Friday, September 25, 2009

New York Nights (1929)

New York Nights is one of those early talkies that has survived but in severely truncated form. It's hard to tell exactly what was cut but it seems to be quite a lot. The print in circulation, the 1938 re-release clocks in at a mere 64 minutes compared to a reported initial length of 82 minutes. Some sources even state it ran for a staggering 102 mins. I suspect the cuts made must have been some musical numbers from the Broadway show now only mentioned in the plot. One of the cut numbers is a cameo appearence of Al Jolson singing a number, unclear exactly what as with the rest of the cuts. In the beginning of the picture there is a nice songwriting scene also pictured on the poster above. The song performed is A Year From Today, written by Al Jolson, Dave Dreyer and Ballard McDonald. This is interesting because it is a very nice little song and the only song now present in the movie. The song is used in several different versions throughout the picture. Maybe the cut Jolson number is his rendition of his own song? Here's a little montage to show how a song was plugged in a non musical in 1929. It was important to show how versatile the song was and that it could be played in many different ways. I appologize fore the terrible sound quality: New York Nights, is a sort of gangster drama starring Norma Talmadge who definitely was one of the talkie casualties. So was her sister Constance who made some 80 silent pictures but no talkie. Norma Talmadge's fall from stardom is seldom mentioned in the litterature because her career ended for no reason. Her acting is fine, her voice is great, it just didn't work. I guess her ended career possibly can be blamed on bad scripts and bad direction. Maybe also her age played a part. In 1929 Norma Talmadge was 36 and had done 160 movies. New York Nights is her first talkie of two and she even gets to sing in it.
A Year From Today - Sheet musc cover
The story is simple... Joe Prividi (John Wray) is a mobster who happens to be backing a Broadway show. He has the hots for his leading lady, Jill Deverne (Talmadge), who only has eyes for her song-writer husband, Fred (Gilbert Roland). Prividi engineers a chorus girl into Fred's drunken arms at a speakeasy one night and arranges for a raid. Jill won't believe her husband to be innocent and she dumps him. Months later she is Prividi's mistress and after a shooting during a party is taken along with Prividi to the police station. There she discovers her husband, a down and out tramp without her. They patch up their differences and plan to escape New York to begin life anew, but Prividi has other plans for Fred...
Lilyan Tashman, Norma Talmadge and John Wray
80 years after its release, it is impossible to determine what sank this wonderful little film at the box office. But, sank it did. A promotion failure? Did the rumor mill kill it? It's clear it didn't live up to the public's expectations. The only thing I can figure about the original failure of this film is that people had a certain idea about their silent stars and, for the most part, giving them a voice just took away the magic and made them seek out new faces - Cagney, Blondell, Tracy, and Hepburn among others. Very few weathered the transition and Norma Talmadge was among the many casualties. It doesn't take much more. After one more picture, the glittering career of Norma Talmadge, a star that shone so bright would be extinguished. Her sister Constance didn't even get to make a talkie, her career ended in France with a forgettable late silent in 1929, she was 32.
Norma and Constance Talmadge
If you're a fan of the early talkies I recommend you check this one out if you get the chance. It's a rare opportunity to see Norma Talmadge in a film since so very few of her silent films survive. That's too bad since she was one of the most popular dramatic actresses of the silent era. Here's a nice and snappy version of A Year From Today played by Leo Reisman and his orchestra. The recording was made by Victor in October 1929.


Raquel Stecher said...

Great post again Jonas! Why are there so many different versions of silents and early talkies? Why did the studios find the need to chop them up like that? Hmmm....

Classic Maiden said...

Great review as always and it's indeed so unfortunate, when films gets scenes cut.

I really like Lilyan Tashman and she was so ideal for Pre-Code, though she often had a tendency to overact. Lucky for her, that often fitted the parts she played.

Jonas Nordin said...

The chopping up of movies was mainly done for two reasons. Silent movies were cut differently in different countries for both artistic and "political" reasons. Sometimes a movie was considered too long and was simply shortened with no respect for the artistic work. This was for instance the case with Metropolis (UFA 1927) which had a running time of about three hours on its initial German premiere. UFA ordered it to be cut down almost immediately and then cut again for its international release later the same year. The international prints were then cut at will by the foreign distributors. This was the case with almost all silent movies at the time and the reason they now resurface in many different versions.

The case with the early talkies is somewhat different and often a question of censorship. Many pre-1934 productions were cut in compliance with the 1934 production code, often ending up a lot lamer compared to what they first looked like. Many of the pre-code productions was altered forever and the original version was rarely saved.

Most of the 1929-30 talkies included quite a lot of musical numbers that were cut when the public grew tired of musicals in mid 1930. This is one reason so many surviving prints from this year today have a surprisingly short running time of about 60-70 minutes.

Sometimes even movie versions of Broadway Musicals were severely cut like the case with 50 million Frenchmen 1931, a successful stage musical that had all its musical numbers omitted and turned into bland comedy before it was allowed to hit the market.

Lolita of the Classics said...

Interesting post! I think that film sounds really interesting, I can't understand why it would have been a box-office failure. So unfortunate.

Lolita of the Classics said...

By the way, that song was just lovely. It's stuck in my head already. And even though the sound quality is terrible, as you say, I'm surprised at how good the picture quality is! Is there some restoration involved?
Norma Talmadge was a real darling!

Ralph Dratman said...

My wife and I just watched New York Nights on youtube. We very much enjoyed it. To me it's a lovely early talkie that is full of film history, and portrays something about the era. The film begins with the camera looking out the front of an ambulance rushing along a street with its siren on. There is a single powerful light beam illuminating the road ahead. It really does appear to have been shot from a moving vehicle at night. There is a wonderful song written by Al Jolson and associates, introduced in a delightful scene near the beginning of the picture. I am very impressed by this solidly constructed early talkie, made in 1929. While we were watching it, I did not know it had been cut. That is a great pity, of course, but the cut version is cohesive, and did not seem to be missing anything, at least on first viewing.

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