Monday, May 23, 2016

Reeling Backward: "Up the River" (1930)

Yes, John Ford again. I recently did a double feature of Frank Sinatra films in this space, so I figure there's no harm in doing it again with another artist.

"Up the River" was not Ford's first feature film, or even his first sound film. He made dozens of silent features starting in 1917, most of which have not survived the ages. "River" is notable mostly for having the first screen credits for Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart.

(Though both had appeared briefly in uncredited roles prior.)

This largely unheralded body of work represented John Ford's training ground, as he learned the craft of filmmaking, studied other directors' work, found his ethos as an artist and started to build his famous stable of pet actors. It was he who recommended both Bogie and Tracy to the studio, but they were both dropped after this film was made. (And surely regretted it in perpetuity.)

It was the only time Ford and Bogart ever worked together, and it would be nearly three decades before he and Tracy teamed up to make a film again.

It's a wacky comedy about a bunch of jailbirds, busting in and out of prison, falling in love and whatnot. It's rather amusing, a parade of broad caricatures and easy jokes, though if it weren't for the two main stars I doubt the film would be much remembered.

There are no pristine prints of "Up the River" surviving, so watching it takes some patience. It's scratchy and poppy, with a lot of distracting marks and missing frames. Dialogue will cut out in the middle of a scene and pick up half a sentence later, so it's helpful to watch with subtitles to track the missing words.

Bogart plays Steve, the good-hearted young kid doing a short stretch after making a bad choice. It's hard to think of Bogie as a youngster, even a little disconcerting. Tracy too, though he didn't physically change much from young to old, just getting a little grayer and thicker.

Some Hollywood stars remain stuck in time, at least in our minds. Spencer Tracy is forever the sage father figure; Julia Roberts will always be the sprightly ingenue.

Humphrey Bogart seemed born in early middle age and only went a little further. But he once was a smooth-faced, sharp-jawed stripling, as in this film.

Steve comes from a well-to-do family in New England, and they don't even know he's in prison. His family believes he's working in China, and he even has friends there who send fake correspondence from time to time. While working as an interviewer for incoming inmates, he meets Judy (Claire Luce), a 21-year-old who got sucked up into the rackets by Frosby (Gaylord Pendleton), an older crook who passes himself off as a fine gentleman.

In one of those things that only happens in the movies, Steve and Judy fall irrevocably in love after just two meetings totaling perhaps five minutes. They make plans to get married after they get out, start at the "bottom rung of the ladder," and become respectable again. Frosby tries to put the kibosh on that by moving into Steve's hometown, threatening to brow his cover as an ex-con if he doesn't play ball.

Tracy plays "St. Louis" -- that's the only name he ever goes by; I assume it's a nickname but since even the warden calls him that, we'll never know. He's a dapper career criminal who's a celebrity among convicts and lawmen alike. The opening scene shows him escaping from a state prison along with his sidekick, Dannemora Dan (Warren Hymer), a cigar-chomping dimwit with a good heart.

Those two stage another escape in order to go help Steve out. This culminates in a prison variety show in which St. Louis performs a knife-throwing act on a very nervous Dan. When the lights go out, they dress up as women and sneak out with the wealthy benefactors who came to watch the show.

This sequence includes the incredibly painful spectacle of two white actors performing in blackface as "Black & Blue," an aw-shucksin' pair in the Amos and Andy mold. In the middle of this travesty, Ford even cuts away to a closeup of an African-American prisoner in the front year screaming in hysterics at the act. I realize this was simply how many folks felt back then, but it's still tough to watch.

The script, by Marine Dallas Watkins, contains a lot of pratfalls and other vaudevillian slapstick comedy of the era. It is notable for the naturalistic acting of Tracy and Bogart. We even get a preview of Bogie's famous clenched-jaw grimace, which he would later go on to express depths of pain in noir and romantic films of the 1940s and '50s.

This was very much an era in which cinema was seen as an offshoot of the legitimate theater; the credits still use the term "the players" in introducing the cast. Ford and other pioneers of the advent of sound pictures started to move away from that very stiff, formal style of acting.

While modern audiences might have a tough time sitting through "Up the River," for both aesthetic and moral reasons, it's an energetic and amusing film for its era. And it launched a trio of Hollywood giants.

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