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Winsor McCay -- The Master Edition

A new DVD offers an opportunity to see films by a master of animation —Andrea Birgers (DVD review...)

Gertie the Dinosaur, born of Winsor McCay

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Lady of the Night (1925) has not been seen for decades. I can’t find any mention of it on VHS, and TCM bragged of its TV debut in 2006, only 4 years ago. Eighty years is a long time to wait for a movie.

Enter Warner is opening its vaults and shipping low-demand movies on DVD, made to order. It’s a great use of new technology. It allows those of us with deeper tastes to get impossible-to-find titles, without putting the studio on the hook for a big production run.

Double Your Pleasure

Special effects got very good just before the sound era
Special effects got very good just before the sound era

Norma Shearer plays dual roles in Lady of the Night. It’s a lurid title, though the story is a clean, melodramatic love triangle.

Florence (Shearer 1), the daughter of a judge, is graduating from finishing school with her crowd of dear friends. Molly (Shearer 2), the daughter of a convict (sent to jail by the Florence’s dad), is ditching reform school with her two ne’er-do-well cronies.

Molly wears a hat with impressive plumage that adds ten inches to her height. She is painted and moody and bold. When she is alone we get a glimpse of her insecurity; she wants to look like a model in a magazine. But then someone else will walk in and she’s back to her gum-chewing, swaggering self. Florence barely registers as the mousey white-bread good girl.

Circumstance, fate, and the hand of screenwriter Adela Rogers St. Johns conspire to have both Shearers fall in love with a young inventor named Dave. His idea is to make a contraption with a super-sensitive magnet that can open any safe in the world. Molly knows some criminal friends who would pay him well for his idea, but she changes her mind and encourages him to show the idea to the banks, to sell them the technology in reverse to make their safes unbreakable.

In sending Dave from the dark side to the light, she unwittingly pushes him across the great class divide. Once there, it may be harder for him to choose dark, painted Molly over the light and innocent Florence.

Signs of the Times

The signs of the times are almost as interesting as the story. In the background at the club are signs that read “cheek-to-cheek dancing prohibited” and “decent dancing: do your part”

Filmmaking techniques got very sophisticated just before the advent of sound. There is a scene in Lady of the Night that illustrates just how good they were. First Florence and Molly share a scene that cuts between the two women, occasionally shooting over the shoulder of a body double (Joan Crawford, reportedly). Then, amazingly, there is a shot of the two women sharing the back seat of a cab. You won’t find a vertical seam between the women because one wears the hat with the ten-inch feather that intrudes onto the screen space of the other. I’m guessing there was an S-shaped traveling matte, but whatever technology they used, it’s very impressive, especially for 1925. Then at the end of the scene, when the women embrace, well, you just have to laugh.

The music was recorded in 2006. It’s a solo piano score that works well with the movie, though it does sound modern rather than 80 years old.

Picture and Sound

Presumably Warner would have been willing to skimp on picture or sound quality, just to get the DVD out there in front of the public. And Lady of the Night doesn’t necessarily look like it was carefully restored frame by frame. But at the same time the picture and sound quality are surprisingly good; no worse than just about any other DVD release of a silent film.

DVD Extras

Obviously, there are none, and in the case of WarnerArchive titles, it’s a trade I’m more than willing to make.

The disc comes in a standard DVD case with cover art printed on demand. Chapter stops are added every 10 minutes, and a simple menu introduces the movie and some of WarnerArchive’s other titles.