#34 in my ranking of John Ford’s filmography.
A light comedy with an endearing performance at its center, Riley the Cop is an amusing little film, the last surviving silent film in John Ford’s filmography (Strong Boy is lost). Well, it’s got a dedicated soundtrack with music and a few sound effects (like Howard Hawks’ Fazil), but that’s stretching the definition of a talkie. At only 70 minutes long, it’s a quick globe trotting affair that takes its likeable main character on a whirlwind tour, ending in love and a nice feeling of narrative completeness.
The titular character Riley (J. Farrell MacDonald) is an Irish cop in New York who’s spent twenty years on the job and never made a single arrest. He likes to play with the local kids, get free meals from the local housewives, and just gently push people along who aren’t doing things quite legally without having to exert himself too much. His rival on the force is Krausmeyer (Harry Schultz) with whom Riley has a back and forth where Riley manages to keep getting Krausmeyer in trouble with their captain.
On Riley’s beat is a young man, David (David Rollins) who is in love with the young and beautiful Mary (Nancy Drexel). He works in a bakery, but he has big dreams of marrying his beloved (who loves him back) and spending time in Europe with her. He doesn’t have the money for it, though, and she actually heads to Europe with the son of the man who owns the bakery, sending back loving postcards to her beau back home. David saves up some money and heads off to Germany to meet up with her. There’s trouble in the bakery, though, and someone’s stolen $5,000. The police captain sends Riley to Germany to pick up David and bring him back for trial (the real world rules on extradition don’t come up in this light comedy, for some reason).
The fun of the film is really in Riley himself. He’s just such a good-natured man, and his conflict is in navigating this strange new world. David ends up being the most helpful prisoner ever, as well, adding another little layer of comedy to the happenings. Riley, with the help of the local German authorities, quickly finds David, first demanding that David’s chains be removed from him. Then, with nothing to do until the train leaves town, he takes David to a beer garden where David keeps insisting to Riley that they can’t miss the train and that anywhere Riley goes David will follow. Riley, though, instantly falls in love with the beer girl Lena (Louise Fazenda), and she falls for him. They pledge to go back to America together, but Riley delays so long that he and David miss their train, forcing them to go by plane (which Riley has never ridden before), accidentally leaving Lena behind.
They end up in Paris, discovering that their boat to America leaving La Havre doesn’t leave until the next day, so they have a day in Paris. Given the royal treatment by the Parisian police (sure, why not?), Riley drives off for a while night of watching nightclub girls dance with David left on the street corner demanding that Riley make it back in time to take him back to America as his prisoner. When he wakes up the next day (with a tiny hat on his head he never really notices), he’s in a hotel room with two beautiful women with no memory of what’s happened. The final ten minutes of the film are the seeming unraveling of his wild night, Lena tracking him down, Riley taking David back, and a pair of weddings as well as a secret connection to Riley’s rival back home.
It’s really quite amusing. It may not be Keaton levels of hilarity, but Riley the Cop is a solidly amusing and often quite funny little film from Ford outside of his wheelhouse. Winningly performed, especially by MacDonald in the titular role, there’s a fair amount of joy to be had from it.