DIRECTED BY SIDNEY OLCOTT
STREET DATE: NOVEMBER 19, 2019/UNDERCRANK PRODUCTIONS
Little Old New York was produced by Cosmopolitan Pictures, a company run by Marion Davies’ lover, William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper magnate. It released on August 1, 1923.
The editing of the film, especially in the first half, seems off to me. A Variety review of August 9, 1923 reads, in part, as follows: “[Marion Davies’] performance will sell this film when it reaches the picture houses. At that time the picture will be freely cut to meet the exhibitors’ time requirement. Cutting will be no task, either in the first or second part, from its two- hour run at the Cosmopolitan at a super-special top, $1.50. Sliced to a proper size, the film on its own will better stand up.” The DVD edition clocks in at 108 minutes which may indicate both a faster projection speed on the part of Mr. Model and a sizable chunk of editing which may have taken place between the reviewer’s experience of the film and ours in 2019.
More to the point: for the first ten or so minutes of the film, I was left wondering why I should care about any of the characters on the screen. Much of the societal ‘establishing shots’ would’ve been better left to title cards—or, possibly flashbacks—when the characters they depict actually figure into the story instead of causing the viewers anxiety over who is being presented for window-dressing and who is being presented so that I as a viewer will understand what is going on and how they will relate to Ms. Davies, if at all.
At eight minutes into the film, we meet Davies’ love interest of the film, Larry Delavan (played by Harrison Ford—a DIFFERENT Harrison Ford). Immediately, there is a problem. Larry’s late stepfather has raised a playboy in every sense of the word and then turns around and bequeaths his fortune not to Larry but to a nephew he has never met. Entire tomes might be written about the level of dysfunction present in a family in which the patriarch behaves in this manner—but, I suppose, the writers and director needed a reason to bring Patricia O’Day (played by Marion Davies) across the ocean from Ireland to create dramatic—and even sexual—tension. More on this later.
The scene twelve minutes into the film in which all of the O’Day possessions are being taken to settle their debts feels very proscenium-staged: too many medium shots of all the actors cheating toward the camera to establish any division in the scene. Though I very much enjoyed Monseuir Beacaire, I must still confess that I think it suffers from the same sort of direction. Sidney Olcott wasn’t the only silent film director to fall into this pit even as late as the mid-ish 1920s; Rupert Julian was another infamous example of such unimaginative staging. King Vidor was yet to make his famous The Big Parade or The Crowd, but his imagination in shot composition and staging were much more visually engaging.
So, twenty-one minutes into the film, the playboy Larry and Patricia or “Pat”(masquerading as Patrick O’Day, the heir to the fortune who has now died of being a delicate lad who had some of the best hair in the entire film) are introduced to one another. Patricia is seemingly smitten with Larry at first sight and Larry is understandably annoyed by the appearance of “Patrick” since that means his meal ticket is now toast. Patricia wants to dislike Larry but can’t bring herself to do so.
Ms. Davies flourishes in the light comedy of the film. Shamed for having lost a fight with the urchins, Pat is subjected to Reilly’s critique, “Sure, he’s the most disappointing Irish lad for his years and size I have ever seen!” Pat is then quizzed by Larry: “Boy, what in the world did you do in Ireland?” Pat replies, “I used to play the harp.” Both Reilly and Larry give each other a shocked look which could be taken at least two ways, possibly to avoid censorship. A simultaneous eye-roll over the head of Davies would’ve done the trick nicely, paired with the self-satisfied far-off look she had.
Another comic moment results from Pat being introduced to the younger sister of Larry’s love interest. Davies must now figure out how to ditch the goofy chick and get back to the ‘serious’ business of pursuing Larry (while Larry, is of course, busy courting his girlfriend Ariana). Ariana sings a song from London and Pat gets their harp and sings a competing song. The competition goes on for quite a while with Pat being rather sassy and fun. Her closeups of mood changes are really a treat to see on the screen and are a precursor to Show People which she would make in 1928 at MGM with William Haines (co-star) and King Vidor (director).
The motif of competition between Pat and Ariana works within the suspension of disbelief in the film since Pat is portrayed as being someone who is attached to Larry and is competing for his affection and/or attention, given that their father has died. It does, however, lead to some interesting motivational difficulties on the part of Larry later in the film. One title card of Larry’s dialogue reads, “I’m glad you’re a girl, Pat.” Larry seems to be grateful to not have to face the music in the manner of Oscar Wilde but this admission to the audience is only disclosed after Pat has owned up to being a girl, so it feels like a low-risk disclosure in the moment.
Notable is the fight scene between Bully Boy Brewster and “The Hoboken Terror” (Harry Watson and Louis Wolheim, respectively). Crowd reactions, including Davies’, are appropriately interspersed with action from the ring itself. The fight is broken up by Davies’ ringing of the fire bell…and the fire brigade rushes out without bothering to figure out an address.
There’s a lot of suspension of disbelief in this film, but the drama as constructed is enough to keep the film going—even when the devilish details are unsatisfactory. The editing later in the film is tighter than in the first half of the film and Davies is likable enough to keep a more jaded viewer like me watching to see who, if anyone, will get punished for stopping the fight. When Davies confesses to being a woman as the Hoboken Terror is about to whip her into the previous century, pandemonium ensues. I’m unsure that this would have stopped her punishment, but it makes for an interesting plot twist and Larry gets to knock Wolheim’s character to the ground.
Ben Model’s score takes the film’s actions at face-value. Neither kitschy nor sarcastic, his score is serious and takes the drama seriously. As a critic and novice film accompanist myself, I admire Model’s ability to regard the film seriously, regardless of what plot holes may or may not exist. Mr. Model has been to film school and has watched more films than I have at this point in my life. As a critic, I broadcast my feelings about where the film seems weak or strong but have learned from accompanists such as Model that opinions such as mine have no place inside of the orchestra pit. One reason the film in this edition can be seen with its strengths and flaws is that Mr. Model’s opinion of the film is not apparent to the viewer. Rather, his motifs serve the action and emotion on the screen. The clear presentation of the film on DVD is thanks to the Library of Congess, Edward Lorusso’s Kickstarter campaign and backers, and Undercrank Productions/Ben Model. Without any of these players, this film would not be viewable to fans of silent film or of Marion Davies. Harrison Ford also struck me as a sincere leading man and I will be on the lookout for more of his films in the future.