NOTE: The following article is MovieFanFare’s contribution to the John Ford Blogathon co-hosted by Bemused and Nonplussed and Krell Laboratories. You can find the complete list of participating sites here.
1930 was what some film historians like to consider a “transitional year” in Hollywood history. Save for holdout Charlie Chaplin, the Silent Era of filmmaking had come to an end and the studios were still adjusting to the technical and storytelling changes wrought by the advent of sound. The “talkies” were also putting some of the most famous stars of the previous decade out of work, with new actors and actresses being recruited from the Broadway stage, where they were well-versed in the necessities of performing while delivering dialogue. It was on one of these New York talent searches that director John Ford found a pair of young men who were perfect for the new prison picture he was working on for Fox Film Corporation. The two actors–who would make their feature film debuts in what turned out to be their only screen appearance together–were Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart, and the movie–1930’s Up the River–would itself undergo a transition from a dramatic look at life behind bars to a more light-hearted male bonding seriocomedy.
The story opens with two inmates–smooth-talking “St. Louis” (Tracy) and his lunk-headed sidekick Dannemora Dan (Warren Hymer)–making their way over the wall of an unnamed Southern penitentiary, where a hidden getaway car is waiting for them nearby (“Look at this, a roadster. And the gang promised me a limousine with a chauffeur,” quips Tracy in the film’s first line). St. Louis tricks Dan into getting out of the car to check for a flat tire, then drives off into the night, leaving his erstwhile partner behind to fend for himself. Fast forward to some time later in Kansas City: Dan has apparently found religion with a Salvation Army-like group and is offering his own street-corner sermon, when who should happen to drive by, accompanied by two women, than a very dapper St. Louis? One fistfight later, the pair find themselves back in stir at nearby Bensonatta, where they share a cell with old-timer Pop (co-scripter William Collier, Sr.), the coach of the prison baseball team, and Steve Jordan (Bogart), a young trustee who’s about to be paroled after serving time on an accidental manslaughter charge.
Steve’s job in the receiving office of the adjoining women’s prison (which seems rather progressive, especially by 1930s standards) gives him a chance to “meet cute” with new arrival Judy Fields (Claire Luce), who was left to take the rap in a stock swindle operation by her ex-partner–and ex-boyfriend–Frosby (Morgan Wallace). St. Louis plays Cupid to give the two a chance to acknowledge their mutual attraction (in a nice scene where Bogart and Luce talk through an exercise yard gate while facing away from each other to avoid the appearance of “fraternizing”) and get engaged. Steve is paroled and vows to wait for Judy as he returns home to New England and his sister and widowed mother,who think he’s been working in China.
Things seem to be working out for the young jailbirds…er, lovebirds, until the conniving Frosby learns of the plans, sets up a new scam in Steve’s hometown, and blackmails him into signing on as his new assistant. When word of Frosby’s scheme–which includes swindling Steve’s ma–reaches Judy, St. Louis and Dan sneak their way out of the joint during a blackout at the prison variety show and hop an eastbound freight train. Can the fugitives stop a desperate Steve from taking matters into his own hands? Will Steve’s mother learn the truth about his incarceration? Will St. Louis or Dan make a hit with Steve’s pretty sister while they’re on the lam? And, speaking of hits, can they make it back to Bensonatta in time for the big baseball game against a squad of rival inmates from upstate? I’m not saying, in part because I don’t want to give too much away, but also because the film’s print quality left me unable to answer some of these questions (more about that to come).
Up the River is a quick and breezy little comedy, which is pretty surprising when one considers that the original screenplay (by Maurine Dallas Watkins, author of the play Chicago) was envisioned by Fox as a serious drama. When rivals MGM beat the studio to the punch by several months with their own prison tale–The Big House, starring Wallace Beery and Chester Morris–Fox and Ford set about retooling their project. Veteran actor/writer Collier was brought in to punch up Watkins’ script (which, apparently, the director already considered “just a bunch of junk”) with humorous scenarios. Some of said scenarios may not play well today (for example, the blackface minstrel act that’s a part of the variety show, and which a black inmate is seen laughing at hysterically). Others just seem a little bit odd, like the fact that the prison baseball team has a zebra (or maybe they just painted stripes on a horse) as its mascot, or that the warden’s precocious 9-year-old daughter (Joan Marie Lawes) has the run of the grounds, plays with the inmates, and swaps riddles with St. Louis and Dan. As it turns out, this was art imitating life for young Joan, the real-life daughter of warden/penologist Lewis E. Lawes, whose book 20,000 Years in Sing Sing was turned into a 1932 Warner Bros. crime drama starring…you gussed it, Spencer Tracy.
This shift in tone must have come as a surprise to Tracy, who had impressed Ford with his powerful Broadway stage turn as a Death Row inmate in The Last Mile…and with his all-night carousing at the Lambs Club. Because of his commitment to the play, the newly-lightened Up the River needed to be shot as quickly as possible (it was ultimately filmed in a brisk 17 days), but Tracy–who had roles in a trio of short films made that same year–wasn’t about to let his first crack at big-screen leading man status get away from him. And the 30-year-old actor is a delight to watch as the glib and gregarious St. Louis, who is treated by his fellow cons as a celebrity (especially Pop, who sees him as the pitching star for his team) and upon arriving at Bensonatta asks the warden for a cell with lots of windows and a southern exposure. He also has a great comic foil in Warren Hymer’s dim-witted Dan, who winds up on the wrong end of several of St. Louis’ schemes (including a knife-throwing act at the variety show). Tracy and Hymer would appear in four more films together, but only 1931’s Goldie gave them this much interaction.
As for Humphrey Bogart, also 30 and with just two short films to his credit, the “nice guy” role of Steve Jordan seems a little more in the vein of the tennis-racquet-carrying Long Island lads he had been playing on the New York stage than Duke Mantee and the other hard-as-nails gangsters he would bring to life for Warner Bros. over the course of the 1930s. A flash of the violent Bogie waiting down the road comes in a scene where Steve confronts Frosby and tells him, “When I was in jail, I learned how to handle crooks like you! You’ve been threatening me, now I’ll threaten you; If you don’t get out of this town by tonight, I’ll kill you!” While Bogart seems to have had a bit of a stormy relationship with Ford (apparently after making the rookie mistake of referring to the director as “Jack”), he and Tracy would remain good friends over the years despite never again sharing the screen (they almost re-teamed for 1955’s The Desperate Hours but couldn’t agree on who would get top billing, so Fredric March wound up playing opposite Bogie).
Claire Luce, who appeared in only a handful of ’30s films before going back to concentrate on her own Broadway career, does a nice job as the betrayed Judy, and among the supporting players Louise Mackintosh has a couple of good scenes as a society woman who ministers to the prisoners (and becomes the unwitting carrier of messages between the men’s and women’s facilities). Also, if you look quickly in one shot, you’ll see Tracy knock out another inmate who’s played none other than future Ford film mainstay Ward Bond.
Unfortunately, the biggest problem with watching Up the River today is a technical, rather than an artistic, one. The picture’s surviving print contains multiple splices and forced cuts, making some of the dialogue hard to follow and giving several scenes (including the rather abrupt finish to the Steve and his family subplot, which we’re left to assume has a happy conclusion) rather abrupt jumps and endings. The situation, sadly, is not uncommon with movies of this vintage, but the storyline is certainly easy enough to follow and some of the lines have–let’s face it–become so clichéd that a savvy viewer can fill in the blanks. Besides, the prospect of seeing two of Hollywood’s greatest stars as the dawn of their careers, under the eye of a director still establishing the trademarks of his own legendary body of work, makes it worth the effort.