Kino Classics presents Monta Bell’s 1925 Lights of Old Broadway, a most welcome high definition transfer of one of Marion Davies’ most delightful silent films.
The Production: 3.5/5
Silent screen star Marion Davies was at the height of her fame and popularity playing a dual role in Monta Bell’s 1925 comedy-drama Lights of Old Broadway. The two roles offered Miss Davies the opportunity to play a gamut of characteristics from noble to feisty, and she delivered brilliantly in a movie with a hoary old plot but with enough MGM razzmatazz to capture the eye and warm the heart.
Identical twins orphaned at birth on a voyage to America, brunette Anne (Marion Davies as an adult) is taken by the wealthy banking family the de Rhondes while blonde Fely (again, Marion Davies) goes to the immigrating Irish family the O’Tandys. Years later, Fely keeps a roof over her family’s head by doing Irish jigs at Tony Pastor’s New York vaudeville house. Banker Lambert de Rhonde (Frank Currier), however, wants to clear out the Irish riffraff from his 69th Street properties, but his romantic son Dirk (Conrad Nagel), who works for an emerging electric company who’s hoping to install electric lights along Broadway to replace the older gaslights, can’t go along with his father, especially once he meets and falls for the energetic Fely O’Tandy. Dirk’s foster sister Anne supports his romance with Fely (not knowing they’re actually sisters despite their uncanny resemblance to one another), but de Rhonde won’t allow his son to date someone of obvious lower class and offers a compromise: he’ll forget about evicting the O’Tandys if Dirk gives up Fely. He won’t consider it, but Fely won’t allow him to be disowned by his father and breaks things off between them.
Carey Wilson’s screenplay (based on Laurence Eyre’s play Merry Wives of Gotham) offers a clichéd plot as old as time: lovers separated by the differing class consciousness of their parents, but the narrative here is freshened by the dual roles for Marion Davies and the subplot involving the changeover from gas to electric lights along Broadway. In fact, that sequence where the electricity is first turned on along the (soon-to-be-called) Great White Way is one of the film’s grandest set pieces (enlivened by both two-color Technicolor and the Handschiegl coloring process). Director Monta Bell stages that moment along with an ensuing brawl between classes quite spectacularly with scope and fire. He’d already staged a wonderfully funny slapstick sequence where Fely is introduced to high society causing mayhem with a simple teacup, and Fely’s vaudeville number (also filmed in rather impressive two-color Technicolor) likewise shows off his star’s versatility in the best possible way. Screenwriter Wilson also manages to weave into his fictional scenario quite a few well-known personages from the 1880s: the youthful Teddy Roosevelt, vaudeville hopefuls Weber and Fields, impresario Tony Pastor, and inventor Thomas Edison!
Marion Davies does indeed show off her ability to play both sedate and gutsy in her dual roles (oddly, cinematographer Ira Morgan only uses split screen two extremely brief times to show the twins played by Davies in the same shot; most of the filming of the two relies on body doubles for the alternating sister), and she impresses with her charm, her effervescence (always her trump card in her comic roles), and her naturalness before the camera. Young Conrad Nagel displays earnestness throughout as the lovelorn Dirk, and his romantic rival for Fely is played with verve by the youthful George K. Arthur. Frank Currier and Charles McHugh play the warring heads of the two families, one wealthy and one impoverished, with lots of silent screen over-emphasis on outrage. Eleanor Lawson has a lovely, quite tender moment with her daughter Fely after the girl has broken her engagement, and burly Matthew Betz impresses briefly in a couple of scenes as the leader of the anarchists. As for the real life persons inhabiting the story, George Bunny is an engaging Tony Pastor, George Harris and Bernard Berger are the good-natured Weber and Fields, Frank Glendon is an understanding Thomas Edison, and Buck Black grins amusingly as the youthful Teddy Roosevelt.
3D Rating: NA
The film’s original 1.33:1 theatrical aspect ratio is delivered in a 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. Sharpness is mostly very good except for a few scenes which obviously come from inferior sources. There are a fair amount of scratches throughout, and there’s flicker, too, unsurprising for a film that’s close to reaching the century mark in age. But the tinting has been done beautifully, and the two-color Technicolor sequences, while not of the same sterling quality as the recent releases of Doctor X and Mystery of the Wax Museum, are still impressive to see.
The disc offers two audio choices for this silent film: PCM 2.0 stereo (1.5 Mbps) which is the default setting (and the one I preferred of the two) or DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround. Both offer wonderful fidelity of Robert Isreal’s involving and enjoyable musical score.
Special Features: 2/5
Audio Commentary: film historian Anthony Slide offers a very well researched and smoothly presented analysis of the film along with biographical details about the primary contributors to the movie both before and behind the camera.
Animated Photo Gallery (2:12, HD)
Kino Classics presents Monta Bell’s 1925 Lights of Old Broadway, a most welcome high definition transfer of one of Marion Davies’ most delightful silent films. Fans of the star or of silent movies will definitely want to own this one-of-a-kind comedy-drama in her filmography.
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