February 1, 2011

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“If life in general is a play, then a theatrical boarding house is a burlesque show.” -the epigraph to Upstream

This past Sunday, the Museum of the Moving Image presented a screening of John Ford’s Upstream in NYC for the first time since the film’s debut over 80 years ago. Long thought lost, a nitrate print was discovered in the New Zealand Film Archive in early 2009, part of a cache of 75 titles now being preserved by the National Film Preservation Foundation, in partnership with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the George Eastman House, the Library of Congress, the Museum of Modern Art and the UCLA Film and Television Archive. The restoration work on Upstream was performed by Park Road Post Production in Wellington, New Zealand, under the direction of Twentieth Century Fox and the Academy Film Archive. The U.S. re-premiere occurred last September 1st at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills, and has been slowly touring the country since.

Upstream is an effortlessly delightful comedy set at a rooming house for struggling show people. It’s as if Ford populated an entire film with Alan Mowbray’s Shakespearean hams from My Darling Clementine and Wagon Master. The main blowhards are Eric Brasingham (Earle Foxe), described as “the last and least of a theatrical family” (the beginning of the John Barrymore gibes), and the Castilian knife-thrower Juan Rodriguez (Grant Withers), although the inter-titles wryly note he was born in the midwest as Jack. These two-bit entertainers stumblingly woo Gertie (Nancy Nash) to be their partners in acts and in the bedroom. Ford fills in the edges of this triangle with even more colorful types: the “star boarder” played by Raymond Hitchcock as a flirtatious monocled dandy; the aging, earnest dramatist Campbell Mandare (Emile Chautard); the permanently tipsy tap-dancing duo Callahan and Callahan; and the pushover landlady/fading Southern Belle Miss Hattie Breckenbridge Peyton (Lydia Yeamans Titus).

This setup, adapted by Randall Faye from Wallace Smith’s story, “The Snake’s Wife”,  indulges John Ford’s obsession with staging the chaotic joy of communal rites (his wondrous dances, parades and church-raisings). The film opens on a raucous lunch at the boarding house, as each member is stirred from their dingy apartment rehearsals by the bell. In its fevered bits of business and subtle revelation of character, it reminded me most of the dinner scene in The Searchers, after Ethan first returns home.

Through some snappy parallel editing Ford introduces all the main players and offers a thumbnail sketch of their personalities. In the first sequence Brasingham is shown cheek to cheek with Gertie in front of a chintzy tropical backdrop, in his favored nose-up profile attempting to convey the throes of romantic love. Then a knife flies in off-screen, flipping right in-between the actors. Ford pulls the camera back slightly, revealing the flophouse room beyond the backdrop, as well as Jack brandishing his tools. Here we get Brasingham’s empty pretension, Gertie’s doe-eyed infatuation with him, and Jack’s mulish aggression. This one shot encapsulates all the action to come.

Ford continues by cutting back and forth between the tenants in their rooms, the bellboy walking down the hallway  in a backward tracking shot, and then the guests sitting down at the dining room table. Mandare is shown disregarding his rent notice, but immediately latches on to a skull-shaped match holder to recite Hamlet. A medicine show huckster is shown brewing his swill (the same gig as the Mowbray character from Wagon Master), a mother-daughter “sister act” clomps out a high-kick routine, the “Soubrette” flaps her eyelids down the staircase, and the Callahans tap the ceiling plaster onto the dining room table. During the meal, the “star boarder” slides all the way down his chair in a vain attempt to play footsie with the Soubrette, as Ford cuts to an under-the-table angle of softshoe misdirection. This madness comes to a close when a theatrical manager comes to the door, stunning the loudmouths into a panicked titter. Ford then pans across their elastic faces in a long take across the table, marking the end of this extraordinary sequence.

This opening indicates a mastery of late silent Hollywood style, with the swift parallel editing of Griffith married to more exploratory camera movements. It was initially supposed that Upstream would reflect the influence of F.W. Murnau, who had wowed the Fox technicians during the filming of Sunrise, and whose expressionist style became evident in the chiaroscuro of Ford’s Four Sons of 1928. Ford had also visited Murnau in Germany after the completion of Sunrise, returning to the States in April 1927, according to Tag Gallagher.  Gallagher and Bill Levy both list Upstream’s release date as January 30th, 1927, which would put its production dates before the production of Sunrise, released later in ’27, and before his trip to Germany. Doug Cummings comes to a similar conclusion at his blog Film Journey.

In any case, the evidence is on-screen, with naturalistic photography throughout. There is no effort to emotionalize the space, aside from a few trick shots of superimposition that act to speed the story along rather than as poetic gestures. One example occurs after the theatrical manager hired Brasingham to play Hamlet in London:”it doesn’t matter that you’re a terrible actor, we just want the name.” Upon hearing the word “Hamlet”, he blocks out the rest, simply staring at himself in the dusty mirror behind the manager, his self-actualization as an insufferable narcissist, rather than as just a pitiable one. It is during the queasy moments before his premiere that Ford employs a visual trick that Cummings compares to the final scene of Nosferatu. As Brasingham tries to remember the lessons that Mandare taught him, a spectre of the latter emerges in a superimposition, a ghostly reminder that makes both a flashback or an inter-title unnecessary. This presence expresses Brasingham’s inner turmoil quite succinctly on its own, a conjuring of past education and emotion.

This ghostly image though, rhymes with one in the final scene, when Brasingham, now an international sensation, returns to the boarding house for a publicity stunt. But the day he arrives Jack is finally marrying Gertie (“How would you like to throw plates at me for the rest of your life?”) in another great communal scene, and Brasingham assumes the cameras are for him. A group photo is being taken, one in which the preening “Star” and Mandare both inch toward the center, blocking the bride and groom. When the flash goes off, and the smoke fills the room, Ford uses another dissolve to Brasingham’s silhouette etched into the smoke, his face coming into focus as it dissipates. This time Brasingham is the ghostly figure, a foolish specter disappearing into his own image.

From the few films I’ve seen from this period in his career, it ranks right with Three Bad Men (1926) as one of my favorites, and it’s truly a cause for celebration that it’s been found and restored.

The screening I attended also included a fragment from the trailer to the Strong Boy (1929), which was also restored, although the rest of this Ford film is lost. It starred Victor McLaglen as a hot-headed train valet, aka “baggage smasher”. The fragment contained some dangerous looking fight scenes and the kind of knockabout comedy Ford would insert in everything he made.


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