Wednesday, April 21, 2021

UP THE RIVER (John Ford, 1930)


Saint Louis and his dimwitted pal Dan are sent up the river but they both know how to swim against the current! This early John Ford talky is a bit rough around the edges (like our protagonists) as he hasn’t perfected his signature style though this claustrophobic prison drama doesn’t allow extreme long shots and lonely men on horseback. But here in this embryonic state is Ford’s allegiance to group strength as three men and a woman must stick together (even when apart!) to foil a shyster’s scheme and allow the bells of Holy Matrimony to ring freely. Ford must have filmed this quickly because he uses a take with a flubbed line and one where an actor drops a prop...but prints it! For me, it adds to the realism of the film. DP Joseph August’s compositions are mostly static and anchored by the limitations of early sound recording yet it frames the narrative with workmanlike skill. The extant print that’s available on DVD is full of stutters and missing frames yet this doesn’t detract much from the sheer enjoyment of seeing both Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart together!

Ford mixes a prison melodrama with vaudeville comedy: this is no message movie about the evils of sin or poor conditions for inmates. This concerns unconditional friendship among men and the lengths they take to help one-another even at great risk to their own self-interests. Briefly, Saint Louis and Moron Dan escape from one prison, end up in another with Steve. Judy is doing time in the women’s annex and falls in love with Steve. When he’s paroled Judy’s crime-boss blackmails Steve and rips-off his well-to-do family while he’s waiting for her sentence to expire. Of course Saint Louis and his pal must protect Steve from his murderous vengeance and bring the lovebirds together while keeping their secret from the gossiping galutes of tiny town: but they have to escape from prison first!

The opening act is hilarious as Saint Louise and Dan escape from a prison into a waiting car. When Dan is convinced to check for a flat tire his buddy drives away! We then cut to Dan marching in a religious rally with women trumpeting their lord and savior on crowded city streets. Dan speaks like a big palooka with his slow drawl, promising an end to sinful ways because crime just doesn’t pay. At that moment his ex-cohort Saint Louis drives up in a big shinning new car with three beautiful women hanging all over him! Ha! But the jokes on both of them as Dan punches his buddy on the chin and they both end up back in prison together. The comic timing here is just right and the editing perfect. Another highlight (which unfortunately has a low-light too) is the second escape that leads to the final act: the prison is having its yearly talent show (WTF?) and our incarcerated heroes use this as cover to escape so they can save Steve and Judy’s blossoming relationship. They dress in drag and while the final encore is staged they hit the lights and scurry away with the Church ladies who were invited by the Warden. Ford’s expert handling of a large crowd in framing and editing builds suspense as we know they’re going to attempt an escape but unsure how. And another WTF: the Warden's little girl just wanders the prison like a playground with little supervision. The low-light of the prison performance is a blackface minstrel show straight from vaudeville stage to our film: it was racist then and it’s racist now.

Finally Saint Louise and Dan end up back in stir but just in time for the big baseball game versus a rival prison. The Looney Tune shenanigans are riotous as Pop just wants to win one penitentiary pennant before he expires to the Big House in the sky (hopefully!). The film ends with our mugs arriving just in time and fades out without a final score. But we know the score for our quartet of quarantined compatriots!

Final Grade: (B-)