I have no doubt that John Ford (1894-1973) made some great movies and sometimes showed a visual flair (especially in Monument Valley). He also made more bad movies than any other major director, and marred even his masterpieces with songs and sentimentality that make me cringe.
The 1930 prison-escape movie “Up the River” he made is notable for providing the debut in feature films of both Spencer Tracy (1900-67) and Humphrey Bogart. Tracy was already the bemused spectator. Bogart was not yet “Bogey,” but was attempting to play a conventional romantic leading man from the upper socioeconomic crust that he in fact himself was from.
Tracy often played priests and even when in secular roles, often didn’t get the girl/woman. He might grouse, but did not brood. Maybe the sunny disposition showed he could act, since it seems that offscreen he was a guilt-ridden drunk. I don’t understand why he is often called a great screen actor or even the greatest, most natural one. I will readily grant that the camera liked him and that he knew how to play to it. Also, that he had a persona, as did such Hollywood stars as Clark Gable, John Wayne, Henry Fonda, and Gary Cooper. I think that Cooper had a wider range than Tracy, as did Bogart, who could play vicious criminals, wry detectives, inspiring commanders… and Captain Queeg. He also had good comic timing, though like Gary Cooper, it was rarely called for onscreen.
When Tracy ventured beyond bemusement and mugging of a generally Irish sort to trying to play characters of Iberian descent (his Oscar-winning performance in “Captains Courageous,” “Tortilla Flats,” “Old Man and the Sea” he was embarrassing, like his consort Katharine Hepburn trying to play a Chinese peasant in “Dragon Seed”). I’m not saying that, especially after his hair whitened, that Tracy could not effectively play serious dramatic roles (Bad Day at Black Rock, Judgment at Nuremberg, etc.), but he was mostly pixieish or bad in the first decade of his movie career, the one in which he won both of his best actor Oscars.
In “Up the River,” the top-billed (but MIA from the poster as shown here) Tracy is the wise-guy Saint Louis, who not only breaks out of jails when he wants, but breaks back in late in this movie. The fourth-billed Bogart is a trustee in the prison and about to be paroled (manslaughter is the offense that got him imprisoned; his loving mother and New England community believe he is in China, probably doing “the Lord’s work”).
Claire Luce, distinct from Claire Booth Luce, author of “The Women”) plays a sweet young thing who is taking the rap for a swindle run by Frosby (Morgan Wallace). She chooses Steve over Saint Louis, and when her caddish partner in crime starts bilking Steve’s mother out of the bonds her late husband left her, Saint Louis and his not-very-bright but very respectful-to-mothers sidekick Dannemora Dan go to take care of things and keep Steve from killing another man.
Being the pitcher-catcher battery of the prison baseball team, they return for a game against inmates from Sing-Sing (Tracy’s breakout role, two years later was as a chump sentenced to “20,000 Years in Sing Sing”). There is also a variety show, presumably showing off the new-fangled sound picture technology. And a prison band, and a zebra mascot(!). Not to forget a tough convict cutting out snowflakes… Dannemora Dan’s sentimentality (which I think Ford largely shared) is treated as humorous, and the ex-con lovers are set to make a new start back in New England at the end.
I wouldn’t say that “Up the River” is a good movie, but it is entertaining to see Tracy fully formed and Bogart before becoming “Bogey” (though not lacking in toughness and willingness to kill).
There’s little of interest in the visuals, certainly nothing prefiguring the expressionist lighting and framing of “The Informer” (1935).
Apparently, the original intent was to make a serious prison-break movie, but MGM beat Fox to the punch with “The Big House.” The extant prints are missing some footage, though the succession of short cuts seems to have been in the original.
Bogart played an escape convict in another comedy, “We’re No Angels” (1955) and escaped cons in many other movies. Spencer Tracy delivered a fine performance as an Irish big-city mayor meeting defeat much later in Ford’s “The Last Hurrah” (1958). Neither Tracy nor Bogart was willing to take second billing in William Wyler’s “The Desperate Hours” (1955): two-time Oscar winning best actor Fredric March was and delivered a memorable performance. Bogart was also an escaped convict in that movie, btw.
(And for anyone wondering about whom I think are or were actors beyond having star personas, I’d mention Robert Downey Jr. (though he has a persona, too), Daniel Day-Lewis, Edward Norton, Meryl Streep, Jessica Lange, Julie Christie, Lily Tomlin, and Nicole Kidman in contrast to the narrow range of characters of superstars in earlier days such as Katharine Hepburn, JRobert DeNiro, Warren Beatty, et al. And though they have delivered some great performances, I have my doubts about the range of Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman and Sandra Bullock; and think that Marlon Brando’s range was less than many seem to credit him for, though I believe he was an actor).