Plot: Louanne (Dorothy Mackaill) has climbed the ladder of show business, from the darkened clubs to a big, popular variety show, where she is a featured performer and in a plum position. But the trials and tribulations of fame and the stage don’t have the same glow these days, as Louanne longs for a calmer, more stable lifestyle instead. That means marriage and being a wife seems to be on the horizon, as she has found a beau and plans to settle down. As she details her retirement plans to the press, she reveals a little about her colorful past, but keeps this rendition tamer than the real life events. Meanwhile, her colleague Wally Dean (Frank Fay) has been at her side through her journey to success and in the process, has fallen hard for her. While Louanne prepares for the next stage of her life, her past comes back to haunt her and although she kept some of it a secret, now the truth is bound to be uncovered.
Entertainment Value: Also known as Adventures in Africa, Bright Lights is one I knew I had to check out, as it has Dorothy Mackaill in the lead and was directed by Michael Curtiz. The movie has a solid narrative, but this is a musical at heart, so those scenes tend to be the most memorable ones here. I wouldn’t rank musicals as my favorite genre, but I am open to the idea and Bright Lights has some good set pieces. The musical numbers are stylish and have good scope, so there is some of that grandeur you expect, even if the actual music and lyrics aren’t super memorable. The material works in the moment and keeps you entertained however, so no complaints there. The non musical elements were of a little more interest to me, especially since Bright Lights explores some topics that makes pre-code so scandalous. Louanne’s colorful past is a core narrative device and while this is perhaps more on the tame side than some of its peers, the movie doesn’t play it safe. So the story is interesting and the musical numbers are big, showy fun, making this an easy recommendation.
The material in Bright Lights is a little all over the place, unable to settle on a tone or direction, but the cast helps keeps things on track. And Dorothy Mackaill is able to come through regardless of what the script demands, so whether that is drama, comedy, or song & dance, she delivers. I think her best moments are in the musical numbers, as she has such great presence in those sequences, with high levels of enthusiasm and charisma as she performs. So even when the material doesn’t keep pace with her talents, Mackaill elevates what she has to work with and gives us a terrific lead effort, though her costars do steal some scenes at times. The two Franks are quite good, with Frank Fay and Frank McHugh both in enjoyable performances. McHugh is able to do a lot with his role and make the most of his scenes, while Fay is also more than solid, though he struggles to match Mackaill’s presence. The cast also includes Louise Beavers, Noah Beery, James Murray, and Daphne Pollard. Bright Lights also happens to be the screen debut for cinema legend John Carradine.