—Worth a Watch—
Your Bogie Fix:
Director: John Ford
Two inmates (Spencer Tracy and Warren Hymer) escape prison to help a recently released convict (Humphrey Bogart) who’s being blackmailed.
What I Thought
This is one of the few Bogart films that I’ve watched so far where I got to go in with completely fresh eyes. Other than a short blurb in Ann Sperber and Eric Lax’s biography, Bogart, I had never read anything about the film, or talked to anyone who had seen it. That being said, I was pleasantly surprised to see Bogie with such a large part in his first feature length film, and it was a strong showing for an actor whose previous experience was almost exclusively based in the theater.
A short warning comes up at the beginning of the film where the viewer is told that the movie is pieced together using existing footage. A few moments did seem to be missing, and the audio dropped out for a second or two, but overall, Up the River appeared to be mostly intact, and very watchable.
John Ford is certainly one of America’s most legendary directors, and also the director of my favorite western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. While I’ve only seen a handful of his other, more commonly celebrated, films – Stagecoach, The Grapes of Wrath, The Searchers – I think I’m qualified enough to say that this probably isn’t his strongest showing as a director.
The script, originally a drama, was converted to comedy when Ford decided that there were too many comedic possibilities to the story, and I would say that the comedic moments are certainly the highlight of the film. Spencer Tracy and Warren Hymer share a great sense of timing, and have a wonderful straight man/goofy sidekick dynamic that earns the film its best moments.
The stakes aren’t high, as the film centers around saving Bogart’s reputation with his family and his hometown. No one knows that he was in prison, as they were all under the assumption that he was working in China while serving time. Just when Bogart thinks he’s gotten away with his secret, his fiancée’s ex-boss, Mr. Frosby (Morgan Wallace), shows up to blackmail him. Wallace is apparently so unimportant to the overall film that he wasn’t even given billing upon the film’s original release, and his character is dispatched by Tracy and Hymer by simply stealing a folder of documents.
Wouldn’t Frosby still go through with his plan to expose Bogart’s secret to the town? Doesn’t he still have the two shady thugs that could exact revenge? The end of the film never really resolves the issue, and we’re left to assume that perhaps Frosby just lets the whole thing pass.
Still, Ford seems much more concerned with the comedy over the plot, and in that he succeeds. Perhaps the film’s best moments involve Tracy and Hymer in a running joke with the warden’s pre-teen daughter as they try to come up with a joke or a riddle in which the little girl can’t spoil the punchline before they reveal it. There are also a number of laugh-out-loud moments as both men try to woo Bogart’s sister over dinner. Hymer repeatedly shocks Spencer with how well schooled he seems to be in both manners and scripture despite the “moron” status given to him earlier during an intelligence test at the prison. A bemused Bogart just watches and smiles from across the table.
The Bogart Factor
The part of the paroled inmate, Steve Jordan, is a solid one for Bogart. He does well under Ford’s direction as a good natured man struggling to control his more violent impulses as he tries build a better life for his new fiancée.
There is an especially strong scene in which Bogart’s Jordan has a conversation with his soon-to-be fiancée, Judy Fields (Clare Luce) through a prison barred gate. As opposite gendered inmates, they are not allowed to talk, so both actors are forced to have their conversation while facing the other way, pretending not to notice one another. Bogart, after a few moments of flirtation, professes his fondness for her, and says he’d like to get engaged. Judy, finally, slowly turns to look at him, smiling, as she responds, “I am fond of you, Steve, more than fond of you.”
It’s a great lead up to a heartwarming moment, and Ford’s subtle build to Luce’s turn and response is perfect. It was easy to believe that these two young inmates have fallen in love. (Did men’s and women’s prisons really share the same grounds like this back then?!? It seems a little unbelievable, but regardless, it works!)
This film is a showcase for a young and charismatic Spencer Tracy, and he does wonderfully with the role. It’s amazing to see him so young and virile. There’s hardly a moment in the film where there isn’t a wide and toothy smile plastered across his face, as it looks like he was thoroughly enjoying his chance to be a leading man.
Warren Hymer, as the clueless Dannemora Dan, is a great pairing for Tracy’s straight man. He’s able to play for laughs without overplaying his moments, and I’m going to have to add him to the ever growing list of actors whose filmographies need to be explored.
Claire Luce is so good as Bogart’s love interest that I cannot believe her list of films is so short. A popular Broadway actress of the time, perhaps she was just more focused on the stage than the screen? She’s wonderful and gorgeous, and she makes the most of her small role.
Classic Bogie Moment
This film has a few great moments that showcase just how good Bogart was at losing his temper onscreen. Specifically, there’s a moment where the film’s villain, Mr. Frosby, is threatening to go after Bogart’s mother. Separated by a desk in Frosby’s office, Bogart, who had played mild-mannered and reserved up until this point, turns to exit the room before finally spinning back around and confronting the devious conman:
Bogart: (STRIDING ACROSS THE ROOM) All right, I am a jailbird! But when I was in jail, I learned how to handle crooks like you! You’ve been threatening me, now I’ll threaten you! (GRABBING FROSBY BY HIS LAPELS OVER THE DESK) If you don’t get out of this town by tonight, I’ll kill you!
It’s a great case-in-point as to how Bogart could often come off like an un-leashed pit bull in so many of his roles – the type of man you always need to keep at least one eye on, just in case something sets him off.
There are also several moments in the film where we catch Bogart rubbing his fingerstips together in moments of tension and anger – a physicality he would carry on to several of his more iconic gangster and convict roles.
Don’t Forget to Notice:
Was that a real life zebra at the prison baseball game as the inmates’ mascot? Really??? Where in the world did the come up with that? Zoos must have been much more lenient back then.
The Bottom Line
While not a must see for most Bogart fans, it’s still well worth a watch just to see him in his first big starring role. I would imagine that this would also be a great movie for any Spencer Tracy diehards, as it appears to be his youngest starring role as well. To see both men so young and healthy, just beginning what would become long and storied careers, is a treat that any Classic Hollywood fan would enjoy.
A Little Extra
Just before Bogart’s illness really took hold of him, he and Spencer Tracy had been discussing doing another movie together, but apparently couldn’t come to terms with the billing order. Whether that story is true, or just a bit of Hollywood legend may never be known, but Tracy and Katherine Hepburn would eventually be daily visitors to Bogart in his final days, visiting him in the evenings to help keep his spirits up.