When bootleggers Jake Jackson (Walter Percival) and Dan Dickson (Jere Delaney), who have been hiding out in a small upstate New York town, learn that they finally can return to New York, they try to convince a young kid named Eddie Morgan (Cullen Landis) and his friend, a local barber named Gene (Eugene Palette) to come with them.
With a promise from Jackson and Dickson that they will help the young men establish a barbershop in the city, Eddie asks his mother, Mrs. Morgan (Mary Carr), who owns the town's Morgan Hotel, to loan them $5,000 of her savings. Eddie and Gene set up the barbershop in New York but soon learn that it is merely a front for a speakeasy.
Frustrated and yearning for a return to the quiet life, Gene and Eddie vow to go home as soon as they earn enough to pay back Mrs. Morgan. Eddie is in love with Kitty Lewis (top-billed Helene Costello), his hometown sweetheart, who preceded him to New York. Now she is a performer at The Night Hawk, a nightclub owned by Hawk Miller (Wheeler Oakman), notorious bootlegger who controls the speakeasy behind the barbershop. Although Hawk's longtime mistress, Molly Thompson (Gladys Brockwell), warns him not to pursue Kitty, he coldly dismisses her, saying that their relationship is over.
After a police officer is killed in a bootlegging raid of a supply of Old Century liquor, Hawk tells his henchmen, Sam (Tom Dugan) and Collins (Tom McGuire), that they must find someone to take the blame to keep the police from closing him down. They suggest that Hawk frame Eddie, thereby "killing two birds with one stone." When Eddie comes to the club to visit Kitty, Hawk summons him to his office and asks him to hide his supply of Old Century, saying that it is only temporary, in case the police raid his club. When Detective Crosby (Robert Elliott) comes to the club to question Hawk and implies that he is behind the policeman's murder, Hawk says that the only person he knows who has a supply of Old Century is Eddie.
A short time later, Hawk goes to the barbershop and is killed by an unknown assailant. Fearing that they will be blamed, Eddie and Gene put Hawk's body in a barber chair and rub his face with shaving cream just as Crosby arrives at the shop. After Eddie leaves, a nervous Gene pretends to shave Hawk, but the body slides from the chair, revealing its identity to Crosby. Although Gene swears that the absent Eddie is innocent, Crosby deduces that Eddie has gone to Kitty's apartment and follows him there. Crosby is about to arrest Eddie and Kitty, when Molly arrives and reveals that she killed Hawk because he no longer wanted her. As there was a reward for the killer of the policeman, dead or alive, Crosby tells Molly that things will not go badly for her. Now freed from their obligation to Hawk, Kitty and Eddie take the next train home.Helene Costello as Kitty Lewis
Cullen Landis as Eddie Morgan
Mary Carr as Mrs. Morgan
Wheeler Oakman as 'Hawk' Miller
Gladys Brockwell as Molly Thompson
Robert Elliott as Detective Crosby
Eugene Pallette as Gene
Tom Dugan as Sam
Tom McGuire as Collins
Walter Percival as Jake Jackson
Guy D'Ennery as Tommy
Jere Delaney as Dan Dickson
"At Dawning" (Sung by Harry Downing)
"Kiss and Make Up" (Sung by Harry Downing and danced by Chorus Girls in nightclub sequence)
"March Dance" (Danced by Chorus Girls in nightclub sequence)
Directed by Foy from a script written by Murray Roth and comedian Hugh Herbert, Lights of New York was originally intended to be a two-reel film with a budget of $12,000, as the studio had not yet committed to regular production of full-length talking films. However, with studio heads Harry and Jack Warner out of the country to oversee the European premiere of The Jazz Singer, the crew gradually elaborated the plot as the seven-day shooting schedule progressed. Louis Halper, who was in charge of the studio while the Warners were away, eventually wired Jack Warner for the additional money needed to finish the film.
Upon discovering that Foy had shot four reels more than promised, Jack Warner ordered him to cut the film back to the original two. Foy later said that the Warners' initial rejection was possibly based on their plans to make the first all-talkie a prestige picture. In an effort to keep the movie off the shelf, Foy screened the picture for an exhibitor friend, who immediately offered to buy it outright for $25,000. Upon hearing this, the Warners asked Albert Warner to view the film, and his praise of Lights convinced Jack and Harry that their decision was premature, securing the film's release.
Contemporary critical reception of Lights of New York was decidedly cool. A New York Times review, while acknowledging the film's place as "the alpha of what may develop as the new language of the screen", called the plot "crude in the extreme" and the direction wooden, only singling out the musical interludes for praise. "Ordinary cast and production", reported Film Daily. "Discard the talking element, and it is just a second-rate meller." Variety was even more harsh in its dismissal, labeling the production "hokumed junk." "In a year from now everyone concerned [...] will run for the river before looking at it again" Oliver Claxton of The New Yorker also panned the film. "It would have been better silent, and much better unseen. The talking films have not even progressed to their infancy yet. Bad as it is, though, the film shows what I have been very reluctant to believe, that audibility will be a great help to the movies."
The criticism did not keep audiences away, although demand may have been driven more by the novelty of the first "all-talking" feature film than the film's dramatic qualities. A preview engagement in Pasadena, California, resulted in lines around the block, and the first week's gross at New York City's Mark Strand Theater amounted to $47,000. Upon nationwide release, the film grossed $1.2 million, making the film a box-office success.
The film and the Vitaphone soundtrack still survive in complete form. In a formal ceremony on July 24, 1946, Albert Warner presented a print of Lights of New York to the Library of Congress as part of a yearlong celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the premiere of the Warner Bros. studio's first sound features.