Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Tonight's Movie: Little Old New York (1940)

LITTLE OLD NEW YORK is the heavily fictionalized story of Robert Fulton (Richard Greene), the inventor of the steam engine.

Fulton, the "American Da Vinci," was also an artist. The film depicts Fulton's quest to build a ship powered by his steam engine, with the help of his landlady (Alice Faye) and a shipbuilder (Fred MacMurray). All this takes place in early 19th Century "little old New York," which is populated by people with names like Astor and Roosevelt.

The movie is mildly engrossing, although it drags on a bit too long as one difficulty after another besets Fulton's project. In his review in the New York Times, Frank S. Nugent wrote the film is "...not too dull, not too exciting and signifying nothing more than a mildly diverting screen show." That's a pretty accurate assessment.

Greene is pleasant enough as Fulton, though not a particular standout. Greene is perhaps best known as TV's ROBIN HOOD in the '50s. LITTLE OLD NEW YORK is one of a number of films Greene made at Fox prior to his service in WWII; he starred in THE LITTLE PRINCESS, THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, KENTUCKY, and John Ford's FOUR MEN AND A PRAYER and SUBMARINE PATROL. His postwar films included FOREVER AMBER and THE FAN.

This was strictly a non-singing role for Alice Faye, other than a couple choruses she sings in a group number. The role of a tavern owner of the early 1800s is quite a contrast from other Faye parts, such as the elegant countess she played in THAT NIGHT IN RIO (1941). Faye's Pat is a rough-hewn, uneducated dreamer with a loud mouth, who isn't always the sharpest knife in the drawer. It's interesting seeing Faye in the role, although it's far from the most appealing character she ever played.

New York Times reviewer Nugent liked Faye, saying he found her "...a good a tavern wench with delusions of grandeur and a yen for a bustle, she begins to realize the comic possibilities latent in a pair of blue eyes of high batting average and a mouth that was never meant for Lady Macbeth."

MacMurray is mostly on the sidelines in a supporting role as Faye's long-suffering, exasperated beau. The cast also includes Brenda Joyce as Fulton's love, Harriet, and the wonderful Henry Stephenson as Harriet's uncle. Ward Bond is the film's villain. Andy Devine and Fritz Feld are also in the cast.

The Alfred Newman score utilizes familiar themes which I believe he used in other films, a regular Newman practice (i.e., his "Ann Rutledge" and "Street Scene" themes appeared in many films). I'm still trying to track down why the music sounded so familiar; one of the themes might have even been the "Brigham Young" march which he composed the same year. (Update: I had time to put in my BRIGHAM YOUNG DVD; the opening credits music for each film is extremely similar, but not identical.)

The film was directed by Henry King and runs 100 minutes. The cinematography is by Leon Shamroy.

It's not available on DVD or VHS, but it can be seen occasionally on Fox Movie Channel.

December 2012 Update: LITTLE OLD NEW YORK is now availble on DVD-R from the Fox Cinema Archives.


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