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Edward G. Robinson,
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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 <firstname.lastname@example.org>
"There ain't a sinner among you what I can't call brother"
At the beginning of the talkie era cinema faced a dilemma. No, I'm not referring to the problems of noisy cameras or mikes hidden inside props. I mean that we had to decide whether cinema was going to become a largely verbal medium like the theatre, or whether it was to continue being a visual storytelling form in which sound was simply an extra tool. Of course the answer was a bit of both, although it took a while for that to be discovered, and many of the pictures of this era seem a little awkward because they are too much of one or the other. Up the River is an example of an early talkie which does strike that happy medium, and in fact shows how sound complements and even improves the method of its director, John Ford.
But before we get onto the technical details, let's take a glance at the social context of this picture. As much as it was a product of the new sound technology, cinema in the early 30s was a product of the depression. This era was surely the apex of sympathetic criminal. This is the cusp of the bootlegging era when criminals became heroes to many as providers of alcohol, and the depression when everyone was a bit more desperate, and crime became an increasingly valid option. So it's no surprise then that the period that gave us gangland dramas like Little Caesar and The Public Enemy also gave us "loveable rogue" comedies like this. Up the River is certainly a fine prison comedy, with all the relevant clichés you could wish for the clued-up professional inmate who even has the respect of the guards, the honest kid who killed a man in a fight, and of course not a genuine thug in sight. It should also come as no surprise that the screenplay is by Maurine Dallas Watkins, who also wrote "Chicago", the play upon which the Oscar-winning musical was based.
But anyway, back to Ford and sound. One of the problems with Ford's silent pictures was his tendency to slow the narrative down with improvised comedy business, which weren't always funny and tended to unbalance the story. He still does the same thing here, but the comedy works better with sound. Normally if you get a group of people to improvise something funny, it tends to be verbal and character-based not many people will tend towards slapstick or sight gags. But if you can have dialogue without title cards, the humour works a lot better, and also mixes better with the action - you don't get that story-on-hold feel you did with the comic diversions in Ford silents.
And sound also allows what was to become one of the most important (albeit overlooked) aspects of Ford's pictures the singsong scene. Ford's characteristic use of music seems to have arisen partly out of the circumstances of the era. Now that pictures were no longer required to have a continuous backing score, many of these very early talkies actually did away with any kind of music other than diagetic (that is, originating in the film's world, for example from a radio or marching band), as is the case with Up the River. Although this would of course change over the next few years, Ford would continue to give prominence to diagetic music, and was especially against incidental music overlapping with dialogue. This is evidenced in the later pictures which Ford produced himself, or if you want a more direct comparison, get a DVD of My Darling Clementine with both Ford's pre-release cut and the theatrical version.
But it isn't just where the music comes from in Ford's sound pictures, it's what goes on with while it plays. In virtually every Ford sound picture (especially the dozen or so scripted by Dudley Nichols, who seems to have been on a similar wavelength) the emotional heart of the film is during a piece of diagetic music, usually a community singsong of some kind, which forms the backdrop for a bit of wordless imagery. And this aspect of Ford's cinema appears fully developed in Up the River, which contains several musical set-pieces which are irrelevant to the plot yet add a layer of poignancy that would otherwise be missing. The way Ford scans across the faces of the inmates during the "Mother" number would be echoed time and again in his later pictures.
Of course Up the River is also significant for its cast, containing both Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart before anyone had really heard of them. It's ironic that Bogart is theoretically the romantic lead although the way the story is balanced he is effectively a supporting player, given that he would spend most of the thirties in supporting roles whereas Tracy would soon emerge as a lead man. They act superbly in spite of their inexperience. The key scene for both is when Bogart has just found out his mother has been conned, and Tracy talks him out of doing anything about it. In a long continuous take, Warren Hymer (who is a purely comic character) is gently eased out of the frame, allowing the two future stars to just get on with it and both give powerful performances.
In conclusion, this picture goes to show that not everyone took "two steps back" when the talkies arrived. Ford was not afraid of the coming of sound, but neither did he let is detract from the visual element of his pictures. Up the River is an unheralded triumph of the early sound era, and an underrated gem of Ford's career.
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