A Movie A Day: Quint on John Ford's UP THE RIVER (1930) Extortionist? Honey, was you in the circus?
Published at: Nov. 9, 2008, 12:39 p.m. CST by quint
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with today’s installment of A Movie A Day.
[For those now joining us, A Movie A Day is my attempt at filling in gaps in my film knowledge. My DVD collection is thousands strong, many of them films I haven’t seen yet, but picked up as I scoured used DVD stores. Each day I’ll pull a previously unseen film from my collection or from my DVR and discuss it here. Each movie will have some sort of connection to the one before it, be it cast or crew member.]
What we have here with today’s AMAD is John Ford’s early comedy, UP THE RIVER, following Spencer Tracy back from yesterday’s marvelous LIBELED LADY.
I came to include this film in the AMAD line-up when I happened upon the John Ford At Fox “Early Comedies” box set at one of my favorite used DVD stores and picked it up. John Ford is an early master who I need to be a lot more familiar with than I am now. Same goes for Preston Sturges and Frank Capra.
UP THE RIVER is the first of the box set that and I find myself sure that this movie is more of a special feature than a real deal part of this box set.
My understanding is this film has long been lost and the DVD starts off with a warning that Fox used the very best original materials available and we’re left with a transfer off of (maybe) an original 16mm print that has been Frankensteined in parts, other prints cut into this one, and at least 4 or 5 scenes that are choppy from rampant splices.
In a way, that made this experience very enjoyable, maybe more enjoyable than watching this film as a pristine print.
It’s an odd flick, one that I can’t really help but consider more of a curiosity than a recommendable film or shining example of anything in particular.
The plot is paper-thin and the characters and tone are lighter than air. Basically you’re following a few different people behind bars. Spencer Tracy (impossibly young, I might add) is the superstar of the prison, someone who is so good at escaping that he might as well have a key to the front gates. Hell, his character’s name is even Saint Louis.
Then there’s Warren Hymer as a character named Dannemora Dan, a nearly retardedly stupid man who becomes kind of a second banana to Tracy’s Saint Louis.
And most importantly (and most interestingly) there’s the character of Steve Jordan, a straight-laced youth who got caught on some small charge and is lying to his ma and sister, saying he’s traveling in China, as he waits out his short sentence. Steve is played by Humphrey Bogart. I used the term “impossibly young” to describe Spencer Tracy in this movie, but I should have saved it for Bogart.
In personality, in temperment and, obviously, in his face this is the young, green Bogart. You can see Bogie there, alright, you can see the charm and the eyes of someone you seriously do not want to fuck with, but it’s more than a little bizarre to see him so young, his face so line-less. There’s a lot of boy still in him in this film, even if he must have been pushing 30 at the time this film was released.
Much like yesterday’s AMAD, there really isn’t a lead character. It could have been Tracy, but Bogart has just as much screentime and the main drama of the movie centers around Bogart’s relationship with Judy (a female inmate held in the same area, but behind another set of bars) played by Claire Luce.
This love story is as simple as you can get. It makes Jack Driscoll’s revelation that he loves Ann Darrow in the original KING KONG look complex. It really isn’t anything more than “Hey, you’re pretty. I want to marry you.” I’m a romantic and I absolutely believe in love at first sight, but that was even a stretch for me.
To add another argument for the curiosity factor of this film, there’s a show-stopping black-face number that appears out of fucking nowhere in the middle of the movie as the inmates put on a show for some rich people. I’m not kidding. A full on minstrel show happens and Ford even cuts to the cheering audience and features a black dude, guffawing at the show and clapping wildly.
I wasn’t offended so much as taken by surprise. It’s definitely bizarre.
And as far as Ford is concerned, his direction here wasn’t very impressive. It was definitely able, but the camera is locked down for most of the movie, going from hard cut to hard cut. There’s not much visual going on to propel the story and the characters aren’t well-written or unique enough to really stand out for me.
Final Thoughts: It’s not a horrible experience, but like I mentioned at the start this film is one I can’t recommend on its own. If you buy any of the Ford At Fox sets, either the mega one or the Early Comedy set, definitely give it a spin as a curiosity, but I would not advise going out and buying it individually.
Here’s what we have lined up for the next week:
Sunday, November 9th: DOCTOR BULL (1933)
Monday, November 10th: JUDGE PRIEST (1930)
Tuesday, November 11th: TEN LITTLE INDIANS (1965)
Wednesday, November 12th: MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (1974)
Thursday, November 13th: DANIEL (1983)
Friday, November 14th: EL DORADO (1967)
Saturday, November 15th: THE GAMBLER (1974)
See you folks tomorrow for another John Ford comedy, DOCTOR BULL, starring Will Rogers and Vera Allen!