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The other reviews posted have concentrated on Tracy and Bogart whilst ignoring the fact that this is a very early talkie from John Ford.Many of the traits which we see in his classic films of the 40s and 50s are evident in a rather primitive form here.Warren Hymer plays a role which in the later era would be played by Victor Mclaglen.Many of the antics of his characters can be seen in later films.For example the horsing around between the managers of the baseball team hitting the others players is used again by Ford in a fight scene in Fort Apache.All of the music and comedy is used many times in the future particularly in the Cavalry trilogy.So to see 3 nascent talents in one film makes it fascinating to watch regardless of the scratches and mutilation of the print.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Finally after many years this film has reappeared for evaluation by new
audiences. It's about time. It was the only film that John Ford
directed Humphrey Bogart in, and the only film that Bogie appeared with
one actor he really respected (who respected him): Spencer Tracy. Ford
would eventually make THE LAST HURRAH with Tracy, with better equipment
and production values, and (to be fair) one of the best political
screenplays in movie history. But if THE VAGABOND KING has to be taken
as symbolic of the changeover of motion pictures to sound, and how it
was not a total success at first, so is UP THE RIVER a similar
Currently it is in a package of twenty movies (surviving films) of Ford made at 20th Century Fox from the 1920s to 1952. In 1930, Ford had at least seven years of heavy movie work behind him, laying the groundwork for his magnificent westerns and regular films like THE GRAPES OF WRATH and HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY. But he was just getting used to sound, and while he was more creative than the forgettable director of THE VAGABOND KING, there are moments when you see him struggling to place his performers into position near microphones (the number of scenes of people aimlessly congregating is amazing in this film).
Positively it does show a young Tracy and a young Bogart playing off each other. Less positively Bogart is separated from Tracy for much of the film - Bogart is leaving prison on parole, when Tracy is returned, and Bogie heads back to his home in New England. But problems dealing with a blackmailer forcing Bogart to work in a swindle with him leads to Tracy promising Bogart's prison sweetheart (Claire Luce) that he will help Bogart out. So they do reunited for more scenes (including one odd one - they are on a relaxing hay ride with Bogart's friends).
Bogart is a good guy who killed a man in a fight and was sent to prison as a result. Tracy is a smart-aleck crook, who is teamed usually with occasionally smart, but frequently stupid Warren Hymer (in the beginning of the film Tracy abandons Hymer rather simply by having him check a back tire on their getaway car - one that is not damaged actually). Still Hymer does occasionally trump an amazed Tracy - at a dinner with a clergyman, Hymer's brief period as a member of the Salvation Army proves to be useful. Despite being a smart-aleck, Tracy is actually a decent type, which is why he helps Bogart with the blackmailer.
A number of others are sprinkled in the film. William Collier Sr. is the 40 year life termer at the prison who is now captain of their baseball team. Note the scene where he tries to get Tracy an extra pillow at the expense of either Hymer or Bogart to protect Tracy's arm. Robert Emmett O'Connor, soon to be driven to distraction as the immigration detective chasing the Marx Brothers in A NIGHT AT THE OPERA, is the warden here. The prison is a prison to the men, but they are not a bad bunch and do thank the warden for his efforts for them (including putting on a yearly show of their own talents). I suspect that O'Connor's character (although the prison is in the mid-west) is based somewhat on the leading American prison warden penologist of that period: Warden Lewis Lawes of Sing Sing Prison. Lawes did everything he could to try to make Sing Sing a real place for rehabilitation, and was even an early outspoken (and eloquent) critic of the death penalty. Remembered only by criminal historians and penologists today, he was a very famous man in 1930.
One problem with the film is that African-Americans will find the use of a minstrel act in the prison show is actually offensive (although Ford shows a tall African-American prisoner enjoying the humor). On the other hand, those African-American prisoners who are in there mix and mingle pretty easily with the white prisoners. Ford was ahead on that point.
Another problem is due, possibly, to deteriorating film stock. Sequences in the film jump - dialog is lost. Also a plot point - the associates of the blackmailer warn him not to try to cheat them or else. He is later followed into his office late at night by these suspicious associates. We never (now) see if they carry out their threat.
Two other people who appear are Ward Bond as a bullying prisoner, put in his place by Bogart and Tracy (Bogart would re-team with Bond eleven years later in THE MALTESE FALCON, on friendlier terms). The other is Bob Burns, the "Arkansas Traveller" musician and comedian whose career really took off in the later 1930s. Burns is part of the minstrel show, in black-face (unfortunately), but he is playing his famous "bazooka" musical instrument.
UP THE RIVER is a landmark in many aspects. It's the feature film debut for both Humphrey Bogart AND Spencer Tracy. It is the only time these two lifelong friends worked together. John Ford wanted to make a prison drama, but MGM, the bigger studio had plans for THE BIG HOUSE. John turned his prison film into a comedy, with convict Spencer Tracy breaking IN and OUT of prison at will. My video copy is off a 16mm print that was surely on it's way out. Through the scratches, breaks in the film, Bogies and Spence's screen presence explode on the screen. You know stardom is around the corner for both.
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.
The famous Director, John Ford presented a great 1930 film starring Spencer Tracy, (Saint Louis) who plays the role as a big time crook who has gone in and out of correctional facilities and he encounters Humphrey Bogart, (Steve) who is also a convict in the same prison. A pretty young blonde gal named Judy, (Claire Luce) becomes a prisoner and meets Steve and they become immediately attracted to each other and Steve has only a few weeks before he is released. There is plenty of comedy in this film and it is great to see how very young Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart appear in this film who were just starting out on their great careers on Hollywoods Silver Screen. John Ford made another film with Spencer Tracy after twenty-eight years and Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart never made another picture appearing in the same picture. There is great acting by the entire cast and do not miss this film, it is worthwhile to enjoy this great entertainment.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Humphrey Bogart in his first screen role and Spencer Tracy in one of
his earliest are about the only reasons to take in "Up The River", a
blend of prison drama and comedy that really doesn't satisfy very well.
Tracy's character is Saint Louis, a virtual celebrity inmate who's on a
handshake basis with the warden and handles his incarceration like a
country club stay. His partner, Dannemora Dan (Warren Hymer) is more of
a foil for Tracy's antics, which include breaking out of prison at
When first introduced to Bogart's character Steve Jordan, it appears that he's an officer at the prison, but in reality he's a clerk inmate. While processing a contingent of female prisoners, he's smitten by the pretty Judy (Claire Luce), and vows to wait for her on the outside once he's paroled.
The central plot involves Steve's blackmail by an unscrupulous businessman back home in New England. Steve's family believes he's been away on work in China, and the revelation will devastate his mother and sister. The solution - Saint Louis and Dannemora need to break out of prison to come to the aid of their buddy; they do so during a blackout scene following a talent show.
With things patched up for Steve, Saint Louis and Dan need to break back into the prison, because after all, the Bensonatta Penitentiary baseball team needs their talents in the big game against State's Prison. For all the buildup about the outcome of the game, the ending leaves you flat as the scene fades on Tracy and Hymer even before a pitch can be thrown.
There are some interesting scenes in "Up The River" - the warden's young daughter is allowed free access in the prison yard among the convicts, and this doesn't seem to be cause for concern with anyone. She is loosely supervised by a coterie of women's auxiliary matrons. It brought a chuckle to see the inmates passing notes by feigning their help for the chief matron, while pinning a note on the underside of her ankle length gown.
Bogart's portrayal is a bit stiff in this film as he hasn't found his own personality yet. Tracy on the other hand has already become fairly self assured and carries off his role with some fun. But as mentioned earlier, the film ultimately fails to satisfy, and is better approached as a work in progress for two superstars in training.
This is a film that can best be appreciated by old movie buffs and film
historians instead of someone watching it for its aesthetic value. If
you had seen this movie at the time it was made, you never would have
suspected that this film was the work of one of Hollywood's greatest
directors (John Ford) and featured two mega-stars (Spencer Tracy and
Humphrey Bogart). That's because all were early in their careers and
they were still years from being recognized for their talents. While
John Ford had been in Hollywood for some time, he had yet to make his
mark. 1930 marked the beginning of Tracy's Hollywood career--having
starred in three minor films earlier that year without any particular
distinction. And finally, Humphrey Bogart was in his second film--his
first where he actually got billing (having appeared many years earlier
in a film as an extra). All three were far from their later polished
selves, but it sure was fascinating seeing this film because of its
historical pedigree. And, because of their future greatness, this film
was a training ground--helping to mold them into stars and a top-notch
Now if you ignore all this, the film is a very routine film and my rating of 5 might just be a tad generous. Bogart talks too fast but is otherwise fine and Tracy just comes off as a jerk. Probably the most interesting acting performance in this little film was Warren Hymer as the dumb but likable comedy relief. As for Ford, it's obvious that this was a quickly made B-film because a few scenes should have been re-shot--actors flubbing their lines and yet it was allowed to remain in the film. The plot, is mildly fun but not especially memorable.
There are a few bizarre moments here and there in the film and most of them happen in this rather luxurious and happy prison. First, the warden's young daughter (about 7 or so) hangs out with the prisoners and doesn't seem to be watched by anyone. Fine parenting, huh? Also, men and women are housed in the same prison--with not very much separating them! Finally, the prison seems like a pretty nice place to live--with baseball games, social workers handing out treats and everyone getting along like one big happy family! No wonder Tracy and Hymer didn't mind being sent back to prison!!
The plot has been discussed in other reviews, so I'll leave it to them. I do need to point out, though, that there is a serious problem with the quality of the movie. Because it was old and mostly forgotten, the print shown on Turner Classic Movies is still absolutely horrid and probably beyond restoration because repeatedly bits and pieces of the film are simply missing. As a result, scenes are often VERY choppy and you miss a lot of the dialog. It looked as if they'd decided to just randomly chop out about 5 minutes of the film and do it in 10 or 20 second bursts! TCM almost always shows the very best available prints, so I'd assume that the DVD of this film which was just released in the John Ford Mega-set is also choppy and difficult to watch.
Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart are "Up the River" in this 1930 film
directed by John Ford and also starring Claire Luce and Warren Hymer.
The movie makes for tough going, as the print I saw kept skipping and
the sound along with it. Well, the movie is nearly 80 years old after
all. Bogart is so young-looking in this it boggles the mind. He's
actually playing the romantic lead, Steve, a young man from a good
family. While in prison for a fight (in which it's implied the other
man was killed), he meets a woman named Judy (Luce) who was involved in
a shady bond racket. She took the fall for her boss, Frosby (Morgan
Wallace). Judy and Steve fall in love, and when his parole comes up, he
says he'll wait for her. After being back with his family for awhile,
Forsby sets up his racket in town and is cheating Steve's mother. His
friends, Saint Louis (Tracy) and Dannemora Dan (Hymer) break out of
prison during a variety show and come to his rescue.
I probably liked this better than most of the people who reviewed the movie here. The ongoing problems with the baseball team ("the pitcher got paroled right before the big game") are amusing. I also liked the free-for-all atmosphere of the prison, with the warden's daughter and her dog wandering around the jail yard, friendly with all the prisoners. The warden's a lovable fellow too. I also liked the bit where notes are hidden in the hem of a charity woman's skirt on the women's side, and when she enters the men's yard, they all rush over and dust off her shoes, retrieving the letter at the same time. Finally, there's an ongoing bit based on the fact that Saint Louis deliberately drove off and left Dannemora in the lurch previously. They're now in the same prison together, Saint Louis swearing up and down that he thought the car had a rumble seat.
Besides the bad sound, the film has the usual politically incorrect blackface number. I will say that the black prisoners seemed to be on an equal footing with the whites, if that means anything.
"Up the River" is fascinating, too, for the use of microphones throughout the set and actors needing to be near them. No one really has figured out screen acting yet - Bogart speaks quickly while the woman playing his mother drags out every sentence. Tracy appears very natural, however.
Films had a long way to go. This one was made quickly by a man destined to become one of the screen's greatest directors and two actors who would become two of the greatest stars ever. Humble beginnings.
This is an OK film that would probably not be worth watching if it were
not for its place in film history - the only pairing of Humphrey Bogart
and Spencer Tracy and an early performance for the both of them. Here
the pair both play a couple of convicts. Bogart is Steve Jordan,
finishing up a sentence for manslaughter, and Tracy as Saint Louis is
just starting one at the same prison. There are several strange aspects
to this film about prison life and what comes afterwards. The first is
that Bogart is playing the naive smiling kid whose one punch landed him
in prison - you just don't run across a smiling nice-guy Bogart
committed to celluloid every day of the week . The second odd aspect is
that Tracy is playing a seasoned con, though with a bit of a heart of
copper if not gold. It's strange to see Tracy taking "the kid" Bogart
under his wing when in fact Bogart was a year older than Tracy. What
makes the film better than average is that it is a believable
performance by both actors.
The other strange aspect of this film is the depiction of prison life. The women are housed in the same prison as the men with just an iron gate separating the areas where the two groups have outdoor recreation. Bogart, who works in the prison office, gets to wear a suit and tie when he is at work there. The warden's little daughter walks around unguarded and treats the convicts all like uncles, and they reciprocate by treating her like a niece and reading her stories. The whole thing comes across like you are looking at life inside a Catholic high school with strict rules about the interaction of men and women, not a prison where you might have a few characters like Bogart's and Tracy's, but by and large most of these guys didn't get here by dropping out of Sunday school.
The worst part of the film is a rather inane musical number that gets inserted into the film at about the half-way point, with the convicts putting on a show. Ford got better at putting music into his films later on, but here it just intrudes on the plot.
I'd recommend viewing this. It's enjoyable enough, just be aware that the elements are in shaggy shape and that even the restored version by Fox has lots of skipping frames.
Wonderfully entertaining comedy drama about two prisoners (Bogart and Luce) who fall in love and what happens after Bogart is paroled. Spencer Tracy plays a flamboyant convict who comes to their aid when the two lovebirds are threatened by some very bad men. Lighthearted fun, set in a prison only Hollywood could dream up. An early John Ford talkie,this was made when and Bogart and Tracy were at the beginning of their careers. They are a blast to watch, and Luce is charming as a timid young woman who has been imprisoned on the flimsiest of charges. Some great comedic moments. A must-see for fans of two of the greatest actors of the 20th century.
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