In the 19th century, New York had not yet earned the distinction of being “the town so nice they named it twice.” But it was populated by some pretty impressive people: business barons like Cornelius Vanderbilt (Sam Hardy) and John Jacob Astor (Andrew Dillon), with the “young bloods” in that burg including author Washington Irving (Mahlon Hamilton) and inventor Robert Fulton (Courtenay Foote). In fact, Fulton was at that time still developing the steamship that would make him famous…and to accomplish this feat, has called upon young Larry Delevan (Harrison Ford) as a potential investor in what folks are derisively dismissing as “Fulton’s Folly.”
Delevan is counting on an inheritance from his late stepfather to obtain the needed $10,000 for the investment—sadly, life is a funny old dog, and Larry learns at the reading of the will that his steppop has only left him the house and a monthly stipend of $500; the rest of his estate has been bequeathed to his nephew Patrick O’Day (Stephen Carr), of the Ireland O’Days. Sure, ‘tis the foine broth of a boy himself who prepares to journey to America with his father John (J.M. Kerrigan) and sister Patricia (Marion Davies)…but during the sea voyage Patrick, who’s been at Death’s door for some time now (except Death appears to have been in the shower and didn’t hear a knock), passes away peacefully—and John gets the wacky idea to pass Patricia off as her brother as revenge for his brother’s past slights. Patricia, who’s about as convincing as the male sex as Miriam Hopkins in She Loves Me Not (1934), starts to develop feelings for Larry despite having pushed him out of the inheritance sweepstakes; it’s only a matter of time, of course, before her masquerade is exposed.
There’s a myth about Marion Davies’ cinematic oeuvre that refuses to die a peaceful death (and it might be because people have a tendency to equate the actress with her fictional “counterpart”—Susan Alexander in Citizen Kane)…and that’s her movies weren’t exactly moneymakers but rather flights of fancy financed by her lover, publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst. Little Old New York (1923) is just one of Marion’s many vehicles that should put that belief to bed; at the time of its release, New York broke a box office record previously set by Douglas Fairbanks’ Robin Hood (1922), and wound up—according to (the always reliable) Wikipedia—being the seventh most popular movie of 1923 in the U.S. and Canada.
Admittedly, I have not seen as many Marion Davies movies as I’d like; but my experience so far with her output has demonstrated that I prefer her silent films to her talkies. I’ve watched Not So Dumb (1930), Peg o’ My Heart (1933), Going Hollywood (1933) and Operator 13 (1934)…and while each of these films have their moments (particularly Hollywood, which is probably my favorite Marion talkie) they can’t compare to the splendid silent output that is The Red Mill (1927), The Patsy (1928) and Show People (1928), among others. Davies was a most underrated comedienne who filled a satisfying niche in film comedy…but her companion Hearst preferred her in overblown costume epics. Hearst relentlessly promoted his mistress via ads in his newspapers—some say to the detriment of her movie career.
Once you’re able to accept Davies as a member of the opposite sex in Little Old New York (one of the laugh-out-loud moments in the movie is when Pat, considered a “nance” by the neighborhood kids, refuses to fight back and Delevan asks via title card: “Boy, what in the world did you do in Ireland?”) she gives a most satisfying performance; her sly androgyny will be of much interest to modern audiences, and in fact Davies is more interesting as male than female (“Patricia” is kind of a boring character, to be honest). The direction of New York isn’t particularly inspiring (and I think the movie could do with a little trimming—it’s a bit long) but there are some memorable set pieces (as well as first-rate attention to period detail), including a sequence set aboard Fulton’s Clermont and the climax of the film, which involves a boxing match between “The Hoboken Terror” (Louis Wolheim) and “Bully Boy” Brewster (Harry Watson). Brewster is clearly fighting out of his weight class, but Delevan has foolishly bet the ranch (literally—he’s offered his house as collateral) on the pugilist despite Pat’s misgivings. It is s/he who stops the fight by turning in a false fire alarm—but when the ruse is discovered by the crowd, Pat is taken to the public square for an intense flogging. She manages to endure a few lashes before finally breaking down and revealing her true identity to the gape-mouthed gathering.
The name “Harrison Ford” usually conjures up visions of a man sporting a fedora and carrying a bullwhip…but before Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Wars and all the rest there was another thespian by the same name who had quite a career in the silent era. Ford made most of his more popular film vehicles with Marion Davies, and this was the first of three—the others being Janice Meredith (1924) and Zander the Great (1925). Staggeringly popular in his day (he also enjoyed a not-too-shabby livelihood as a stage performer, which he picked up again after only one sound picture, 1932’s Love in High Gear), Ford worked with such leading ladies as Norma Talmadge, Constance Talmadge, Gloria Swanson, Bessie Love, Corinne Griffith, Marie Prevost and Clara Bow. Sadly, many of his features did not survive the ravages of time and neglect—but I know we’ll be hearing from him again in this space because I have a copy of the Prevost-Ford comedy A Blonde for a Night (1928) waiting in the wings.
Little Old New York was based on a 1920 play by Rida Johnson Young, and in 1940 20th Century-Fox had a go at a remake of the material with Alice Faye, Fred MacMurray and Richard Greene. The 1940 version eliminates the gender bending angle (and it’s not too hard to suss out why this is the case, particularly since Alice plays the Marion role) and concentrates a bit more on the Fulton steamship story (Greene plays the inventor, and Fred is a sailor who’s concerned the Clermont will put him on the unemployment line). That movie was released to MOD DVD as part of the company’s “Cinema Archives” brand in November of 2012; for the 1923 original, I’d highly recommend Grapevine’s version even though I wasn’t particularly crazy about the score (sounded like a needle-drop to me). Motion Picture Magazine observed in a laudatory November 1923 review that Little Old New York was “nothing profound or epoch-making but pleasant entertainment which has been well staged and well acted.” I think you’ll agree as well.