Monday, 19 March 2018

St Patricia… Little Old New York (1923), with Morgan Cooke, The Barbican

As Jeanine Basinger has written, from a historical perspective, no one has it worse than Marion Davies; “…she was a big success in silent movies, and popular with audiences… but nobody believes it.” Whilst this is partly, as Basinger says, the curse of Citizen Kane, William Randolph Hearst was not Charles Foster Kane and nor was he the one doing the acting on screen. Right from the get-go Marion made films for Hearst and he was seen by contemporary reviewers as controlling her career.

Thankfully we get the chance to see for ourselves how good Marion Davies was not just in comedies such as The Patsy and the sublime Show People but increasingly in the kind of historical romantic dramas her wealthy lover liked to see her in and which were box office successes. When Knighthood was in Flower (1922), recently released on BluRay, was an enjoyable romp uplifted by the tonally-varied exuberance of Davies’ performance and was one of the biggest films of that year. Today we watched another smash which ended up the seventh highest grosser of the year.

Marion was big box office and the intimacy she still establishes with paying customers explains why.

Today’s screening featured a fine print from the Irish Film Institute and was supported by Culture Ireland as part of GB18: Promoting Irish Arts in Britain. The fact that it was screened the day after a St Patrick’s Day drubbing of the English rugby union side by the team in green was purely co-incidental.

The accompaniment was provided by Galway musician, Morgan Cooke who also introduced the film discussing the work of the prolific director Sidney Olcott, who was Hollywood’s go-to-fella for features of Irish origin. Marion herself was a first generation American with parents both from Eire but y’all know that surely just from the glint in her emerald eyes…

Little Old New York is a sub-Dickensian tale that has many a twist in just under two hours’ running time with a slightly clumsy plot taken from Rida Johnson Young’s play. For it to work, you have to be able to believe that people could accept Marion Davies as a young man… she might be wearing trousers and a bobbed haircut but, what can I say; “dude looks like a lady…” Probably she finishes last in a silent cross-dressing chart featuring Asta Nielsen (Hamlet), Ossi Oswalda (I Don’t Want to be a Man), Mary Pickford (various) and Louise Brooks (Beggars of Life), but you have to go with it.

Yep, totally a boy
Marion plays Patricia O'Day the sister of Patrick (Stephen Carr) who has inherited millions by way of his estranged Uncle’s dying wish to atone for cutting old man John O'Day (J. M. Kerrigan) out of the business they both started in America. John has returned to Ireland whilst his brother has prospered and has nursed a sizeable grudge over this time as he has struggled to look after his own. At the reading of the will, step-son Larry Delevan (Harrison Ford – no, not that one (again)) obviously has high hopes but he can only inherit of Patrick fails to turn up to claim his prize within a year.

That year is just about up and Larry is celebrating with his pals but there’s a knock on the door and in walks John O’Day and his son Patrick who has turned remarkably feminine since we last saw him. We learn later that Paddy had died on the crossing and John, desperate to get his just deserts, persuades Pat to drag up.

Pretty soon Pat is making large eyes as Larry (what could Lubitsch have made of this?!) who just thinks the lad is a bit soft: “Patrick, what did you do in Ireland?!”  asks one character later but the Americans remain fooled.

There’s a sub-plot involving Larry’s investment in a mad invention – a steam-powered paddle steamer invented by Robert Fulton (Courtenay Foote) who did indeed exist and do this thing. Various know-it-alls think it’s crazy but it’s Larry’s shot at making it given that Pat has inherited his inheritance.

Not That One and Such a Fine Comedienne
It all bobs along nicely and really takes off when Larry bets his house (literally) on an unlikely victory for his pal Bully Boy Brewster (Harry Watson) in a boxing match against the ferocious Hoboken Terror (Louis Wolheim).

There’s a good balance of comedy and drama and it has an amiability due in no small part to the star presence of Marion Davies. She’s an extraordinary pretty boy and once she’s back in feminine clothes there are numerous close ups of her tear-stained face that guarantee an emotionally immersed ending.

Morgan took the bold step of asking a mostly English audience to participate by singing along to the song Marion Davies plays on her harp “Do you hear me callin' when the dews are fallin'...” – the rehearsals went well but we were a little quiet when the moment came! Never-the-less, it’s not often you get to join in. In addition to the harp, Morgan played piano and melodica lingering on the many magnificent close-ups of Marion and pummelling the keys during that boxing match.

For those of us who missed the Quiet Man for St Patricks, this was a good old scrap that descends into a free-for-all… before love saves the day.

For me it was another important part of Davies’ career slotting into place. The film was placed fifth in the – non-Hearst - New York Times top ten and Marion was voted fifth in Quigley’s Box Office Stars list; she came second the following year. None of which fits in with the narrative of her only finding her feet with comedy – she was funny all along and even in these historical dramas there was gurning, fighting and dancing. Whether William Randolph approved or not is another matter…

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