8 December 2014 | SimonJack
Early film has many aspects of Hollywood transition
"Bright Lights" is a good example of early cinema after the advent of sound. It includes some popular actors from the silent era who transitioned well enough in sound, but whose careers lasted less than a dozen more years. Dorothy Mackaill, Frank Fay, Inez Courtney, Edward Nugent, Daphne Pollard, and Philip Strange had short careers in sound.
James Murray and Edmund Breese died in the mid-1930s and Noah Beery died in 1946. Only Tom Dugan had a film career that lasted into the 1950s and ended with his death in 1955. I mention this as one reason that few of these names may be known today – other than by serious movie buffs.
Mackaill was a moderately talented singer and actor who played glamor roles in a variety of film genres. But, as film technology advances leapfrogged within a few short years of sound, the competition increased. The glamor age of Hollywood was just beginning. Many new beautiful and talented actresses came on the scene. That included several multi-talented women who could also sing and/or dance. Alice Faye, Jeanette MacDonald, Deanna Durbin, Judy Garland, Eleanor Powell and Ginger Rogers had talents that dwarfed Mackaill. Mackaill made her last theatrical movie in 1937. She was just 34, and she would live to be 87.
Frank Fay started in movies with sound. Although a talented actor and singer, he faced the same competition Mackaill had. But, added to his declining career was his huge ego, a drinking problem, and difficulty in working with others. His film career all but ended with three early films in the 1940s.
Some viewers and the DVD sales company like to promote this as a "pre- code" movie. I think that's done for a lot of films that would not have much of a problem when the motion picture industry began to enforce its code in 1934. But, Mackaill was one of the stars who played roles that had provocative scenes or scantily dressed women. This film has a silhouette scene of the actress undressing behind a screen. Other than that, the chorus costumes and performances were no more revealing or suggestive than any of the many musical films from the mid-1930s onward.
"Bright Lights" is what might be called a formulaic film of early musicals. The musicals most of us remember and enjoy from the past are those that have considerable plots. They tell the stories with musical and/or dance numbers at intervals. But, the earliest of the sound era musicals were mostly revues. They had scripts with very thin plots, if any, and were mostly staged music and dance numbers, sometimes with comedy stuck in, as in the vaudeville days.
Besides this example, the technical and production aspects of "Bright Lights" are examples of the early transitions in film. For instance, the heavy use of makeup in this film is most obvious with Frank Fay. The acting at times seems stuck in place – probably because this was filmed with fixed microphone locations. And, the acting itself still has some twinges of melodrama – a carryover from the silent film days.
There are no memorable songs from this film, and the choreography of the big numbers is rudimentary compared to later accomplished musicals. The film has a thin plot, but there are no exceptional performances. It has some historical value for a look at a handful of early actors who bowed out of films within a few short years. And, it has some value in showing the state of the film craft in its early years of transition to sound and other major advances.