In collaboration with the Library of Congress and crowd-funding from Kickstarter, composer Ben Model’s Undercrank Productions has been releasing on-demand DVDs of silent films, newly scored by himself and sold through Amazon. Having previously showcased Marion Davies in three features, Undercrank continues the parade with Sidney Olcott’s Little Old New York, a Davies vehicle that became one of the popular silent film hits of 1923.
The story takes place mostly around 1807, when Robert Fulton successfully launched his steamboat, the Clermont (mocked as Fulton’s Folly), on the Hudson River from New York City to Albany. The film sweeps us through a large array of characters and historical cameos who sometimes have little to do with the story, including Fulton (Courtenay Foote), Washington Irving (Mahlon Hamilton), John Jacob Astor (Andrew Dillon), Cornelius Vanderbilt (Sam Hardy) and Fitz Greene Halleck (Norval Keedwell), about whom we’ll have more to say later.
Most of these characters are more or less ornamental around the melodrama of Patrick O’Day (Davies), real name Patricia, a saucy Irish lass who masquerades as her brother to claim a million-dollar fortune. When she and her ailing father (J.M. Kerrigan) blow into New York from a transatlantic crossing to claim the inheritance at literally the 11th hour, the loser is the estate’s executor and young master Patrick’s guardian, Larry Delevan, played by Harrison Ford. No, not that one. This Ford, a popular leading man of the ’20s, has no relation to the current star.
Delevan’s hopes of inheritance are dashed along with his chances of investing in Fulton’s Folly, but Patrick, as she is called throughout, for some reason falls for his supposedly dashing moon-face and tries be close friends with him. Delevan goes from sour disappointment to gradually being won over by Patrick’s singing voice on the harp and tender sentiments. He strokes her hair and calls her a nice boy and a game little fellow, but when she leans on his shoulder, he bumps her off and tells her not to act like a girl.
In other words, this story falls into a tradition of men who find themselves strangely attracted to boys that turn out, “fortunately”, to be girls in disguise. Other examples are George Cukor’s Sylvia Scarlett (1935) and Harold Schuster’s Wings of the Morning (1937), although we could just as well go back to Shakespeare.
The film also belongs to a large body of silent films in which girls play boys. These fall broadly into two categories. In the first, male characters are played by actresses, e.g. Mary Pickford in Little Lord Fauntleroy (1921), Asta Nielsen in Hamlet (1921), and Betty Bronson in Peter Pan (1924). These productions don’t require self-consciousness except on the viewer’s part, and the viewer more or less forgets and falls into the convention.
The second type of story involves a character’s cross-gender masquerade, and this creates humor and suspense as, while sharing the heroine’s secret, both viewer and character are constantly afraid of discovery. These heroines are always in a bind, and not just literally, as they both enjoy masculine liberty and chafe under the inability to be romantically honest. In this case, local boys mock Patrick for sniffing flowers and, at the perverse and sadistic climax, she has the back of her shirt torn while being whipped before a rioting crowd. The whipper, a hairy shirtless wrestler known as the Hoboken Terror (Louis Wolheim), doing his best to resemble a Neanderthal, finds himself aroused at the discovery before the fire brigade hoses everyone down.
As this description implies, Little Old New York falls into that tradition of sentimental melodrama that contains a farrago of moods and elements, from slapstick to social comedy to tear-jerking tragedy to exciting action to tender romance. With reasonable faithfulness, Luther Reed adapted the hit 1920 play by Rida Johnson Young, one of the most popular playwrights and songwriters of the 20th Century’s first quarter. Her most famous work is probably 1910’s Naughty Marietta, the operetta with music by Victor Herbert.
Wearing a pageboy and dressed to resemble Buster Brown, Davies is indeed a game little fellow and, as usual, pretty much carries the show while surrounded by expensive sets (courtesy of Joseph Urban) and supporting players. Massive set pieces include the launching of the Clermont and the big wrestling match between the Terror and Bully Boy Brewster (Harry Watson Jr.), who has a wide monkey smile like Joe E. Brown. Watson made a Ziegfeld Follies career out of comical boxing with partner George Bickel. The only film preservation of their routine is included as a bonus snippet, and it emphasizes the graceful link between pugilism and terpsichore, as played for laughs.
As usual, this expensive production was footed by William Randolph Hearst’s Cosmopolitan Pictures. Costs only increased when a fire gutted the studio during production. The negative was saved, but they had to start over with sets and costumes to finish the picture. Fortunately, the results were a box-office hit, just as Young’s play had been a recent Broadway hit.
Now let’s discuss the footnote of Fitz Greene Halleck, introduced only as Astor’s “pleasure-loving secretary”, dining out with Henry Brevoort (George Barraud) at Delmonico’s (the famous restaurateur played by Charles Judels as comic relief). Brevoort, the real-life book collector, later brings some “new and gay stories” to the young stag dinner with Halleck, Irving, and Delevan. Patrick’s crestfallen face eloquently expresses her discomfort at overhearing some off-color remarks not meant for feminine ears. She’ll never be one of the boys. That’s the old meaning of “gay”, of course, yet it’s accidentally a curious choice, as is the presence of Halleck.
Although the film states that Irving will be a famous writer, it never mentions that Halleck will be America’s most famous poet during the first half of the century, his verse marked by ironic parody and sophistication. His literary reputation was as forgotten by the 1920s as it is today, except that today he arouses interest in Queer Studies for the way his poems rhapsodize over youthful Adonises and manly virtues decades ahead of Whitman. His friendship with Joseph Rodman Drake inspired what scholars consider America’s first homosexually-themed novel, Bayard Taylor’s Joseph and His Friend (1870). It’s interesting, to say the least, that Young included him as a character in a play that centers on an apparent same-sex romance.
Film buffs are more likely to be acquainted with Henry King’s 1940 remake starring Alice Faye and Fred MacMurray, but that story is revised so substantively as to have little in common with Young’s play or the 1923 film, except that there’s a heroine named Patricia O’Day and a steamboat. The dropping of the cross-dressing plot perhaps makes the situation more credible, although it’s certainly no more accurate. But then, neither credibility nor accuracy were ever the point.
As for this silent version, Davies’ own print has been preserved by the Library of Congress. Preserved, not restored. Therefore, it’s no more than a watchable presentation from a worn and scratched 35mm nitrate print and doesn’t compare to the shot-yesterday clarity we’re used to from Kino Lorber, Flicker Alley, and Criterion silents. That would have been a considerably more expensive endeavor. Model’s score is presented through software that sounds like an old-fashioned pipe organ.