Tuesday, October 05, 2010


(Fox Film Corporation, US 1927) D: John Ford; P: William Fox, SC: Randall H. Faye; DP: Charles G. Clarke; ass. D: Edward O’Fearna; cast: Nancy Nash (Gertie Ryan), Earle Foxe (Eric Brashingham), Grant Withers (Juan Rodriguez/John Rogers, the knife thrower), Lydia Yeamans Titus (the landlady), Emile Chautard (Campbell-Mandare), Raymond Hitchcock (the star boarder), Ted McNamara, Sammy Cohen (Callahan & Callahan), Jane Winton (soubrette), Lillian Worth, Judy King (the sister act), Harry A. Bailey (Gus Hoffman), Francis Ford (juggler), Ely Reynolds (Deerfoot); released: 30.1.1927; orig. l: 5150 ft; 35 mm, 61 min (24 fps); col. (tinted); from: Academy Film Archive, Los Angeles. Restored by Twentieth Century Fox & Academy Film Archive, 2010. Laboratory services: Park Road Post Production, Wellington, New Zealand.
Preserved from a 35 mm tinted nitrate print through a partnership of the New Zealand Film Archive/Ngā Kaitiaki O Ngā Taonga Whitiāhua, Wellington, the American archival community, and the National Film Preservation Foundation.
Viewed at Teatro Verdi, Pordenone (GCM) with e-subtitles in Italian and Donald Sosin on the grand piano, 5 Oct 2010

Leslie Anne Lewis in the GCM Catalogue: "The comedic melodrama Upstream (1927) came at a point of transition for director John Ford.
Filmed at the beginning of what would become a 13-year break from the Western genre that had defined many of his earlier works – from the 1910s Universal shorts featuring Harry Carey to Three Bad Men (1926) – and that would resurface later in his career starting with Stagecoach (1939), it is also one of the last completely silent films Ford made. Starting later that year with the then-unreleased Mother Machree (filmed in 1926, released in 1928) his films began including recorded sound effects and music – not a particularly surprising addition at the sound-pioneering Fox Studios.
Based on Wallace Smith’s short story “The Snake’s Wife” (1926), Upstream trades the dark, introspective elements of Smith’s tale of love and betrayal for the cinematically appealing spectacle of vaudeville performances, the grand setting of the London stage, and sweet romantic melodrama. The central focus is a love triangle between a knife-thrower (Grant Withers), his “target girl” Gertie (Nancy Nash), and the egotistical Brashingham (Earle Foxe), a hammy Shakespearean actor; a variety of vignettes depicting the hectic atmosphere in their vaudeville boarding-house flesh out the storyline. With the action confined mainly to the boarding-house’s narrow rooms, Ford’s skill at effectively defining and depicting characters finds space to flourish, featuring among others a pair of dancers, a squabbling sister-act, a longsuffering landlady, and a juggler (played by Ford’s brother Francis, himself a former vaudevillian).
While his next film, Four Sons (1928), was heavily influenced by his recently-signed Fox compatriot F.W. Murnau (even utilizing some of the same sets as Murnau’s 1927 film Sunrise), Upstream is markedly different. For the most part it’s cinematically conventional and in plot and style more romantic comedy than intellectual exercise. Though the story is pure Hollywood, throughout the picture there are hints of the Expressionistic styling that would become a defining feature of Ford’s work. The striking framing of the vain Brashingham in both the dusty living room mirror and the light-ringed mirror of his London dressing room, the eyecatching glint of light reflecting off the knife-thrower’s blades, the separation between the boarding-house residents and the departing actor emphasized by spacing and depth of field – all hold glimmers of Ford’s developing artistry, which would soon begin to crystallize under Murnau’s influence.
Ford’s legendary idiosyncratic and economical working style was in full-force while shooting this picture. In recalling the production (his first with Ford), acclaimed cinematographer Charles G. Clarke was taken aback by the director’s methods: “I could see no relationship between the different scenes we would be filming and often wondered when we would settle down and start making the picture. After about three weeks of this sort of casual filmmaking, the unit manager announced, ‘The picture is finished’…The shock of this floored me for I could see no rhyme or reason in what we had been filming…To my amazement it all went together and was quite a good picture. What I did not realize then was that John Ford edited his picture as he directed it, and that his casual manner was only a cover for the actual planning and thought that lay behind his direction all along.” (Charles G. Clarke and Anthony Slide, Highlights and Shadows: The Memoirs of a Hollywood Cameraman, 1989, p.77)
And it is “quite a good picture” – the narrative is well-constructed and the shots cleverly devised, the characters are memorable, and the story quite charming – all in all a remarkable find that will satisfy not only film scholars, but fans of silent cinema and John Ford alike. – LESLIE ANNE LEWIS."

This beautiful print from the newly restored film looked better than many other surviving John Ford silents that were shown this year in Bologna. Most of John Ford's silent films are missing, but discoveries keep taking place. Upstream is a surprise, an entertaining satire about actors and their vanity. Earle Foxe portrays the actor who experiences great success in the theatre ("they didn't come to see Hamlet, they came to see me"). Nancy Nash is the attractive leading lady who marries another, less pretentious guy. I would never have guessed John Ford to be the director of this film, but it is yet another proof of his versatility. He saw himself as a journeyman director, proud to direct assignments as diverse as possible.

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