Little Old New York (1923) A Silent Film Review

Marion Davies stars as an impoverished Irishwoman who takes her brother’s identity in order to gain an inheritance in America. Supposedly, the story is about the pioneering commercial steam ship industry but we all know that Marion is the real draw.

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.

The steamiest silent film of all time.

Marion Davies was one of the funniest people on the screen in the silent era but her comedic charm often got swallowed up by mammoth productions. There’s a nation floating around that she never really had any hits and was entirely propped up by significant other William Randolph Hearst’s media empire.

Actually, Davies had some solid successes and even a few blockbusters under her belt and today we are going to be looking at one of her biggest hits. While it has all the trappings of a stuffy costume picture, the idea of Davies passing herself off as a tween boy is an amusing one. Did she pull it off? We shall see!

You’ll never guess where Little Old New York is set! Give up? New York City, sillies. Robert Fulton (Courtenay Foote) and Cornelius Vanderbilt (Sam Hardy) are trying to get a steamship built but are having trouble finding backers. However, there is hope as they are acquainted with Larry Delaven (Harrison Ford). Larry’s wealthy step-father has just died and he is the only obvious heir.

A steam ship? Why on earth would people want to go anywhere that fast?
A steam ship? Why on earth would people want to go anywhere that fast?

However, dear old step-dad plays a rather cruel joke in his will. He came from Ireland, you see, on money borrowed from his brother. Since he never did anything for his brother while alive (why, exactly?) he means to make his brother’s son, one Patrick O’Day, his sole heir. Larry gets the house and a small stipend to care for the boy but is otherwise left out in the cold. However, if Patrick does not show within a year or is dead, all the money will revert to Larry.

(Silent movies just loved to feature mad wills with bizarre conditions. “My heir will be whichever relative owns the most cats and also marries before their nineteenth birthday on the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee.” I wonder what the lawyers thought of all this.)

As you can see, Larry, you will inherit nothing unless you fill your socks with jello and drive a chariot down the streets of New Orleans.
As you can see, Larry, you will inherit nothing unless you fill your socks with jello and drive a chariot down the streets of New Orleans.

No one has any idea where Patrick O’Day can be found and as the year passes, Larry becomes more and more confident that the money will be his and that he will be free to invest in steam ships. (A strange passion but there you are.)

And we’re off to Ireland where the O’Days are being evicted from their rather spacious cottage. I mean, if money was so tight did they really need to rent a 600,000 square foot home? In any case, a lawyer shows up just in time to stop the eviction and we meet the O’Days properly. There’s young Patrick (Stephen Carr), a sickly lad, father John (J.M. Kerrigan, genuine Irishman) and the daughter of the family, Patricia (Marion Davies). The clock is ticking and so the family sets out for America immediately.

Don't tell anyone but Patricia's technique is abysmal. Thumbs and elbows up!
Don’t tell anyone but Patricia’s technique is abysmal. Thumbs and elbows up!

Because this is a movie, Patrick O’Day can’t show up a week before the deadline or even a day ahead of schedule. No, he must show up just before midnight on the final day. Larry is unpleasantly surprised by the late night arrival of young Patrick. The thing is, it’s not Patrick, it’s Patricia with a haircut and trousers. (The movie plays it coy as to why the switch was made, which is just silly. Patrick died en route and Patricia took his place at their father’s insistence. Why hard is that to explain?)

Patricia likes Larry at once and he eventually comes around to taking a fatherly interest in her, especially after her father, having served his narrative purpose, dies. What is this unspecified ailment that is killing the O’Days? Is it catching? Wasn’t there an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation about this? (There was.)

An unconvincing boy in the 1920s but a 1980s fashion queen!
An unconvincing boy in the 1920s but a 1980s fashion queen!

Anyway, now we have Larry and Pat alone together. She can’t tell him the truth because her father made her promise that she wouldn’t. He’s out to ruin Larry’s family because reasons. Just go with it. But Patricia is determined to help Larry in some way and so she tries her best to get him money for his steam ship investment. (What is it with these people and steam ships?)

Larry, thinking he is broke, decides to bet his house on the outcome of a boxing match between Harry Watson, Jr.’s Bully Boy Brewster and Louis Wolheim’s terrifying Hoboken Kid. Larry is not going to split the atom, as you may have realized by now.

You just spent all your money on lotto tickets, didn't you, Larry?
You just spent all your money on lotto tickets, didn’t you, Larry?

Will Patricia save the day? Will her real identity be the scandal of New York? Will Larry get a clue? You’ll have to see Little Old New York to find out but I don’t heartily recommend it.

An important thing to know about this movie is that it’s pretty long, especially considering the thinness of the plot. An hour and forty-five minutes of movie with just enough plot to fill and hour. What takes up the rest of the time? One of the most bloated cast lists of the silent era.

Marion's the only famous person I came to see.
Marion’s the only famous person I came to see.

I’ve talked before about “dramatic pause” films in the sound era. You know the ones I mean. “We need to find a physicist to help up. What do you think… Albert Einstein?” (Man with wild hair turns to reveal Einstein’s familiar face. Wink wink.) Well, Little Old New York does this in silent era form. Everyone who was anyone in 1800s New York makes an appearance, which swells the cast list to a ridiculous degree. Worse, most modern viewers may vaguely know names like Astor or Vanderbilt but New York high society just does not hold the same interest that it once did. (Unless they have a reality show, of course.)

Apparently, the stage play suffered from similar problems. In her review, Dorothy Parker hit the nail on the head when she states that “as in all such plays, local color substitutes for plot.” We get splendid sets, sumptuous costumes, steam ships and bicycles with no pedals but not much in the way of a real story.

(The story was remade in 1940 with Alice Faye and—oh joy!—even more steam ships! Who could say no to that? Me, that’s who. Sorry, no Silents vs. Talkies this time.)

If I hear about ONE MORE steam ship...
If I hear about ONE MORE steam ship…

Little Old New York itself is not without its comedic moments. We have Marion Davies trying desperately to break up Larry’s romance with the local Mean Girl. While that’s going on, she is also trying to scam the executor of her uncle’s will, (dramatic pause) John Jacob Astor, into giving her money to back that steam ship. It’s all rather darling.

Harry Watson provides further comedy relief, though he is only to be found in three scenes. He plays Bully Boy Brewster, an aspiring pugilist and member of the New York fire brigade. He is introduced at the start of the film and then promptly forgotten about until the climax calls for a boxing match. To be honest, I would rather have done away with a few Astors and Vanderbilts so that there would be more time for Bully Boy. This plodding film desperately needed more light material.

More, please!
More, please!

As for his opponent, fans of a cuddly Louis Wolheim will be disappointed to know that he plays a rather fearsome character here, a horrible boxer named the Hoboken Terror. Poor little Bully Boy doesn’t stand a chance against him.

Comedic boxing had been part of Watson’s stage act since the Follies of 1907 and an earlier (and considerably longer) iteration of the routine can be seen in Hold Fast (1916), an excerpt of which is included on the Mishaps of Musty Suffer DVD. (Thanks to Ben Model for the tip!)

Mom! Louis Wolheim is scaring me!
Mom! Louis Wolheim is scaring me!

Harrison Ford does well enough but his character is not terribly interesting. (Nor, I might add, terribly observant. Patricia is not a very convincing boy.) I mean, other than his bizarre fascination with steam ships, I cannot name a single personality trait.

As for the rest of the cast, they pass by in a blur of historical trivia. I imagine this film is much more amusing for fans of New York history. For a Californian, the parade of “famous” names is tedious in the extreme. I mean, look at this!

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(The grand total is 21 starring and featured players for those of you keeping score at home.)

The sets and costumes are interesting enough, though the whole thing feels studio-bound and the Irish scenes are decidedly unconvincing. (Not a good sign if the film’s director happens to be famed for his Irish films.) I do wonder if the old New York scenes inspired a few of the gags in Buster Keaton’s Our Hospitality, released a few months after this film.

The tiny and cramped hovels of Ireland! (Mind the vaulted ceiling)
The tiny and cramped hovels of Ireland! (Mind the vaulted ceiling)

The biggest flaw (besides the bloated cast list and slow pace) of Little Old New York is its ending. (Extremely mild spoilers for this paragraph.) If you think multiple false endings are a modern invention think again. Little Old New York has no less than three occasions when I was convinced it was over only to have it start up again. The worst was when everything seemed resolved but then we had a flashback explaining exactly how Pat came to be disguised. Look, dudes, we were curious about that about ninety minutes back but now we just want to final clutch so we can go eat dinner. Sheesh!

It's over, thank goodness! What's that? We have another twenty minutes? Lordy!
It’s over, thank goodness!
What’s that?
We have another twenty minutes? Lordy!

Little Old New York works when it remembers who the boss lady is. Marion Davies is as charming and witty as ever and the film only comes to life when she is its sole focus. I didn’t care about the steam ships or whether Larry got money to back them. I wanted to see more of Pat’s adorable antics. Sidney Olcott’s staid direction shows that he was already becoming an anachronism and his jaunts to Ireland did little to infuse authentic Irish culture into this studio production.

Relatively little is known about Olcott (most information comes from the absolutely wretched Stardust and Shadows, which silent movie fans are advised to avoid like the plague or to read only for the purpose of debunking) but he seemed to have had a real ego and he tended to claim that any actor or actress he worked with wanted his body. (I roll my eyes at these “me so sexy” narratives, just so you know.) He also had an issue with taking orders from women, even if (or especially if) they were signing the checks. In short, he was the perfect director NOT to work on a Marion Davies vehicle.

The film's real draw.
The film’s real draw.

After his troubles at Kalem, Olcott had gone into independent production, first with frequent collaborator Gene Gauntier but his resentment at Gauntier (who had the almighty nerve to be a woman) becoming his boss ended that partnership. He was able to get financing for himself later and had a stint at proto-Paramount but then slid into freelancing for poverty row studios and occasional one-off work for the majors. Little Old New York was a comeback for him, as well as one of Marion Davies’ biggest commercial hits. Apparently, her charm was enough to make the audience forget how slow the whole film was.

Limited appeal.
Limited appeal.

Marion Davies fans will want to see this movie to catch her comedic scenes. I can also see the picture being of interest to history loving New Yorkers. Everyone else can safely skip Little Old New York and not be missing much.

Movies Silently’s Score:★★

Where can I see it?

Little Old New York has been released on DVD by Grapevine. You can also snag a copy of the tie-in novelization of the play.

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