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LIGHTS OF NEW YORK was the first "all-taking" feature film, coming in
at a brisk 57 minutes and directed by Bryan Foy (of the famous
The story has two dopey barbers (Cullen Landis, Eugene Palette) yearning for a chance at "big city life" and getting involved with gangsters and bootleg booze. One of the guys gets framed for the murder of a cop but is saved at the last minute by a gun moll (Gladys Brockwell).
Much of the story takes place in a night club called The Night Hawk, which is run by a crook named Hawk (Wheeler Oakman) who has his eye on a pretty chorine (Helene Costello) who is the girl friend of Landis. Costello gets to do a brief dance, and we hear Harry Downing (made up to resemble Ted Lewis) sing "At Dawning) in his best Al Jolson style.
The acting ranges from good (Palette and Brockwell) to awful (Oakman). A couple of the actors muff their lines but then keep right on with the scene. As noted elsewhere this was intended to be a short 2-reeler and was made on a shoestring budget. Yet the sound quality is surprisingly good, the voices all register clearly, and there is a neat cinematic touch in the silhouette death.
The film was a box-office smash even though it was shown as a silent film where theaters were not wired for the new sound technology. No one expected this little film to gross an amazing $1.3 million. It briefly made stars of Costello and Landis and certainly launched Palette on his long career as a star character actor.
Co-stars include Mary Carr as the mother, Robert Elliott as the detective, Eddie Kane as the street cop, and Tom Dugan as a thug.
Fascinating and amusingly bad, Lights of New York is the first all talkie
feature and one that almost never saw the light of day.
Two naive barbers (Eddie and Gene) from out of town get involved with bootleggers and end up fronting a speak. When a cop is shot by one of the bootleggers the police start to close in, and the Hawk (who shot the officer) decides to pin the murder on Eddie instructing his henchman to "take him for a ride". But it's the Hawk himself who takes the bullet in a twist that will surprise few.
Shot in one week at a cost of $23,000, "Lights" was originally meant as a two reeler but Foy took advantage of Jack Warner's absence to extend it to six. When Warner discovered this he ordered Foy to cut it back to the original short. Only when an independent exhibitor offered $25k for the film, did Warners actually look at the film, which went on to make a staggering $1.3 million.
Seen now this is an extremely hokey piece, with acting that ranges from the passable (Eugene Pallette) to trance like (Eddie's Granny in a particularly risible scene) and much of the playing is at the level of vaudeville. Since it's an early talkie (4 part-talkies preceded it) that's about all the characters do, and very slowly at that. The script feels improvised, visual style is non existent (apart from the shooting scene done in silhouette) and scenes grind on interminably. Title cards are intercut which redundantly announce characters and locales.
Despite all this "Lights" is a compelling experience, as we watch actors and crew struggling with the alien technology, and changing cinema for ever.
Catch it if you can
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
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.
Okay so I gave this a 6 but to be fair you can't grade Lights of New York in any ordinary sense. The camera's immobile, the acting's on par with lumber and the script's below second-rate. I love the dialog--- Wheeler Oakman's "But... they... must not... find... Eddie" and the infamous, "Take.. him... for... A... ride" is stupifyingly awful (further proof of his thespian skills can be seen in his death scene... then he keeps on breathing!). But hey, this was the very first all-talking movie! There's every reason in the world to make allowances for every one of it's shortcomings. I've seen The Jazz Singer released around 8 months earlier and this represented a huge leap over part-talkies. It's hard to be overly critical on the technical aspects when it's apparent that everyone was dealing with new fangled sound and heavily soundproofed cameras--- not to mention sound requiring completely new types of direction. This is a gem that deserves to be seen and judged for what it is, a historical artifact. Eugene Palette is the best actor here (no surprise).
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"Lights of New York" originally started out as an experimental two reel
Vitaphone short that eventually snowballed into the first all talkie
feature film. Helene Costelle was supposedly one of the most beautiful
actresses in Hollywood and sister to (in my opinion the real beauty)
Dolores Costello, who seemed to get all the breaks. Poor Helene is best
known for appearing in this pretty dreary film that bought a revolution
Two bootleggers on the lam in "Main Street" convince a couple of small town barbers to try their luck on Broadway. The barbers Eddie (Cullen Landis) and Gene (Eugene Palette) don't realise that their barber shop is soon a cover for illegal bootlegging activities. They soon do realise it and regret the day they left their small town. The only thing keeping them going is the loan that Eddie's mother gave them and that they desperately want to pay back. Eddie becomes re-acquainted with Kitty Lewis (Helene Costello) a girl from his home town who has made good on Broadway. Kitty is worried about "Hawk" Miller (Wheeler Oakman) who is always hanging around her but Eddie, innocently, thinks she is exaggerating as "Hawk" already has a girlfriend Molly (Gladys Brockwell) but to reassure her he gives her a little handgun to frighten unwanted admirers away. "Hawk", who has killed a police officer and has the "Feds" closing in, decides to frame Eddie. Meanwhile Molly is getting pretty fed up with "Hawks" treatment of her and after a showdown where he tells her he is after a chicken and not an old hen the stage is set for - Murder!!!
The fact is it isn't completely awful, apart from gangsters and showgirls alike speaking in their best elocution voices and that was still happening in films in 1930. Gladys Brockwell (if a trifle melodramatic) and Eugene Palette (quite natural) were okay and were the most seasoned actors in the cast. There was no John or Ethel Barrymore to be seen - Cullen Landis and Helene Costello soon returned to the obscurity from which they had come. I also didn't notice much of the "hidden mike" - where people had to be grouped around different objects ie a telephone or sitting on a couch before they could engage in conversation. People who saw it at the cinema probably started to think that all policeman talked in that flat monotone as that trend continued in many early talkies ie "Little Caesar" (1930). In any case they were probably intrigued by the novelty of a completely all talkie - with some singing and dancing - film in 1928.
When someone asks the question, "What was the first talking picture?"
the answer that immediately comes to mind is THE JAZZ SINGER (1927)
starring Al Jolson. Well, that's partially correct. For anyone who's
never seen THE JAZZ SINGER might expect an all-sound motion picture
with songs. In retrospect, THE JAZZ SINGER does include songs, but much
of the scenario was silent accompanied by a Vitaphone orchestral score.
With other major studios experimenting the methods of silent films by
adding talking sequences to its existing underscoring and inter-titles,
LIGHTS OF NEW YORK (Warner Brothers, 1928), directed by Bryan Foy,
scripted by Murray Roth and Hugh Herbert, was a step in the right
direction for being the first all-talking feature length movie. As with
many Hollywood firsts, LIGHTS OF NEW YORK was and still is not a great
film due to awkward acting and offbeat dialogue, yet the result is
another landmark during the dawn of sound made essential to the history
of motion pictures.
Opening with a prologue, the first inter-title reads: "This is a story of Main Street and Broadway - a story that might have been torn out of last night's newspaper. Main Street - 45 minutes from Broadway - but a thousand miles away." Because his girlfriend, Kitty Lewis, has gone to New York and made a success for herself, Eddie Morgan (Cullen Landis), a barber yearning for a better life outside his small own where nothing ever happens, asks his mother (Mary Carr), proprietor of the Morgan Hotel, for a $5,000 loan so that he and his friend, Gene (Eugene Palette) can go into partnership with Jake Jackson (Walter Percival) and Dan Dickson (Jere Delaney), guests in Room 21. At first Mrs. Morgan relents loaning the money until she meets with these "gentlemen" before heading back to New York the following morning. Story: "Broadway - 45 minutes from Main Street, but a million miles away." Six months pass. Eddie and Gene, owners of the White Way Barber Shop on 46th Street, come to realize their big mistake for being talked into having their barbershop as a front for bootleggers. Unknown to Eddie, "Hawk" Miller (Wheeler Oakman), owner of the Night Hawk Club ("where anything can happen and usually does") is not only the ring leader of the bootleg operation, but out to get his Kitty, dancer at his club, for himself, much to the jealous nature of Molly Thompson (Gladys Brockwell), his rejected mistress. As Miller plots to do away with Eddie by placing the boxes of Old Century liquor in his barbershop, Miller is later shot and killed by a mysterious assassin, leaving poor Eddie as the prime suspect.
A straightforward melodrama with an amusing bit reminiscent of a vaudeville routine where a drunk approaches a cop (Eddie Kane) on Broadway asking where the other side of the street is. For a motion picture that began as a two-reel Vitaphone short, LIGHTS OF NEW YORK, with its backstage musical sounding title, is basically an underworld melodrama with gangster types speaking in gangster lingo. The most memorable line comes from Wheeler Oakman giving an order to his boys, Sam and Tommy (Tom Dugan and Guy D'Ennery) about Eddie, to "Take him ... for ... a ride." This particular scene is the one usually clipped into documentaries of motion pictures, especially when the subject matter is about early talkies. The film is also historical in a sense in offering a inside glimpse of 1920s night clubs better known then as "speakeasies," consisting of chorus girls, dancing patrons and one vocalization of "At Dawning" by the master of ceremonies (Harry Downing).
With no "major star" names in the cast, the only one of some familiarity is Eugene Palette, whose distinctive gravel voice made recognizable during his long range of character parts lasting through the late 1940s. His one crucial scene finds him trying to hide the fact from a couple of detectives (Robert Elliott and Tom McGuire) that the customer sitting in his barber chair with his face covered with a towel happens to be a recently murdered Hawk Miller. Aside from Palette and Tom Dugan, other members of the cast, namely silent screen veterans Cullen Landis and Helene Costello, have virtually drifted to obscurity shortly after this film's release. Gladys Brockwell as the girl "who's loved and lost," gives a type of performance of a middle-aged Joan Crawford from the 1960s. Sadly Brockwell passed away the following year (1929) from complications sustained in an automobile accident.
For being 1928 production, LIGHTS OF NEW YORK has an advance appeal of one made in the 1940s, not by Warners but something out of a Monogram Pictures programmer. Visual effects with shadows of bootleggers committing their crimes at night simply has that 1940s film noir feel to it. Often labeled as a very bad picture by historians, this remains a real curio as it did way back when, as well as a great opportunity hearing the voices of actors of the silent screen.
Never distributed on video cassette, LIGHTS OF NEW YORK can be found occasionally on Turner Classic Movies where it's been playing since May 13, 1995. So the next time someone asks, "What was the first talking picture?" chances are the reply may still be THE JAZZ SINGER, but the final answer remains THE LIGHTS OF NEW YORK. As far as silent films are concerned, there's no turning back now. (**)
It is easy to criticize this movie,which has so many shortcomings.But in all fairness we must remember what handicaps everyone was working under.Actors had to speak slowly,and enunciate very precisely to make sure that the primitive microphones could pick up what they were saying.The fact that they were shooting an entire feature as a talkie, instead of just a few isolated scenes,as in previous "talkies",undoubtedly put extra pressure on everyone. To my mind one of the funniest(unintended) aspects of is, when Hawk was telling his two henchmen to "take him for a ride", one of the henchmen looked, and was dressed, like Stan Laurel! Sort of hard to take him seriously as a hit-man! Primitive as it was,this was still a wonder to audiences who had grown weary of the limitations of silent movies.I have always like old silents, but a steady,exclusive diet would get tiresome very quickly.The jeering reaction of the audience in "Singin in the Rain" to the shortcomings of "The Dueling Cavalier" was an anachronism;that is the reaction of an audience used to PERFECTED sound movies.An actual audience of the day might have laughed,but still would have loved it.
Director Bryan Foy, of the famous family, directed this, supposedly the
first all-talking feature film.
"All talking," although there were inter-titles used by way of narration and introductions, and very non-intrusively.
Foy went on to be the head of the Warner Brothers B picture unit and made some very good movies.
"Lights of New York" is by no means a perfect movie, especially to viewers more used to camera mobility and varied angles. But for its time and as a pioneer in sound production, it is remarkable.
The actors were understated, a style that was not exactly in vogue until later. In fact, Jimmy Cagney mentions in his autobiography how he and some of the others of the Warner stock company were praised for that very characteristic.
Since even Warners, the sound pioneer, was still learning how to use microphones and how to avoid sounds from everything but the actors, Foy deserves all the plaudits he can get for this effort.
The story is about small-towners conned by slicksters from New York and tricked into involvement with bootleggers -- who are also killers. (Alcohol prohibition caused crime, a well-known phenomenon -- well-known today. Yet that lesson has not yet been applied to drug prohibition, despite the fact that this country has the highest incarceration rate and numbers in the world, mostly because of drug laws. We need someone to sing "When Will They Ever Learn?")
Helene Costello plays the girl who left the small town earlier to get into show biz, and she was a truly lovely young woman. Apparently she had personal problems that seemed to contribute to her not making more movies, and I think that a loss for us, as well as for her.
Most of the rest of the cast, with the particular exception of Eugene Palette and the slight exception of Wheeler Oakman, never achieved much by way of fame, but all were acceptable or better in this pioneering movie.
Leonard Maltin, who knows a little about movies, rates it 2.5 out of four stars, which proves he's pretty smart because he almost agrees with me.
"Lights of New York" might be historically interesting more than purely entertaining, but it is that and I hope movie lovers will get a chance to see it. I believe it is on DVD.
When talking about the first 'soundie', almost everybody automatically
thinks of "The Jazz Singer" - wrong; it was only a part-talkie. The
first ALL-talkie is a now almost forgotten little gangster drama called
"Lights of New York" - and whoever's lucky enough to get the chance to
watch it, won't even believe that it was made in 1928, when all the
other movies were still silent or at the most contained some
experimental sound sequences. The sound quality is so good, and the
music numbers so lively, that you may think that this is one of the
30s' gangster movies that tried to recreate the atmosphere of the
Roaring Twenties (and not one of the better ones, because the actors
were still somewhat stiff and clumsy - no wonder, for they were for the
first time acting in front of a camera AND talking!) - but this is the
REAL thing: an immeasurable treasure of a time document made up as a
The story is simple and not very inventive: a young small town boy wants to hit the big city to make something out of himself - and unwittingly becomes the stooge for a couple of bootleggers whose boss runs a speakeasy where the lad's girlfriend works as a dancer; and so, instead of getting somewhere the decent way (which seems impossible in New York in the 1920s), he ends up with a load of 'hot' illegal booze on his hands and the gangster's men on his heels...
Yes, it DOES sound like an old B movie (and unfortunately, that's what most people, i.e. the ones that at least KNOW it, seem to mistake it for today) - BUT in 1928, it was a sensation: for the FIRST time, the audience could hear the actors speaking and the music playing throughout the WHOLE movie! No need to mention, of course, that it was an enormous financial success back then...
And for us today, it's BETTER than any documentary on the "Roaring Twenties": here, in this little melodrama, you can catch LIVE the atmosphere of the days of Prohibition, the speakeasies, the flappers with their bobs and fluffy dresses, the dance and music numbers of the time - for almost an hour, "Lights of New York" REALLY turns on the time machine for you and takes you back into the 20s. After witnessing THIS, any classic gangster movie of the 30s, as magnificent as it may be, looks just like a mere recreation of the REAL thing, no matter how 'amateurishly' directed and played it may seem to us today...
This is it. The first all-talking feature film. Although at 57 minutes it barely qualifies as a feature. The Lights of New York has a reputation for being a pretty bad film. Even contemporary reports from back in the day rather kindly label it as experimental. Watching it today it does not seem nearly as bad as it's reputation. Sure, there are pregnant pauses between lines, and Mary Carr as the hero's mother appears to deliver her lines as though she had been drugged, but the film is more fun to see than I care to admit. The nightclub scenes are rather lively and there is a music score under a lot of the dialogue. Overall, it is considerably better than Paramount's Interference, released a few moths later. All these pioneer talkies are interesting for buffs to see today as their respective producers and directors felt their way through the first few years of a brand-new medium. The print of Lights of New York had really excellent Vitaphone sound. Much clearer than the sometimes muddy sound in Interference. I believe Interference used Movietone sound-on-film process, but I could be mistaken. You could find worse ways to spend an hour than to watch this.
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