Thursday, November 28, 2013


Upstream (John Ford, 1927) Somewhere in New Zealand, there was a film archive that contained a spate of nitrate films that were not returned to the United States after their initial showings in the 20's. They sat there, waiting to either disintegrate or explode in flames, until they were discovered in 2009.  Among the treasures were one of the first films ever to be worked on by Alfred Hitchcock, as well as one trailer and one feature directed by John Ford for the Fox Corporation (before their merger with 20th) that up 'til then had thought to be lost.

Early Ford is still deeply Ford country.  This backstage drama takes place in a players' boarding house, where touring performers could rent lodgings for their seasons in vaudeville houses.  The current residents are a motley troupe: a mother-daughter "sister act," Irish vaudevillians Callahan and Callahan (Ted McNamara and Sammy Cohen—yes, you read that right, it's part of the gag), the faded Shakesperean (Emile Chautard), the medicine show jugglers (and distillers), the "Star Boarder" (Raymond Hitchcock)—his reputation gained by inserting himself into every situation, the least talented member of a famous acting family, the Brashinghams (Earle Foxe), and a knife-throwing act with the Castillian expert Juan Rodriguez—real name Jack La Velle (Grant Withers)—and his lovely target Gertie Ryan (Nancy Nash).  

Any community in a Ford film is complicated and this one is tangled like a cat's cradle.  Jack's in love with Gertie, but Brashingham is on the make as well.  Everybody is in everybody's business, but when one word comes from London that a Brashingham (even a lousy one) must be booked to play "Hamlet," it throws the whole household in an uproar.  The vain Brashingham couldn't act his way out of a wet paper sack, but the experienced thesp' gives him lessons that seem to bring out the best in him as an actor, while bringing out the worst in him as a human being.  There are the various tactics to avoid paying rent with the Landlady, the torn loyalties of Gertie, and the "Star Boarder's" proclivity to flirt with anything in a skirt—it's Ford affectionately poking fun at the phoniness and the keeping up of appearances of show folk, but also of how a disparate group of individuals can still mutually raise each other up.  The performances are remarkably restrained for a silent film (and one about a bunch of hams), and Ford pulls a couple of tricks with a smoothly moving camera that impresses, considering how bulky the things were back then.

Made three years after his landmark The Iron Horse and a year before his first talking picture, Upstream is worth seeing for an atypical prototype of what Ford would produce later in his career.

Emile Chautard, Earle Foxe, and Nancy Nash all have things
that need to be discussed Upstream

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