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Two prisoners, Saint Louis and Dannemora Dan, escape during a theatrical production in order to go to the aid of Steve, a former prisoner whose past is about to be exposed by the man who framed Judy unless Steve agrees to help him commit another crime. Written by
Ed Stephan <email@example.com>
This is the first John Ford film in which Spencer Tracy appeared: their second collaboration took place three decades later, when Tracy starred in Ford's The Last Hurrah (1958). It is strange to realize that these two great Irish American icons only collaborated two times (Tracy narrated How the West Was Won (1962), one of the sequences of which was shot by Ford, but that doesn't count as a true collaboration), but for most of their careers, they were bound to different studios, Ford to 20th Century-Fox and Tracy to M.G.M. By the time the freelance era rolled around in the late 1950s, Tracy was appearing in very few movies. See more »
Up the River finds Spencer Tracy and Warren Hymer as a pair of amiable convicts who seem to function far better in the prison environment than outside. Later sociologists would call these two institutionalized and would be thinking it's a bad thing.
Ironically I knew someone who was just like that, he'd been arrested on a couple minor beefs and found he really did function better inside jail than out among the populace. I doubt though he would have found the subject matter in Up the River as entertaining as I did.
Prison seems to be a good setting for John Ford's kind of knockabout, roughhouse comedy. Although I doubt you could ever get away with a minstrel act at the prison variety show and find two black convicts in the audience just laughing and applauding even more than the white prisoners.
Humphrey Bogart is in the film as well and he's a trustee and soon to be released. There's a woman's wing in this prison and Bogey and Claire Luce fall for each other. When Bogey gets released though another and sleazier crook played by Morgan Farley spots him in his proper New England town and threatens to tell mom about her son's prison stay. She thinks he's been in China all this time.
Word of this gets out and Tracy and Hymer crash out to help their friend.
This film would be consigned to the garbage heap of Hollywood were it not for the presence of Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart and the direction of John Ford. Ford directs them and the rest of the cast with a sure hand and the film is entertaining even after 77 years and a far more sensitive populace to racial indignity. You have to remember that in 1930 the most popular show on radio was Amos and Andy.
Some will be surprised to see Bogart cast as a young juvenile, Tracy refers to him as a kid even though Tracy was a year younger in real life. In point of fact on stage Bogart played those kind of juvenile parts so those who knew his stage work back in 1930 would not have been surprised. Still it's not the Bogey we're used to.
As for Tracy, Up the River set the pattern for his Fox career and his early films with MGM, playing lovable mugs. That's what you'll see him as for the most part in his Fox period. MGM signed him as a Wallace Beery backup. But when he played Father Tim Mullin in San Francisco it opened up whole new vistas for him as we well know.
Despite its defects Up the River is still a valuable piece of cinema history. Too bad Tracy and Bogey, good friends in real life, never got to work on a joint project when they both became big names.
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