's the usual trailer from TCM.com