By 1924, Metro Pictures was ailing. Founded in 1915 it had major successes with child star Jackie Coogan, “Great Stone Face” Buster Keaton, and sensational Rudolph Valentino in Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921). But Metro lost Valentino to Paramount and was also in need of more theaters to better control exhibition. Goldwyn Pictures was in trouble, too, thanks to internecine fights between management and board. A merger could mitigate their respective business worries. When Metro and Goldwyn united on April 17, 1924, with the manipulative, canny, and robust Louis B. Mayer in charge, it became the nascent film empire Metro-Goldwyn- Mayer. Twenty-four-year-old “Boy Wonder” Irving Thalberg, formerly at Universal, was signed as supervisor of production.
Mayer’s next move was to absorb Cosmopolitan Productions headed by publishing titan William Randolph Hearst, who used it primarily as an outlet for his mistress, former Ziegfeld chorine Marion Davies. It was a cozy arrangement among giants, as Hearst’s many papers throughout the country acted as direct media pipelines not only for Cosmopolitan, but also for MGM’s entire roster.
In March of 1925, MGM bought the film rights to Laurence Eyre’s recent Broadway play, Merry Wives of Gotham, as a vehicle for Davies. Set in Old New York, primarily in 1880, it laces historical drama with comedy, with a plucky heroine at its center. By the time Lights of Old Broadway was made, Davies had proven herself both a talented actress and savvy businesswoman, basically running Cosmopolitan, securing a percentage of the film’s profits, and collecting a $10,000 a week salary. Just before production began in late May, Davies, Hearst, and Mayer approved the former journalist and actor Monta Bell as director. Bell had only been directing for a year but had already demonstrated a facility for comedy, with Broadway After Dark (1924) and Pretty Ladies (1925), and for drama, with The Snob (1924) and Lady of the Night (1925).
The setup for Lights of Old Broadway is ripe. Two infant girls are found abandoned on a ship crossing the Atlantic to America. Baby Anne is adopted by the wealthy De Rhondes of fashionable Washington Square, while her twin Fely is adopted by the O’Tandys, immigrants to Upper Manhattan’s Irish shantytown. Anne grows up to be the very essence of a genteel silver-spooned young lady, while gap-toothed Fely is all rough-and-tumble vivacity. Their lives are destined to intersect when Anne’s brother (Conrad Nagel, well cast as a sensitive, handsome scion) falls in love with Fely. Before complications are resolved in the seventh reel, there are class and ethnic conflicts, a brilliantly realized street riot, romance, noble sacrifice, reversal of fortunes, and ample comedy and drama for the gifted Davies. To further burnish the entertainment value, famous names of show business, politics, and science from the era are woven into the plot, including vaudevillians Joe Weber and Lew Fields, impresario Tony Pastor, Thomas Edison, and a spunky young Teddy Roosevelt.
Lights of Old Broadway was supervised by the overworked Thalberg, in charge of no less than seventeen of MGM’s thirty-three productions that year. Neither Mayer nor Hearst made his job easier. During production, Hearst sent multitudinous telegraphs with suggestions on how to proceed. Thalberg didn’t appreciate the meddling, going so far as to issue an ultimatum to Mayer: either Hearst desists with such intrusions, or he (Thalberg) won’t produce any more Cosmopolitan films. To pacify Thalberg, Mayer predicted Hearst would be grateful once the film was released to public approval. Mayer was at least successful in preventing Thalberg’s wholesale defection from Cosmopolitan’s productions.
Mayer and Hearst meanwhile devised a massive publicity campaign. In April of 1925, Hearst’s New York American announced a “Coast-to-Coast party,” a train excursion from New York to California, with sightseeing layovers in Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon. Passengers would disembark in Hollywood, with party guests “guided through the vast studios, but [also], through the courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn Mayer unit, an invitation has been extended to the American’s party to witness the ‘shooting’ of actual scenes!” The trainload of passengers arrived in Hollywood that July to observe Lights of Old Broadway in production on the Culver City lot. Some reportedly appear as extras.
Lights of Old Broadway was made for a princely $321,000 on a thirty-five day schedule, with a good portion of its budget devoted to two expensive color sequences. Reel two features vaudeville acts filmed in two-strip Technicolor, with inserts of the audience tinted in amber. It’s an early example in American cinema of color used to enhance not just visual mood but storytelling as well, the vibrancy of the stage contrasting with the monochrome audience. The second scene features the historic 1880 lighting of New York’s electric streetlamps, with a crowd looking on in awe and delight. The large American flag in this scene is finished in the Max Handschiegl process, a kind of spot coloring wherein color was painstakingly added to film prints.
Lights of Old Broadway opened in November 1925 to positive reviews. Not surprisingly, much of the glow came from the Hearst newspaper syndicate. “Not only is Marion Davies’s Lights of Old Broadway the finest cinema achievement of the month; it is also a safe bet for a place among the best of the year,” noted the Chicago American. “Marion Davies returns to the field in which she has proved herself – the bright, particular light-historical and romantic comedy drama … Miss Davies is superb as Fely,” noted the Baltimore News. Even a paper not owned by Hearst, the Chicago Tribune, loved her: “Marion Davies is adorable … if I know you at all, you’re going to come out of the theater mightily satisfied.”
To everyone’s stunned disappointment, Lights of Old Broadway failed to garner much early business, with Hearst laying the blame at Thalberg’s feet. In his defense, Thalberg told Davies the problem was with Hearst, who he claimed over-hyped the film and ran an ill-conceived ad campaign. True to character, Hearst shot back with a telegram to Davies, distancing himself from production decisions: “THINK WE MUST REALIZE PICTURE WASN’T BEST EVER PRODUCED … MY FUNCTION IN COMBINATION ARRANGEMENT WITH COMPANY IS FIRST TO PROVIDE GOOD STORY AND LATER TO PROMOTE THE PICTURE. I DIDN’T SELECT THIS STORY OR LIKE IT. THE PLAY HAD BEEN A FAILURE. PICTURE WAS NOT A STAR VEHICLE IN MY HUMBLE OPINION.”
While Hearst and Thalberg traded accusations, something fortuitous happened. Word of mouth, not Hearst’s heavy-handed marketing, turned Lights of Old Broadway into a hit. Mayer wisely stayed above the Hearst-Thalberg fracas, swooping in just as the film began making its eventual $109,000 profit. “Mayer moved quickly to congratulate Hearst and Thalberg for getting off to such an excellent start in their mutual endeavors,” remembered MGM story editor Samuel Marx. “Hearst wired his appreciation and Thalberg went to work preparing a half-dozen new Davies films.”
Despite her abundant charm here and in other films like Little Old New York (1923), The Patsy (1928), and Show People (1928), memory of Davies is tainted with the notion she had no talent, that her career is due entirely to Hearst’s intervention. That reputation was solidified with Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941), in which a Hearst-like figure cruelly pushes mistress and third-rate singer Susan Alexander into the limelight. But Davies didn’t help her own legacy by maintaining large amounts of humility and insecurity throughout her life. She retired in 1937 and came to believe she wasn’t very good. In her memoirs The Times We Had, published posthumously in 1975, she wrote, “I couldn’t act, but the idea of silent pictures appealed to me, because I couldn’t talk either.” Her self-assessment is just plain wrong. Fortunately for us, there are numerous surviving films demonstrating the sublime and enduring artistry of Marion Davies.
Presented at SFSFF 2019 with live music by Philip Carli