Saturday, June 18, 2016

Stubs – Up The River

Up The River (1930) Starring: Spencer Tracy, Claire Luce, Warren Hymer, Humphrey Bogart, Williams Collier Sr., Joan Lawes. Directed by John Ford. Screenplay by Maurine Watkins. Presented by William Fox. Run time 90 min. USA. Comedy, Drama, Crime

I recently received the Ford at Fox boxset as a Christmas present. 24 films on 21 discs including many of the great film director’s early classics, including two versions of the silent western The Iron Horse (1924), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), How Green Was My Valley (1941) and My Darling Clementine (1946), just to name a few. Of all those films, the first one I wanted to watch was a little known film called Up The River (1930).

My reason was mostly personal. I’m a big fan of Humphrey Bogart and this is the first feature in which he received credit. It is also the first credited film for another Hollywood heavyweight, Spencer Tracy. Add to that, this is the only film in which these two actors would appear in together over their long careers. Bogart wouldn’t come back to Hollywood in a big way until Petrified Forest (1936) and spent most of his career at Warner Bros. and Columbia Pictures. Tracy would be offered a long term contract right after the film and would make films at Fox (1930-1935) and MGM (1935-1955) before going independent for the remainder of his career. 

Like Bogart, Tracy had been on Broadway prior to making it in Hollywood. His first success had been in a George M. Cohan play, Yellow (1926). Even though the play received mixed reviews, Cohan liked Tracy and wrote a part specifically for him in his next play, The Baby Cyclone (1927) that proved to be a hit. Tracy continued the success with another Cohan play, Whispering Friends. He also replaced Clark Gable in the play Conflict before being scouted by Hollywood.

The coming of the talkies, as they were called then, led Hollywood to look to Broadway for potential stars. Some found fortune right away, like Tracy and some would have off and on flirtations before finding success, like Bogart. Others, like Claire Luce, who is also making her film debut here, would never really catch on in films.

Luce had been on Broadway since 1923 and returned there after making this film and worked with Fred Astaire on the original musical version of Gay Divorcee (1932). In his review of the musical, New York Times theater critic Brooks Atkinson noted "In the refulgent Claire Luce, Fred Astaire has found a partner who can match him step for step and who flies over the furniture in his company without missing a beat."  Astaire also found inspiration in Luce when choreographing the “Night and Day” dance routine. In his autobiography, Astaire wrote about Luce: "Claire was a beautiful dancer and it was her style that suggested to me the whole pattern of the "Night and Day" dance. This was something entirely different from anything Adele (his sister and dance partner) and I had done together. That was what I wanted, an entirely new dancing approach."

In fact, Astaire wanted her for the film version of the musical, but the studio, RKO, wanted another actress they had under contract, Ginger Rogers. Sadly, Luce’s musical career would come to an end during the London run of Gay Divorcee when she suffered a serious injury, damaging her hip in a fall during the table dance sequence.

Up The River is a Comedy Drama, it says so in the opening credits.

The film starts with a prison break, Saint Louis (Spencer Tracy) and Dannemora Dan (Warren Hymer) have escaped and come up to the getaway car. Saint Louis knows, what we will later learn, that Dan is a moron, so he takes the first opportunity to dump him, having him get out of the car to change a non-existent flat tire and then driving off and leaving him stranded.

Saint Louis (Spencer Tracy) and Dannemora Dan (Warren Hymer) make their prison escape.

Later, they have a chance encounter. Dan has found religion with the Brotherhood of Man, a Salvation Army-style group, and relates his story to a small crowd that gathers, attracted by the sound of the group’s marching band. At that moment, Saint pulls up in a nice car with two women. He walks up close and watches his ex-partner fumble his way through his speech. Saint Louis shouldn’t be surprised when Dan pops him one.

 Dan testifies about finding religion while Saint Louis looks on.

No surprise, but both men end up back in prison. Dan is already there when Saint Louis arrives with some fanfare. It happens to be the same day that a new crop of women prisoners are being received. Amongst them is Judy Fields (Claire Luce), who is being registered by Steve Jordan (Humphrey Bogart). While Judy thinks Steve is an employee, he is, in fact, a prisoner like her, but only days away from parole.

Steve Jordan (Humphrey Bogart) is a prison trustee smitten when he registers Judy.

There is an instant attraction between them and they relate to each other their stories. Judy, who is 21, was arrested for fraud, telling fortunes, but pointing victims to her partner, Frosby (Morgan Wallace), who sold them worthless stocks. Steve had been on his way to work in China, when he was arrested. (Problems with missing frames makes following some of the dialogue and storyline difficult to follow.) His family, in fact, thinks that he is in China and does not know of his imprisonment.

Saint Louis is a bit of a celebrity prisoner and wants to be treated like that, asking for a cell up high, with southern exposure and lots of sunlight, but the Warden (Robert Emmett O'Connor) will have none of that, and puts him in the regular population, in the same cell as Steve and two other men, Pop (William Collier Sr.), a baseball-obsessed old convict, and his old partner, Dan, who is not happy with the reunion.

Saint Louis makes a hero's entrance, but notices Judy (Claire Luce) as well.

Judy is assigned to tutor the Warden’s daughter, Jean (Joan Lawes), while Steve tries to communicate with her any way he can. One way is to pass notes in the hem of Mrs. Massey’s (Louise Mackintosh) dress. Mrs. Massey is a well-to-do social worker who cares for the prisoners, especially the men, the same way a mother treats a child. The prisoners, both men and women, pretend to appreciate her help.

Mrs. Massey (Louise Mackintosh), a social worker, gets
played by one of the prisoners she's trying to help.

Direct communication between the male and female inmates is forbidden, though they try to hide it by having conversations at common fences while facing away from one another. Steve and Judy have one such talk when he tells her that he’ll wait for her and wants her to join him back in New England.

Steve tells Judy that he'll wait for her to get out of prison.

Meanwhile, Frosby, who has learned from Judy that she wants to be with Steve and not with him, follows Steve back to New England. He asks the preacher to introduce him to the Jordans, including Steve, his mother (Edythe Chapman) and his sister Cynthia (Althea Henley). When he tells everyone that he and Steve have a mutual friend, Judy, Steve is naturally alarmed, but can’t stop his mother from inviting Frosby to dinner.

Steve pulls Frosby aside and is told that unless he helps him in a swindle, Frosby will tell his mother about his incarceration.

Back in prison, word gets back to Judy about Frosby’s plans. She tells Saint Louis, who promises her that he’ll take care of it. Using the annual prison talent show, sponsored by Mrs. Massey, Saint Louis and Dan make their escape, turning off the lights and dressing in drag.

Saint Louis learns from Judy that Frosby is blackmailing Steve.

They show up in Steve’s hometown, just as Steve is confronting Frosby, threatening him if he tries to swindle his mother. Steve brings Saint Louis and Dan home to meet his mother and sister and mother invites them to dinner. After dinner, a couple of local girls come over and invite all the men to accompany them on a hayride and they all go.

Steve introduces Saint Louis and Dan to his mother (Edythe Chapman) and his
 sister Cynthia (Althea Henley) when the escapees show up at his house.

Upon their return, they find that Frosby is just leaving Steve’s house. When he asks his mother, she informs him that she’s made an investment that she’s sure will set Steve and his sister up for life. The payment she made to Frosby was in negotiable Bonds.

Steve gets a gun and is about to confront Frosby when Saint Louis stops him. He tells him that he and Dan will take care of it for him. The two then break into Frosby’s office and take back the bonds. (Again, the bad print deletes some of the action at this point.) Frosby sees the two carrying his satchel and goes to his office and presumably finds that the bonds are gone.

Saint Louis convinces Steve to let him and Dan take care of Frosby.

After they deliver the bonds back to Steve, they inform him that they’re going back. Steve gives them some lines of poetry he copied to give to Judy, but on the train ride back, they lose it out the open door of the freight train they’re on.

Saint Louis and Dan on the frieght train back to prison.

They arrive back at the prison just in time to see Judy leaving on her parole. She’s still not sure that Steve is really serious about her and Saint Louis manages to convince her that he is.

Judy gets out on parole. We assume she goes to New England to be with Steve.

The two escapees are then allowed to play in an Inter-prison baseball game. Saint Louis is the pitcher and with the game already in progress, the home team is already down. Even the warden knows to delay punishment until after the game.

Saint Louis and Dan arrive back in prison in time to play in the big baseball game.

The film ends there with a lot of things left up in the air, but which we’ll have to assume work out in the end. Assuredly, Judy goes to New England, she marries Steve and they live happily ever after.

There are a lot of head scratchers about the story, including the co-ed prison that is necessary for the story. How else could Steve fall in love with Judy unless that was the situation? I don’t know a lot about the prison system in the U.S., but I’ve never seen a movie like this that had men and women sharing the same prison. This seems like a pure plot invention.

Also, in the closing baseball game, there is a real zebra that is presumably the team’s mascot. Zebras were, and still are, exotic animals and the thought that a prison in the Midwest would actually have a live one on hand is a little hard to believe. The only reason would be for comedic effect.

But the topper for me is that the warden’s daughter, who has to be all of seven or eight, is allowed to walk by herself down on the men’s yard and interact with the prisoners. No matter when the film was made, that seems like a very dangerous idea. (The actress who played Jean, Joan Marie Lawes, was in fact the daughter of Warden L. Lawes, who was at the time the warden at Sing Sing prison, so maybe there was some truth in this portrayal.)

For the little bit of plot, we’re treated to a lot of filler, including some fairly complete acts at the prison talent show. There is even a minstrel segment of two men in blackface telling jokes and playing homemade instruments.
The acting overall isn’t bad, but there isn’t much more than stereotypes here. Saint Louis, as played by Tracy, seems like a pretty fleshed out character, but his motives seem a little specious at times, especially escaping to help out a friend like he does. In real life, prisoners don’t go back willingly to prison, the way Saint Louis and Dan do.

What little laughs there are in the film are supplied by Warren Hymer, who plays Dan, who is tested to be a moron. One of the better moments is when Dan is ripping up a piece of paper and ends up with a very intricate lacey doily looking piece when he’s done. Hymer was near the beginning of a career in which he would appear in 129 films, including Sinners’ Holiday (1930), Kid Millions (1934), San Francisco (1936), You Only Live Once (1937) and Meet John Doe (1941).

Dan rips up a piece of paper into a fancy doily. The other prisoner, Pop (William Collier Sr.) looks unamused.

Steve, Bogart’s character, also seems pretty three dimensional. In retrospect, the fact that he’s playing a prisoner seems to be right down his alley. Bogart played a lot of petty criminals throughout his early career. But for the most part, he plays Steve rather restrained, which is not something Bogart’s criminal characters were known for. But despite how we think of Bogart on film, he had a lot of experience on stage playing milquetoast men or what he called "White Pants Willie" roles. Steve, in some ways, straddles the two types of roles, a criminal, but still a mother’s boy.

I like Claire Luce as Judy. It’s too bad that she never caught on in films the way the others did. Maybe if Astaire had been able to convince RKO to use her in the film version of The Gay Divorcee, she may have had the sort of career Ginger Rogers did. She seems capable of much more than we get to see in Up The River.

Most of the actors are uncredited in this film, but it’s interesting to see a young Ward Bond in only his seventh film. He plays a bully prisoner who Saint Louis knocks out when he doesn’t like him picking on a young recent arrived inmate.

Even though the film was directed by Ford, it really could have been directed by anyone. I’ve read that Ford turned what had been a drama script into a comedy, but it’s really not a laugh out loud comedy, unless of course, the best lines had been spliced out of the film.

And that is the worst thing about the movie, its presentation. While Fox used the best available sources for the print, they didn’t seem to really try to restore the film in any way at all. There are far too many jump cuts. One has to imagine that the studio could have done better by one of its own releases. They are really doing the film, the director and the actors a disservice by not at least cleaning the film up before selling it.

This is not a bad film, but it is not really worth seeking out, especially in its current state. The only reason anyone would want to see it would be for Tracy and Bogart. Both actors will get much better and have better roles before their careers end. But if you’re a fan of one or both of these actors, like I am, then you might want to see how it all started for them. That’s really the only reason I wanted to see this film in the first place.

No comments:

Post a Comment