One of the great pleasures of watching Hollywood films from the early thirties is seeing a future screen icon at the dawn of his career such as Spencer Tracy in the low-budget prison comedy Up the River (1930). An added bonus is seeing another film legend, Humphrey Bogart, as Tracy’s cohort (billed fourth in the credits). Both were trying to make the transition from stage to screen along with a director – in this case, John Ford – who had recently moved from silent to sound features.
Synopsis: Two escaped convicts, Saint Louis Spencer Tracy) and Dannemora Dan (Warren Hymer), get into a brawl and are tossed back into prison where they share a cell with Steve (Humphrey Bogart) who is serving a brief sentence for accidental manslaughter. Steve has fallen in love with Judy (Claire Luce), a female prisoner in the adjoining women’s prison; she was framed for a crime by her former boyfriend Frosby (Morgan Wallace). Steve vows to wait for Judy when he gets an early parole but finds himself blackmailed into helping Frosby with a new swindle. Saint Louis and Dan, responding to Steve’s request for help, break out of prison, put an end to Frosby’s criminal career and return to their lockup in time for the prison’s annual baseball game against Sing Sing.
The storyline for Up the River may not sound that promising or remarkable but this 1930 feature is historically important for several reasons. It marked the first and only time Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart appeared together. It was Tracy’s film debut and was only the second movie appearance for Bogie. More importantly, director John Ford would go on to collaborate with Tracy once again, three decades later, in 1958’s The Last Hurrah. (Tracy would also provide the narration for the 1962 epic, How the West Was Won, which featured a Civil War segment directed by Ford.)
Initially Up the River was conceived as a serious prison drama and Ford was convinced he’d found the perfect actor for the lead when he attended a performance of the play The Last Mile in New York. Fox had provided Ford with theater tickets to five different plays on different nights but the director was so taken with Tracy’s performance in The Last Mile that he ended up seeing it four more times (they also met for drinks after the play at the Lambs Club, which turned into an all-night drinking spree). According to the Bill Davidson biography, Spencer Tracy: Tragic Idol, “Ford took Tracy to Fox’s New York headquarters and Tracy was signed to a one-picture deal, over the protests of the casting executives who remembered Tracy’s Fox screen test, in which he had been made up as a bearded sailor who conversed in grunts. ‘Never mind,’ said Ford, ‘I want him.’ Almost as an afterthought, he also told them to sign another actor for the second role he had to fill for Up the River. He had seen this actor in the only matinee performance he had gone to that week. It was Humphrey Bogart.”
When Tracy arrived in Hollywood to make Up the River he discovered there had been a change in plans due to the recent opening of the prison drama The Big House. Ford told him, ‘Don’t worry. Because of The Big House, we’re going to make our prison picture into a comedy.’ The director wasn’t particularly upset about retooling the screenplay as a comedy because he thought Maurine Watkins’s original scenario was “just a bunch of junk.” Instead he hired comedian Bill Collier to write a new script and the result was an amusing B-movie.
According to Scott Eyman in his biography Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford, Spencer Tracy “had given his word to Herman Shumlin that he’d go back to The Last Mile after he made the movie. Script problems kept putting off production, until Tracy’s contract expired. “Of course you’ll stay out here?” they asked Tracy, only to be alarmed by his answer. Ford kicked into gear and shot the picture in seventeen days so as to get Tracy back to New York as soon as possible. Ford and Tracy forged a bond, one that wasn’t shared by anybody else in the cast. “Spence was a natural as if he didn’t know a camera was there, or as if there had always been a camera when he acted before,” said Ford. “His speech was decisive. He knew a straight line from a laugh line. If he had a chance for a laugh, he played it in a way that would get it.” Ford didn’t take to many actors the way he took to Tracy. There was, for example, Humphrey Bogart, who made the mistake of calling Ford “Jack” without being invited to. Ford immediately set about humiliating him. After every take he would call out, “How does that seem to you, Mr. Bogart?”
Warren Hymer, who plays the part of Dannemora Dan, was also not given preferential treatment by Ford according to The Motion Picture Guide. “For one scene, the actor had to stand against a board while a knife thrower threw knives at him. Hymer was terrified and Ford walked up and asked him, “If I do it, will you?” Embarrassed, Hymer nodded weakly. Ford then took his place and the thrower did his business. One of the blades caught the director’s fingertip, though. Sucking the blood from his finger, Ford asked Hymer if he was ready. Although his knees were shaking, the actor managed to pull of the scene.”
Up the River was popular with Depression era-audiences even if the critics didn’t think it was a masterpiece. The New York Times reviewer wrote, “Whatever may be one’s opinion of depicting levity in a penitentiary, this screen offering often proved to be violently funny to the thousands who filled the seats in the big theatre yesterday afternoon. It has a number of clever incidents and lines, but now and again it is more than a trifle too slow.”
As for Spencer Tracy, he often said Up the River was one of his most pleasant working experiences. He was less impressed, however, with the completed film. After he saw it, he stated, “I thought I was the worst actor I had ever seen on the screen. I was surprised that Ford and the Fox officials didn’t remake the picture.” (from Spencer Tracy: A Biography by James Curtis).
During the making of Up the River Tracy and Bogart didn’t become close friends or hang out off camera. In fact, they didn’t really get to know each other well until Katharine Hepburn brought them together 21 years later after working with Bogart on The African Queen (1951). The two men liked each other immensely and often enjoyed comparing notes on their experiences in Hollywood. They remained friends until the end of Bogart’s life in January 1957. Up the River was later remade in 1938 by director Alfred L. Werker with Preston Foster and Arthur Treacher in the roles played respectively by Tracy and Hymer and Tony Martin and Phyllis Brooks appear as the young couple helped by the convicts. Jane Darwell, a veteran of several Ford pictures, is also in the remake. For many years Up the River was rarely screened or exhibited in any venue or format until the launch of Turner Classic Movies, which has aired it occasionally. The film became available on DVD in 2007 as part of the massive Ford at Fox Collection. For those not wishing to purchase the complete box set, there was a more affordable abridged version of Ford at Fox, which packaged Up the Creek with Steamboat Around the Bend, Judge Priest, Dr. Bull, When Willie Comes Marching Home and What Price Glory.