Monday 10 December 2007

Up the River (1930) John Ford

Now this was always going to be an interesting one. It's an early sound John Ford movie and it's the feature film debut of two future heavyweights: Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart. Both had appeared in films before but not features: Tracy in three shorts earlier the same year and Bogart in a bit part in a 1920 silent movie called Life. For both to debut in the same film seems astounding, but then there must be other coincidences like this one around 1930, when the old guard of the silents was quickly vanishing with the advent of sound and a whole new slew of stars. It's also amazing that they never appeared together again after this, but they were bound to different studios throughout the contract era and once they could go freelance in the fifties, they could never agree on who would get top billing.

We're in a south state prison and two prisoners are climbing over the wall in a jumpy yet stylishly shot escape. One is a character called Saint Louis, played by Spencer Tracy, and the other one, Dannemora Dan, gets left behind. They quickly meet up again in Kansas City, where Dan is preaching for the Brotherhood of Hope and Saint Louis is all dolled up, flanked by girlfriends and driving a expensive car. Needless to say they're very quickly back inside again, with a whole host of other characters including Humphrey Bogart and an uncredited Ward Bond.

Bogart plays Steve, an inmate whose family thinks he's in China, and soon he's sharing the same cell as Saint Louis and Dannemora Dan. He gets hooked up with a young lady who's only in prison herself because she took the fall for someone else, and they get engaged. Later in the movie, he's released for time served and ends up being blackmailed over the fact that his rich family don't know he's been in jail. It's up to Saint Louis and Dannemora Dan to escape again and get him out of the jam.

Spencer Tracy looks exactly like Spencer Tracy, as you'd expect because he hardly changed over the next couple of decades until he suddenly got really old for the films he made in the sixties. Humphrey Bogart though is scarily young. This is the 52nd out of 75 Bogie movies for me, but this is two years younger than I've seen him in anything else and Three on a Match is the only other time I've seen him before 1936.

There are other interesting characters here too. There's a smart little girl who wanders around the prison, which is more than a little strange but apparently she's related to the warden. In real life she was the daughter of Warden Lawes of Sing Sing. The next Spencer Tracy I've seen was another prison movie actually shot in Sing Sing, fittingly given the title: 20,000 Years in Sing Sing. It seems strange that young Joan Marie Lawes appeared in this one but not that one, especially as memory tells me that this was shot somewhere else.

The film itself stands up as both a drama and a comedy, which is an achievement for 1930. The comparison has to be to The Big House, which had what in 1930 was a far more powerful cast: well established silent legends Wallace Beery and Lewis Stone, along with a couple of relatively new actors, Chester Morris and Robert Montgomery, who only beat Tracy and Bogart onto film by a year but back in those days it wasn't uncommon for actors to make ten films a year, so one year could make all the difference.

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