Marion Davies poses as a boy. Image: Wikimedia Commons

When Hollywood film star Marion Davies was a Very Big Deal in 1923, she made a period costume comedy for Cosmopolitan Productions that was one of the highest-grossing films of the year.

Now, Cosmopolitan Productions was formed by media mogul William Randolph Hearst, who heavily promoted these films in his newspapers. His company also had the film rights to short stories published in its own magazines, so movie-goers knew what they were getting in advance.

Also: You probably knew Davies was Hearst’s mistress, so there’s That.

They say Hearst formed Cosmopolitan to give Davies a real Hollywood Career, and maybe he did. After all, there is a persistent rumour that, while Davies was a good comedienne, she couldn’t Hold Her Own in more dramatic productions.

Welp, we took at look at one of those lavish productions, the 1923 box-office hit, Little Old New York, which stars Davies as a poor and desperate Irish lass in the early 1800s who emigrates to New York to impersonate her brother.

She’s in it for a million bucks (approx. $17M US today), because her wealthy and ungrateful American uncle, in a fit of Remorse, decides to ease his conscience by bequeathing the money to her impoverished brother. The lad has one year to claim it, or else the moola goes to the uncle’s shallow and self-centered stepson (Harrison Ford – not that Harrison Ford).

Trouble is, Davies’s brother is very ill, but Somebody must go to New York to inherit the dough. The small family sails across the rough Atlantic waters and arrives at the Eleventh Hour – just minutes shy of the midnight Deadline! – and Davies suddenly becomes a wealthy young woman.

Or a wealthy young man, according to the script, because she’s cut her hair and donned pants to look like a boy, which of course fools Everyone.

Harrison Ford comforts Davies. Image: Kickstarter

Little Old New York is a movie that winks at you. The tongue-in-cheek title suggests New York of the early 1800s ain’t no big deal, even though fortunes are being made Hand Over Fist. Look over there, über capitalists Cornelius Vanderbilt and John Jacob Astor are lunching at Lorenzo Delmonico’s new restaurant.

A running joke here is Robert Fulton‘s introduction of the steamboat to the business community, and how it’s received as a ridiculous invention and even worse investment.

The movie also nudges us when it comes to Davies-as-boy. She’s not entirely convincing as such, because she’s far too beautiful, and sometimes her character can’t believe she’s getting Away With It.

(Example: When she first arrives at the uncle’s house, Davies is terrified folks will realize she’s a girl, and she charges into them. “Shut the door!” she hollers. “No sustenance for my father? Him sick from the voyage, and this is how you treat him?”)

The other characters, suitably chastised, are duped by her posturing because this is that kind of movie, and it’s best to Roll With It.

Because if you do, Little Old New York is plenty o’ fun. Our gal Davies shines, as she must, because the movie only works if she’s ultra fabulous.

For instance, watch her in the scene where she’s playing her harp in front of her house to overshadow a neighbour playing a piano next door, who’s also trying to outdo her. It’s a musical duel, wonderfully staged.

As you’ve probably guessed, Davies falls for her uncle’s stepson, which gives the film an unexpected edge. Ford, who becomes less shallow and self-centered, is fond of Davies, but thinks of her as a lad. Davies refuses to be honest with him because, as a girl, she’s not legally entitled to the inheritance and would have to forfeit.

But there’s a slight twist in the story about which we haven’t told you, a flashback in which Davies nearly breaks your heart, and proves she had true dramatic Acting Chops.

Marion dressed as a doll. Image: IMDb

Little Old New York, based on the 1920 stage play of the same name, was the seventh most popular film of 1923.

It’s a good thing it made a piles o’ money because, during production, a studio fire destroyed most of the sets and costumes. Although the film was nearly two-thirds completed, the sets and costumes had to be re-constructed to finish the project.

And what of Davies? Could she have been a big star if she weren’t affiliated with Hearst? We say Yes. There’s no doubt she was Made for the Movies.

We hope you can see Marion Davies in Little Old New York. It’s a movie that was built around her, and rightly so.

Little Old New York: starring Marion Davies, Harrison Ford, Courtenay Foote. Directed by Sidney Olcott. Written by Luther Reed. Cosmopolitan Productions, 1923, B&W, 110 mins.

Happily blogging about old movies and using the royal "We".

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