Tuesday, November 19, 2013

DVR Diary: John Ford's UPSTREAM (1927)

A contemporary reviewer for the trade press thought it necessary to inform readers that Upstream was not an outdoor adventure picture. Blame Fox Film for the confusion; having promised a picture of that title, co-starring Dolores Del Rio and Walter Pidgeon, only to have the project fall through, they slapped the label on a story originally titled The Public Idol. Knowing John Ford as we think we do, we might have expected an outdoor picture as well, but Upstream, long thought lost until a copy was found in New Zealand a few years ago, seems Fordian just the same. The setting of a boarding house catering to actors proves to be quite the Fordian environment. The westerns we know him best for were often filled to overflowing (some might say infested) with eccentrics whose personalities were essentially theatrical. Here no one is normal, broadly speaking. Everyone's an entertainer, all of them down on their luck -- "at rest" is the genteel way to put it, but those in that category are expected to pay in advance. Some are in decline, others still young and aspiring; both groups get their due. Our main focus falls on a romantic triangle: a knife thrower (shades of The Unknown!) and his two assistants. The male assistant (Earle Foxe) has little enthusiasm but carries a storied theatrical name. It's that name a high-powered producer is after when he calls at the boardinghouse, briefly getting everyone's hopes up. The sudden offer to star in Hamlet terrifies young Brasingham, but an elderly acolyte of the Bard -- he lights candles in front of a bust of the playwright -- gives him a quick tutorial that leads to the lad conquering London and earning a nod of the head from the royal box. Success goes to his head, however, though the now-Great Brasingham gets his comeuppance when he crashes the wedding of the knife-thrower (Grant Withers) and his female assistant (Nancy Nash) at the old boardinghouse, cluelessly thinking that the celebration put on there is in his honor.

Upstream finds Ford between two phases of his career. He had recently made his name with the western blockbuster the Iron Horse and followed up with Three Bad Men. He would next enter a more self-consciously artistic phase, influenced like his fellow Fox directors by the arrival of F. W. Murnau to make Sunrise. The influence would become apparent in films like Four Sons, released in 1928. Upstream was Ford's only 1927 release, which makes it hard to excuse the slapdash nature of the story. He seems confused over whether Brasingham is the main character or whether he was making an ensemble piece. I suspect he'd rather have done the latter, but he's stuck following Brasingham to London, where a vision of his momentary mentor inspires his to triumph, and then back to America and a closing humiliation that makes this one-hour feature feel more like a slapstick short subject where the star acts out a fantasy only to be kicked back into his rightful place. Actually, Brasingham isn't kicked into his rightful place, since he'll go on being a star, but since the other two legs of the triangle haven't gotten an equal share of development, Upstream feels like a star vehicle for the otherwise-unknown-to-me Earle Foxe -- whom Ford used as late as My Darling Clementine. I often credit early movies for telling stories efficiently, but for once this is one that really does feel too short. Still, there's a certain indisputable charm to the film that isn't just the glamor of discovery. Upstream isn't really an unearthed treasure, but there's a pleasant shock of recognition to it when you realize that, however an unlikely setting this seems for a John Ford picture, the director really does seem to be in his element. Watching it is like removing a layer of his legend, getting past the man who made westerns to the essential showman at heart.

At least one reviewer at the time saw this pretty much as I did. 


VP81955 said...

A slight clarification -- the last name of Earle Foxe's character is "Brashingham," emphasis on the word "brash"...it sort of signals both his personality and his ultimate comeuppance.

No classic, but the interaction between the characters is fascinating, as the boardinghouse sort of presages the stagecoach of a dozen years later in that Ford provides a genuine sense of community.

Samuel Wilson said...

Foolish me: I remembered it as "Brashingham" and drafted the review with that spelling, but then I second-guessed myself and checked IMDB and Wikipedia, both of which give the name as "Brasingham." Everyone knows what reliable sources they are. In any event, I suspect the emphasis in the name is just as much on "ham" as "brash."