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May 10, 2021

Lights of Old Broadway


Monta Bell - 1925
Kino Classics BD Region A

Even with the acclaim brought to Amanda Seyfried for her performance in Mark, I am not aware of any rise in interest in the real life or films of Marion Davies. My own initial attitude was colored by assumptions formed from Citizen Kane. This changed when I had the opportunity to see Show People and Going Hollywood at the Museum of Modern Art in the mid 1970s. At this time, only a handful of films are available to stream, with a few available on disc.

Lights of Old Broadway is more representative of the kind of films preferred by William Randolph Hearst, rather than those films that showcased Ms. Davies' talent for comedy. During her silent period, Davies showed herself adept at take pratfalls with the best of the silent clowns, something "Fatty" Arbuckle understood when directing Davies in The Red Mill. One of the funnier bits in Show People is Davies mimicking the facial expressions of Gloria Swanson. Davies benefitted from the addition of sound as a boisterous girl who was one of the guys. A top star for over a decade, in Blondie of the Follies, Davies both paid tribute to her own beginnings as a chorus girl and impersonates Greta Garbo in Grand Hotel under the direction of Edmund Goulding, whose previous film was . . . Grand Hotel. Based on what I have been able to see, the more typical vehicles for Davies emphasized sentimentality and triumph over adversity. Lights of Old Broadway does allow for Davies to show off her talent for knockabout comedy in a couple of early scenes including getting butted by a goat.

The bulk of the film takes place in 1880, prior to the first use of electric street lights in New York City. Lights of Old Broadway begins with an interesting premise of twin baby girls separated and adopted by two different parents, the wealthy De Rhondes and the Irish immigrant O'Tandys. For some reason or maybe no reason, nobody bothers to tell Anne De Rhonde or Fely O'Tandy that they were orphaned twins. Banker Lambert De Rhonde is trying to evict Shamus O'Tandy from his shack on 5th Avenue and 69th Street, a stretch of Manhattan that resembles part of California. Meanwhile, Lambert's son, Dirk, goes to the theater where performer Fely catches his eye. The story proceeds not only with the expected class conflicts, but also ethnic prejudice towards Irish immigrants. At one point, Anne and Fely finally meet, and while they express a sense of unexplained connection with each other, everyone else is oblivious to their physical resemblance, save for different colored hair. Added to this story are a couple of brief appearances by actors playing a very young Theodore Roosevelt and Thomas Edison for no discernible reason.

The blu-ray benefits greatly from the commentary track by film historian Anthony Slide. The blu-ray is sourced from the Library of Congress print with a new score composed by Robert Israel. Slide is objective enough to acknowledge the weaknesses of the narrative aspects of Lights of New York, placing the film's importance more as part of Marion Davies' overall career. Very useful for contemporary viewers is pointing the historical context of several of the characters, as well as some history of Irish immigrants in the 19th Century. There are also the brief overviews of several of the cast members and crew. Monta Bell is known, if at all, mostly in being briefly mentioned by Andrew Sarris in The American Cinema as potentially being misgendered. Bell's career as a director is notable for directing Torrent, Greta Garbo's first Hollywood film. Slide suggests that Bell's greatest contribution would he his time as an executive for Paramount during the early sound era with films produced from the Astoria studio in New York.

Lights of New York has scenes that are tinted monochrome, but also use two other coloring processes. A scene at stage show used two-strip Technicolor, that is red and green. When 14th Street is illuminated by electric lights, the Handschiegl process, a more elaborate hand coloring, is used. Slide identifies and explains the use of color.

What Slide does not confirm is what I thought I saw right at the one hour mark of the blu-ray. Davies has offered a hat pin as the needed piece of wire needed for an electronic generator. Alone in the room, curiosity takes over and she touches the generator, resulting in an electric shock. This may be one of those moments when silence is golden, or maybe I should question my skills at lip reading, but I am positive that this is the one moment preserved on film where Marion Davies drops the F-bomb.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at May 10, 2021 06:31 AM