Saturday, January 13, 2018

Up the River (1930)

Up the River (John Ford, 1930) Here's something you don't see every day—a prison comedy. There are very few movies in that sub-genre, but this one's directed by John Ford during the "pre-Code" days at Fox Studios, with the first credited feature film appearances of both Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart—the only time they appeared in a film together.*

Now, of all that information the most important element here is "pre-Code," those lascivious days in old Hollywood, where you could get away with just about anything except murder, and "community standards" were flouted right and left (if anybody could agree on what a community's "standards" were while keeping a straight face and holding firmly to their hypocrisies).


"Man, I hate country prisons!" Two con-artists, "Saint" Louis (Tracy) and Dannemora Dan (Warren Hymer), escape from a "Prison in the South" and make their ways separately to Kansas City. Their fates diverge: Dan goes straight and joins the Salvation Army, and just as he's testifying that "crime doesn't pay," up drives Louis in a fancy rig putting a lie to his argument. An altercation between the two lands them both in Bensonatta prison, where they share a cell—"not too high up with southern exposure" Louis asks the warden and is promptly turned down—with Steve Jordan (Bogart), just a kid who got into a fight that didn't end well for one of his friends going to China. 

Steve's working in the prison now as a clerk, and he's sweet on one of the inmates of the next-door women's prison, Judy Fields (Claire Luce), who's in for fraud (telling fortunes mixed with oil-well tips). Trouble is, Steve is up for parole soon and Judy's still in for another five months. It's eating Steve up, but as the rest of the prisoners know the score, they conspire to get messages between the two of them.

But, there's another party that isn't so interested in them getting together. Judy's old partner, who ran the fortune-telling scam, finds out about their plans and has a mind to profit from it. He worms his way into the Jordan family and decides to blackmail Steve by threatening to tell his mother he hasn't been in China the whole time, but in prison. To add injury to insult, he's also trying to get her and her neighbors to invest in his oil-well scheme. Steve has no idea how he can get his family out of this mess...at least not without going back to prison.

But, help comes in the form of Saint Louis and Dannemora Dan who get wind of the swindle and break out of prison...again...this time during a "follies" show for the inmates. They have a good home cooked meal at the Jordans and get the lowdown. "Don't be a sap" Louis says. "He'll be taken care of...well taken care of." The only thing Louis wants to know is...is Steve "on the level" with Judy (he's already asked her...) and his "Yes" is all he needs to take care of business...and then break back into prison just in time to play in the cooler's baseball game.


It's very much a comedy; there are stakes involved but not of much import, but the movie ends on an interesting note. While the game goes on, the prison choir director starts to lead the inmates in a song about friendship while the camera pans along the inmates—all of them, not missing one. And the song goes on, until every inmate is seen. Dramatically, the sequence has no purpose...except for the prisoners...and their families back home who might be watching just to catch a glimpse of someone they know or love. Family is paramount to John Ford (hence, Steve's predicament in the film's storyline). But, the last touch—sending a present back to the families is Ford at his sentimental best and most charitable.



* That may seem strange if you know both men's backgrounds—they were best friends and drinking buddies. Acting jobs were assigned when the studios ruled Hollywood and the two were contracted for different studios: Tracy for M-G-M and Bogart for the Warner brothers. But, in the 1950's, when stars gained power by forming production companies, they were briefly attached to the same picture—1955's The Desperate Hours—but because their representatives couldn't decide who would get top billing, Tracy stepped aside (Frederic March took the role). Tracy would work again with Ford in The Last Hurrah. Bogart never did.

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