Saturday, 2 November 2013

It's better to travel... Upstream (1927)

Upstream was considered a lost film up until 2009 and, whatever minor quibbles there may be over the quality, the rediscovery of any silent film from John Ford has to be celebrated As it happens Upstream is a short but smart comedy drama featuring a strong ensemble cast that helps flesh out our knowledge of the breadth and depth of Ford’s work at this time. It’s not a classic but it is a delight that lifted my mood on a cold, flu-ey kind of day.

Some have written of the film’s debt to Murnau with subtle lighting and angular camera work underpinning the performances but the rapidly-established characterisations are Ford’s own – a strong cast, well directed in those moments between thought and expression…

Jane Winton and Emile Chautard
Given only an hour to establish a baker’s dozen parts, Ford succeeds in making us understand each and every one and we care for the outcome and the comeuppence deserved by spectacular hubris. The players are mostly theatricals holed up in rooms they can barely afford, eking out a living and helping each other best they can through thespian solidarity. Ford would have known all too much about such an environment given his elder brother Francis' vaudeville career.

Miss Hattie Breckenbridge (Lydia Yeamans Titus – a name to conjure with) runs the house and, in spite of her entreating her guests to pay in advance, she seems to generously accept their lame excuses for the cash not flowing.

Lydia Yeamans Titus reminds Sammy Cohen and Ted McNamara about their rent
This may be due to her romantic attachment to their profession or at least to the Star Boarder (Raymond Hitchcock), but, as the title card points out, such landladies’ “…legs, archaeologists say, were the very foundation of early American theatre”.

Hattie’s warmth is shared by the majority of her guests who seem generous and willing to share, even if it is only advice and condolences as the opportunities fly away.But, there’s always one…

Jack can see through Eric even if Gertie can't...
There’s a knife-throwing act comprised of an uneven love triangle formed around pretty Gertie Ryan (Nancy Nash) with snooty Eric Brasingham (an excellent Earle Foxe) competing with thrower Jack La Velle (Grant Withers) for her affection. Eric is “the last and least” of this great acting clan (related to the Barrymores perhaps…) who lives off his name and not any native talent.

He is at least first to the dinner table though and is joined by the company’s elder statesman and Shakespeare-worshiper, Campbell Mandare (Emile Chautard) who, spotting the skull-shaped tooth-pick holder ventures a bit of Hamlet before being cut short by Eric’s sneering.

Nancy Nash
Hattie greets her favourite boarder, who is being flirted with on the stairs by La Soubrette (the lovely Jane Winton – who was so good in The Patsy) and gives her younger rival a disapproving stare. A Soubrette is – wiki-parently – a stock character who is vain, girlish and coquettish: good casting then.

We see the other characters in their rooms, Juggler (John’s older brother Francis Ford) and
Deerfoot (Ely Reynolds) are cooking up some bootleg hooch whilst mother and sister team (the scarcely similar, Judy King and Lillian Worth) practise their routine. Funniest of all are the supposedly Irish hoofing brothers Callahan and Callahan played by Ted McNamara and Sammy Cohen: can you guess which one of these boys is actually from the old country? This is a joke that just keeps giving as we later see them in a “before and after” advert for cosmetic surgery.

Francis Ford, Judy King, Lillian Worth and Ely Reynolds
The Callaghans dance so hard they shower the dining table with plaster, possibly increasing the nutritional value of Hattie’s soup considerably…

By the time everyone is round the table their characters are established and we see Jack casting daggers at Eric as he sweet-talks sweet Gertie who seems oblivious to the fact that he’s a bit of a rotter. Meanwhile, at the head of the table, the Star Boarder, attempts to play footsie with La Soubrette only to give Hattie the wrong idea.

Dinner is interrupted by the arrival of big cigar-chomping theatrical agent Gus Hoffman (Harry Bailey) – Ford’s camera captures the buzz as it sweeps across the diners’ faces: “has he come for me?”. Everyone rushes out leaving Eric alone with his food…

But the last of the line’s luck is in as Hoffman reveals “I’ve got a rush order from London for a Brashingham to play Hamlet…”. He’s not interested in the talent just the name... which is very lucky as Eric has none or does he?

Campbell Mandare inspires Ham-let
Puffed up by this opportunity, Eric still has the good sense to take up Campbell Mandare’s offer of a crash course in Shakespeare and, somehow, the veteran’s passion infects him. Before his debut in London he has a vision of his teacher and goes out to bring the house down!

Friends are soon forgotten as he laps up the plaudits and believes the hype. As Gertie waits in vain for a letter or a phone call, Eric enjoys the fruits of success without a thought for her or even his new fans: his glamorous escort dropping a rose from an admirer contemptuously on the road.

Credibility at full stretch, the story has to deliver some balance and as Eric returns to New York a publicity trip is arranged to his old boarding house… will he receive a hero’s welcome or have his friends moved on as well?

The results of Eric’s mighty arrogance are pretty certain someway out but that’s not to say it isn’t all fun to watch as you hope dignity, solidarity and good fortune will prove to be not dependent on ticket sales.

Upstream fits a lot into its allotted span and its main interest is these wonderful characters with the story essentially just a device to hang them off. A strong cast plays very well and a number were to feature in later Ford films – both Ryan and Foxe were in My Darling Clementine in 1946.

I watched the Lost and Found: American Treasures from the New Zealand Film Archive DVD recently released from the US National Film Preservation Foundation. It’s another splendid compilation of which more anon… It’s available direct and from all good online retailers.

“Go Upstream to success! Wear humbly the regal laurel of genius!”

The title may have been retro-fitted into the story to enable he film to replace a scheduled release that was cancelled… whatever, it kind of works: it’s better to travel honestly than arrive complacently.

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