Monday, 25 August 2014

Before the bob… Broken Hearts of Broadway (1923)

I have to confess that probably the first time I was aware of Colleen Moore was through Barry Paris’ references to her in his Louise Brooks biography. Colleen was the first to really popularise the bob haircut that Louise was to epitomise for modern audiences from Henri Langlois onwards, yet she was without doubt one of the stars of the twenties and operated at a level of far greater popularity than her younger, sassier, competitor: she’s just less now… or is she?

There’s no good reason for Colleen Moore not to be remembered and recognised as even this routine back stage drama demonstrates. She had energy and great timing, lighting up her face at will with far greater impact than any of her co-stars and pulling the viewer down with her after every set back. Yes indeed, what we have here is an actress of controlled natural expression who wouldn’t be out of place living in the adjoining dwelling to your own. Not glamorous, super-natural or overtly sexual (hi Clara!)… just a bit real.

Colleen Moore
You can see why she was so popular - her apparent modesty, implicit good nature and sheer lack of threat would win over viewers with a sustainability beyond those with higher levels of impact and vogue. Mind you, this was the film before Flaming Youth after which the hair and the dresses got shorter and she became The Flapper… I shall have to find out more about Moore.

For Broken Hearts of Broadway Moore plays a small town girl come to New York to make her mark. From the film’s opening framing sequence we learn that she does but for much of the narrative we find it hard to work out how.

Tully Marshall and Creighton Hale
It’s a rainy night on Broadway where, clearly, the lights are not always bright…  An Outcast (Creighton Hale) is so on his uppers he’s having to stuff newspaper down his jacket to keep warm, a cab draws up and the driver Barney Ryan (Tully Marshall) quickly recognises an old buddy. Barney sizes up his old pal and realises he’s nearly done… he’d tried writing and looking up at a neon sign reckons only bad luck has stood in his way. Not so, says Barney eyeing the sign: he knows the story behind the success it advertises: Broken Hearts of Broadway, starring one Mary Ellis… and he sets out to explain and inspire...

He’d first encountered Mary Ellis (Colleen Moore) on a similar rainy evening. She was yet another small-town amateur who’d come to find her fortune. His wife set her up as a room-mate for another wannabe, the aptly named Bubbles Revere (Alice Lake) full of vim and a vigorous willingness to do what it takes to “make it”. Bubbles is – loosely-speaking  – committed to a young painter who also rooms in the house, Tony Guido (Anthony Merlo). His room-mate is a song-writer named George Colton (Johnnie Walker)

Katie Price
They are struggling artistes and for all Mrs Ryan (a fearsome Katie Price) tries to keep them in order they are always late with their rent.

Bubbles gets Mary a gig at her theatre whilst Mary meets George after helping him complete a song by playing the logical ending after overhearing his struggles above… a sequence requiring considerable wit in a silent film. George manages to sell their song: things are looking up!

George and Mary tune up
As the four go out to celebrate they meet two of Broadway’s most powerful show-runners Barry Peale (Arthur Stuart Hull) and Frank Huntleigh (Freeman Wood). These guys know “talent” when they see it and the girls are soon installed in one of their productions. But such promotion comes at a price and as the girls open their after show gifts it slowly dawns on Mary what the quid pro quo will need to be… whilst Bubbles is happy to take her chances Mary is chaste and wants to stay loyal to George.

Meeting the money men...
So far so backstage movie convention but the course of honest success is not to run quiet so smoothly as you might expect. Bubbles goes from strength to strength whilst Mary’s principles guarantee her months more of penury. George gets a gig at a Chinese nightclub which looks perfectly fine to me but which leads to an assault on Mary and the pair getting fired after their first engagement.    

As the money runs out he loses his piano and Mary has to address how ambitious she actually is… Can she go through with the exchange of favours or will talent somehow win out? A breathless closing section neatly provides the answer albeit with a convoluted denouement that lacks the cutting edge of uncertainty.

An offer she can't refuse?
This aside, Broken Hearts of Broadway is entertaining enough and there are good turns from Tully Marshall, Katie Price and Alice Lake who does indeed bubble away with energy.

Alice Lake
Irving Cummings’s direction is perhaps a little static especially for the sequences on stage, then again he could have been masking the leads' lack of dance training. His story telling is efficient and there are a couple of memorable close ups of Colleen Moore as she looks up through the roof of Barney’s cab and again as she sees Bubbles head off for a life of “sponsored” showbiz success.

Breakfast al fresco
This being my one and only Moore film to date I look forward to seeing how she developed by, say, Orchids and Ermine from 1927… on this showing, in which she‘s comfortably the standout, I’m expecting great things!

Broken Hearts of Broadway is available on a Grapevine DVD, other versions are available from Amazon which probably use the same source – I think it’s public domain now?

PS Flaming Youth is largely lost but there's a tantalising eleven minutes preserved by the Library of Congress and available on YouTube... Here's a sample with Colleen getting dolled up: ready to help make the twenties roar.


  1. I haven't seen this film, but I really like Colleen Moore. Great comic timing, and she's very charming, not at all bland.
    I highly recommend Ella Cinders! It's a hoot.

    Side note, but isn't Barry Paris' bio of Louise Brooks great? Probably one of the best biographies I've ever read. Colleen Moore wrote an autobiography herself, but I didn't find it to be anything special.

    1. She has so much energy and that great timing! I'm looking forward to watching more and Ella's on the list!

      I agree Barry Paris' book is one of the bets biographies - he had a great subject too! I've read him on Garbo too but maybe not as good.

      There's a recent bio on Colleen by Jeff Cordori mixed reviews but tempting:

      Best wishes


    2. Indeed. I don't think I could have been friends with Louise, but she certainly had an interesting life.

      I'll have to look for that Colleen bio at the library! I hadn't heard about it at all.

    3. She was a one-off and probably not one to compromise: tough company in the best sense!

      Any bio on Colleen's better than none and she's due a revival - I'm giving it a go and will let you know what I think.

      Best wishes


    4. I have a private question for you regarding this Colleen Moore film. Could you please email me? Thank you!