Marion Davies Shines as Mismatched Twin Sisters in Light Drama
DIRECTED BY MONTA BELL/1925
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: MAY 25, 2021/KINO CLASSICS
What could be better than comedy icon Marion Davies at the height of her powers in a lavish lighthearted historical production from MGM? How about two Marion Davieses starring in such a project?
Look no further than 1925’s Lights of Old Broadway, a silent crowd-pleaser from notable comedy director Monta Bell. In it, Ms. Davies plays twins who were separated at birth, but nevertheless manage to cross paths several times throughout this seventy-minute story (which is based upon the play The Merry Wives of Gotham by Laurence Eyre). The first twin, Anne de Rhonde, grows up wealthy, proper, and doted upon. The other, Fely O’Tandy, wound up the daughter of an impoverished, brash, Irish working-class family. Of the two, the feisty Fely takes center stage- in more ways than one. Taking place in a time when acting was not considered respectable, there she is, headlining by gaslight on what would become The Great White Way.
The film’s title, though- “Lights of Old Broadway”- turns out to be literal. Although the plot is about Fely falling in love with her unbeknownst sister’s older brother, Dirk (Conrad Nagel, who would go on to appear with Davies in two more movies), there’s a financially driven undercurrent about the transitioning of Broadway’s streetlights from gas to electric.
Old man and bank owner de Rhonde (Frank Currier) has his fortune heavily wrapped up in gas as the favored power source going forward. Of course, one need only to glance down any street at night to know how that turns out for him. But along the way to the inevitable illumination (wonderfully depicted in one of the film’s two brief two-strip Technicolor sequences), Fely tries in vain to get none other than Thomas Edison more invested in electricity. “Sorry, all my money’s tied up in my inventions. Have you seen my talking machine? I hope that one day, there will be one in every home”!
That Lights of Old Broadway was produced by über-wealthy media mogul William Randolph Hearst’s Cosmopolitan Productions (and then released by MGM) jibes, considering his longtime romantic involvement with Davies was well under way. Davies was a naturally vibrant comic spirit, and was plenty popular on her own accord. When Hearst took her under his wing, his meddling in her career ultimately was more detrimental for her than helpful.
Lights of Old Broadway, thankfully, escapes being just such a misfire. It is, in fact, quite enjoyable and well crafted- though the writing was on the wall, what with the prestigious historical bent and showcasing of then-very-novel color processes (including early two-strip Technicolor, custom stencil work [known as the Handschiegl process], and older-fashioned scene tinting). That it all serves as a showcase of Davies is the point of this gentle feast. Serving as a showcase for Davies times two is gravy.
Kino Lorber’s new Blu-ray of Lights of Old Broadway is rather incandescent in its own right. The disc utilizes a 2K master that was derived from the Library of Congress’s 2018 35mm preservation of the film, doing impressive justice to not only the handful of notable color sequences, but the entire picture.
Robert Israel contributes a fine score (which he is credited as having composed, adapted, and conducted) with a few interesting choices, carrying the viewer mostly effortlessly through the goings-on of what is, at its core, an elevated rich girl/poor girl construct. There is also a good audio commentary by film historian Anthony Slide, an unfamiliar voice to this critic, but certainly one cut out for thing sort of thing. In recruiting Slide, Kino definitely got the right historian in terms of his Marion Davies expertise.
One could rightly assess that Lights of Old Broadway doesn’t at all need Davies to play both Fely and Anne. Truth be told, as the demure Anne, she’s kind of wasted. It’s as Fely where she shines- and appears to be having a great deal of fun in the larger-than-life role. Thanks to the marvel of early split screen- but mostly stand-ins in matching wigs and costumes- her several scenes with herself are entirely convincing. The movie is in fact abnormal in its separated twin premise only insofar as they never do swap identities, nor is their separation any kind of plot point.
All that considered, Lights of Old Broadway manages to land on its feet as satisfying light fare (just short of bona fide comedy) if not quite ever solid drama. The film feels in constant peril of ballooning in scale beyond its compact and concise narrative comfort zone, but thankfully, due to Monta Bell’s apt direction, never does. Davies, it’s argued, is not best served with this film- though she ultimately proves to be a light plenty bright unto herself… times two!