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A young kid from Upstate New York named Eddie (Landis) is conned into fronting for a speakeasy on Broadway. Throughout the con there is an inevitable chorus-girl with a heart of gold (Costello), a cop-killing gangster boss (Oakman) and his downtrodden ex-girlfriend (Brockwell). Written by
Lights of New York was the first all-talking feature film. There had been, of course, The Jazz Singer, released in Oct. 1927 as the first feature film incorporating synchronized dialog. However, this film released in July 1928 is virtually unremembered for its place in film history. It had started out as a short, but gradually more was tacked on until - clocking in at 58 minutes - it accidentally became the first all-talking feature film. It opened to a grind house run and to Warner Bros. surprise, made over a million dollars. That was good money back in 1928.
The plot is quite simple. Two country barbers naively buy into a barber shop on Broadway that fronts as a speak-easy for "The Hawk", a gangster. When they learn the truth they can't afford to get out, because the younger barber, Eddie, has all of his mother's money tied up in the place. Kitty is the younger barber's girlfriend, and gangster Hawk (Wheeler Oakman) has an eye for turning in his older girlfriend (Gladys Brockwell) for a newer model - chorus girl Kitty(Helene Costello). A cop is killed while trying to stop the Hawk's men from unloading a shipment of bootleg liquor, and the Hawk sees it as an opportunity to frame Eddie, thus getting Kitty for himself.
This early talkie is loads of fun for the enthusiast of these pioneering works. Sure, the plot is elementary and the dialog stilted, but there is something you don't see much of in early talkies - background musical scoring. Vitaphone had originally been used for this very purpose, and here they are still using it for musical accompaniment along with the dialog. And there are singing and dancing numbers! The scenes in Hawk's nightclub are used as an opportunity to show off what films could never do before - musical numbers. There is even a wild-eyed emcee with some heavy makeup left over from the silent era that is a hoot to watch.
Vitaphone could not go outdoors at this point due to the static camera booths, so the scene in the park between the two lovers Eddie and Kitty is simulated - and cheaply. The greenery looks like something out of an Ed Wood movie or perhaps a high school production of "Our Town".
Gladys Brockwell, as the Hawk's castoff girlfriend, delivers her lines with punch. She's a real trooper considering what lines she has to deliver. To the Hawk - "So you think you can have any chicken you want and throw me back in the deck!". Huh? mixed metaphors anyone? And then there are her final lines "I've lived, and I've loved, and I've lost!" Did someone get paid to write this dialog? Brockwell was making a good success of her talkie career after scoring some triumphs in silent films (the evil sister in "Seventh Heaven"), when a fatal car accident cut her career short.
Then there is Eugene Palette - the older of the two barbers in our story. His frog voice, natural delivery of lines, and cuddly appearance gave him a long career as a character actor usually appearing as a put-upon family man/businessman with a gruff exterior and heart of gold. In fact, Mr. Palette is the only member of this cast who still has a notable career in films just three years after this movie is released.
Finally there is the question of "where is that microphone hidden?" Microphones were still stationary at this point, and it's fun to figure out where they've hidden it. There is one famous scene, though, where everybody can pretty much figure it out. Hawk is in his office talking to his two henchman - who seem to comprehend as slowly as they talk - about "taking Eddie for a ride". If you watch this scene you'd swear the phone on the desk is a character in this film. It's front and center during the whole conversation. The microphone is likely planted in the phone.
There is something heroic about these pioneers flying blind in the face of the new technology of sound. You have silent actors who are accustomed to using pantomime for expression, vaudevillians who know how to play to a live audience but don't know how to make the same impression on a Vitaphone camera booth, and you have dialog writers either trying to write conversation as compactly as they did title cards or filling up films with endless chatter.
Check this one out. It is not boring, moves fast, and is loads of fun if you know what to look for. And no, I don't expect this one to ever be out on Blu-Ray, but I hope that the folks at Warner Brothers add it to the Warner Archive soon so everyone can see it.
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