20 December 2003 | lugonian
A Little Fugitive From Ellis Island
MY BOY (First National Pictures, 1921), directed by Albert Austin and Victor Heerman, under the presentation of Sol Lesser, stars little Jackie Coogan, in his second feature film following his scene stealing success in THE KID (1921) opposite Charlie Chaplin.
In his initial top-billed performance, Coogan plays Jackie Blair, a orphaned boy whose father was killed in France and mother who died on board a passenger ship bound for America after being two days out. Upon docking on Ellis Island, officials release all its passengers but one, little Jackie, who is to be deported back to Europe. Captain Bill Hicks (Claude Gillingwater Sr.), a crusty old man and former ship's master, notices this little boy. Learning about his circumstance from the officials, the old man decides to have the boy amused while waiting for deportation by having him going over and playing with the other eight children belonging to a third class passenger immigrant named Mama Pinkusowitz while arrangements for his return voyage are being made. However, Jackie thwarts both fate and immigration officials by sneaking through the gates as the Pinkusowitz family legally goes through. Before heading for their new home, Papa Pinkusowitz, who is making his head count of his kids, notices he now has an additional child. After Papa eliminates the extra child from the lineup and going on his way with his wife and kids, Jackie, the immigration child, is left to face life alone in the big city. Jackie soon stumbles upon Captain Bill once more, this time deciding to follow him to his shanty home. Knowing that immigration officials will be searching for Jackie, the old man softens up and decides to take him under his wing. The next scene that focuses on Mrs. J. Montague Blair (Mathilde Brundage) and her attorney reveals this rich matron to be Jackie's grandmother who, after reading a letter sent to her, has just learned of her late daughter's fate and that she now has a grandson who has disappeared from Ellis Island. In true pioneer director DW Griffith fashion, as fate would have it, Jackie is caring for the old man while his grandmother, who is arranging for a children's party at the settlement house, is not very far away.
MY BOY is not great Jackie Coogan material, but predictable and at times a cute story showcasing his many talents, indicating why he became a top child actor in his day. Memorable scenes for MY BOY include Jackie saying grace at the dinner table in the home of Captain Bill; giving himself a bath while standing in a bucket of water; and, singing and dancing on the streets in order to earn some extra money to buy medicine for the sickly old sea captain. While he attracts an accommodating crowd, this takes the business away from a rival organ grinder and his monkey, who decides he wants to keep the money meant for Jackie in spite of the boy wanting his share. As in many Coogan films, there is even moments of tears as well as laughter.
Co-star Claude Gillingwater Sr. (1858-1939) also gives a fine performance as a lonely old seaman, finding himself as the guardian to a young boy, sadly unable to find work because of his age. Because he owes back rent, the old man leaves it up to little Jackie in telling the landlord that he is is away in China whenever he appears at the front door. The only thing disappointing with this 52 minute featurette is that it ends abruptly, with no real satisfying conclusion, unless at the time there was a planned sequel in the making.
With a handful of silent movies remade during the sound era, it's surprising that MY BOY was not inspired in the 1930s by 20th Century-Fox as a revamped starring vehicle for its own popular child star, Shirley Temple, and retitling it as MY GIRL, particularly with the presence of Claude Gillingwater Sr., a familiar face in several of her films, to reprise his grumpy old man-turned-soft role, with Jane Darwell, another regular in Temple films, to play the matron grandmother.
MY BOY became one of many silent movies presented on public television's weekly series THE TOY THAT GREW UP, that premiered in 1965 (most notably on Channel 13 in New York City), and ending its run and revivals by 1972. Unseen in many years, MY BOY has become available on video cassette. The Grapevine Video presentation is not of clear picture quality nor nor of sharp focus, but it does include the same organ score that was used in THE TOY THAT GREW UP. But on the whole, MY BOY, a rare film to come by, makes satisfactory entertainment for any avid silent film enthusiast. (**1/2)