Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Lights of New York

I have to make at least some mention of the film Lights of New York, which TCM is running tomorrow morning at 6:00 AM as part of a day of films about New York City.

There's not much to the plot here. A couple of brothers named Eddie and Gene, played by Cullen Landis and Eugene Pallette (before he really, really put on the weight) respectively, are barbers in some small town in upstate New York who go to the big city to try to make a better living for themselves. They get a job in a nice place, not realizing at first that it's a front for a speakeasy. Gene falls in love with Kitty, one of the chorus girls at the speakeasy (Helene Costello), and they all live happily ever after.

Oh, of course they don't live happily ever after. It turns out that Hawk, the guy running the speakeasy (Wheeler Oakman), also has his eyes on Kitty as well. And he's got guys with guns to do his bidding. So Hawk has his underlings frame Eddie in the murder of a cop, with the idea that once Eddie is tried, convicted, and executed, Hawk will have Kitty all to himself. It should go without saying that this is an ending that wouldn't have satisfied the audience, although I do think it would make a startling plot twist.

The reason that this movie is worth one viewing, and that's about it, is because it was the first feature-length all talking movie. Sure, there were films like The Jazz Singer, but most of the scenes in that one were silent, with the exception of Al Jolson singing his songs and a bit of related dialog around the songs. Lights of New York was originally conceived as a two-reeler in early 1928, but supposedly Jack Warner was away, so the director, Bryan Foy of the vaudevile family, took the opportunity to ass material to the movie until he had about six reels, or the just under one hour running time we have today. Warner apparently wasn't happy but the film was released anyway, and became a big hit, presumably because there must have been a lot of people intrigued by the idea that every scene in a movie was a talking scene.

It can't be because the movie is particularly good. Oh, it's not the worst movie ever made, and it's not the worst the studio system ever put out. But it does have many of the problems that early talkies have, with people who hadn't quite figured out how to act naturally and get their sound picked up naturally by the microphones, or a camera that had to be fairly static to make certain all the sound was picked up. That's also part of the fun of the movie. In order to pick up the sound, the director and crew had to hide the microphones. One way they got around this was to put the microphones in a telephone mouthpiece. It's reasonably natural for people to talk into phones, and the audience won't see your microphone there.

Lights of New York shows up rather rarely on TCM, probably because it really is little more than a historical curiosity. Still, it does deserve that one viewing at least.

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