If someone used the expression “up the river” in the early part of the 20th century, they usually weren’t referring to a location or direction; they meant prison time for some fool. Although there is nothing funny about going to jail, director John Ford decided to take a lighthearted approach to the topic in Up the River (1930), one of his earliest sound features.
Synopsis: Two escaped convicts, St. 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 who 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. St. 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 the prison comedy 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, it was directed by John Ford who 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. According to the Bill Davidson biography, Spencer Tracy: Tragic Idol, “Ford recalled that Fox gave him tickets for five plays on five different nights, but that he saw The Last Mile on the first night, and went back to see it again on each of the remaining four nights. He was enchanted with Tracy’s performance. Ford, a hard-drinking Irishman…also became enchanted with Tracy’s Hibernian carousing in an all-night roister at the Lambs Club. 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.’” The director also told the casting company he saw another actor in a play that same week who would be ideal for a secondary role and guess who that turned out to be? 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 Watkin’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. The film is also notable for the screen debut of the lovely and talented Claire Luce, who only appeared in six features and was more famous on the Broadway stage where she in appeared in productions like The Gay Divorcee opposite Fred Astaire.
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. “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.” (from The Motion Picture Guide).
In the supporting cast of Up the River you might notice Ward Bond as a fellow inmate. He would go on to star in countless John Ford films as part of the director’s preferred acting ensemble. Child actor turned film editor/director Robert Parrish (Cry Danger, The Mob) also shows up in a brief bit.
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. The film 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.
Up the River is available on DVD in two options. It is featured in the massive Ford at Fox Collection which includes 24 features and the documentary Becoming John Ford or you can opt for the smaller 6 film set, John Ford’s American Comedies, which includes Up the River along with Steamboat Around the Bend, Judge Priest, Doctor Bull, When Willie Comes Marching Home and What Price Glory. *This is a revised and expanded version of an article that originally appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website
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