All the World’s a Stage: John Ford’s Upstream (1927)

“If life in general is a play, then a theatrical boarding house is a burlesque show.” -the epigraph to Upstream

This past Sunday, the Museum of the Moving Image presented a screening of John Ford’s Upstream in NYC for the first time since the film’s debut over 80 years ago. Long thought lost, a nitrate print was discovered in the New Zealand Film Archive in early 2009, part of a cache of 75 titles now being preserved by the National Film Preservation Foundation, in partnership with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the George Eastman House, the Library of Congress, the Museum of Modern Art and the UCLA Film and Television Archive. The restoration work on Upstream was performed by Park Road Post Production in Wellington, New Zealand, under the direction of Twentieth Century Fox and the Academy Film Archive. The U.S. re-premiere occurred last September 1st at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills, and has been slowly touring the country since.

Upstream is an effortlessly delightful comedy set at a rooming house for struggling show people. It’s as if Ford populated an entire film with Alan Mowbray’s Shakespearean hams from My Darling Clementine and Wagon Master. The main blowhards are Eric Brasingham (Earle Foxe), described as “the last and least of a theatrical family” (the beginning of the John Barrymore gibes), and the Castilian knife-thrower Juan Rodriguez (Grant Withers), although the inter-titles wryly note he was born in the midwest as Jack. These two-bit entertainers stumblingly woo Gertie (Nancy Nash) to be their partners in acts and in the bedroom. Ford fills in the edges of this triangle with even more colorful types: the “star boarder” played by Raymond Hitchcock as a flirtatious monocled dandy; the aging, earnest dramatist Campbell Mandare (Emile Chautard); the permanently tipsy tap-dancing duo Callahan and Callahan; and the pushover landlady/fading Southern Belle Miss Hattie Breckenbridge Peyton (Lydia Yeamans Titus).

This setup, adapted by Randall Faye from Wallace Smith’s story, “The Snake’s Wife” (the full story is available at Google Books, at the link),  indulges John Ford’s obsession with staging the chaotic joy of communal rites (his wondrous dances, parades and church-raisings). The film opens on a raucous lunch at the boarding house, as each member is stirred from their dingy apartment rehearsals by the bell. In its fevered bits of business and subtle revelation of character, it reminded me most of the dinner scene in The Searchers, after Ethan first returns home.

Through some snappy parallel editing Ford introduces all the main players and offers a thumbnail sketch of their personalities. In the first sequence Brasingham is shown cheek to cheek with Gertie in front of a chintzy tropical backdrop, in his favored nose-up profile attempting to convey the throes of romantic love. Then a knife flies in off-screen, flipping right in-between the actors. Ford pulls the camera back slightly, revealing the flophouse room beyond the backdrop, as well as Jack brandishing his tools. Here we get Brasingham’s empty pretension, Gertie’s doe-eyed infatuation with him, and Jack’s mulish aggression. This one shot encapsulates all the action to come.

Ford continues by cutting back and forth between the tenants in their rooms, the bellboy walking down the hallway  in a backward tracking shot, and then the guests sitting down at the dining room table. Mandare is shown disregarding his rent notice, but immediately latches on to a skull-shaped match holder to recite Hamlet. A medicine show huckster is shown brewing his swill (the same gig as the Mowbray character from Wagon Master), a mother-daughter “sister act” clomps out a high-kick routine, the “Soubrette” flaps her eyelids down the staircase, and the Callahans tap the ceiling plaster onto the dining room table. During the meal, the “star boarder” slides all the way down his chair in a vain attempt to play footsie with the Soubrette, as Ford cuts to an under-the-table angle of softshoe misdirection. This madness comes to a close when a theatrical manager comes to the door, stunning the loudmouths into a panicked titter. Ford then pans across their elastic faces in a long take across the table, marking the end of this extraordinary sequence.

This opening indicates a mastery of late silent Hollywood style, with the swift parallel editing of Griffith married to more exploratory camera movements. It was initially supposed that Upstream would reflect the influence of F.W. Murnau, who had wowed the Fox technicians during the filming of Sunrise, and whose expressionist style became evident in the chiaroscuro of Ford’s Four Sons of 1928. Ford had also visited Murnau in Germany after the completion of Sunrise, returning to the States in April 1927, according to Tag Gallagher.  Gallagher and Bill Levy both list Upstream’s release date as January 30th, 1927, which would put its production dates before the production of Sunrise, released later in ’27, and before his trip to Germany. Doug Cummings comes to a similar conclusion at his blog Film Journey.

In any case, the evidence is on-screen, with naturalistic photography throughout. There is no effort to emotionalize the space, aside from a few trick shots of superimposition that act to speed the story along rather than as poetic gestures. One example occurs after the theatrical manager hired Brasingham to play Hamlet in London:”it doesn’t matter that you’re a terrible actor, we just want the name.” Upon hearing the word “Hamlet”, he blocks out the rest, simply staring at himself in the dusty mirror behind the manager, his self-actualization as an insufferable narcissist, rather than as just a pitiable one. It is during the queasy moments before his premiere that Ford employs a visual trick that Cummings compares to the final scene of Nosferatu. As Brasingham tries to remember the lessons that Mandare taught him, a spectre of the latter emerges in a superimposition, a ghostly reminder that makes both a flashback or an inter-title unnecessary. This presence expresses Brasingham’s inner turmoil quite succinctly on its own, a conjuring of past education and emotion.

This ghostly image though, rhymes with one in the final scene, when Brasingham, now an international sensation, returns to the boarding house for a publicity stunt. But the day he arrives Jack is finally marrying Gertie (“How would you like to throw plates at me for the rest of your life?”) in another great communal scene, and Brasingham assumes the cameras are for him. A group photo is being taken, one in which the preening “Star” and Mandare both inch toward the center, blocking the bride and groom. When the flash goes off, and the smoke fills the room, Ford uses another dissolve to Brasingham’s silhouette etched into the smoke, his face coming into focus as it dissipates. This time Brasingham is the ghostly figure, a foolish specter disappearing into his own image.

From the few films I’ve seen from this period in his career, it ranks right with Three Bad Men (1926) as one of my favorites, and it’s truly a cause for celebration that it’s been found and restored.

The screening I attended also included a fragment from the trailer to the Strong Boy (1929), which was also restored, although the rest of this Ford film is lost. It starred Victor McGlaglen as a hot-headed train valet, aka “baggage smasher”. The fragment contained some dangerous looking fight scenes and the kind of knockabout comedy Ford would insert in everything he made.

29 Responses All the World’s a Stage: John Ford’s Upstream (1927)
Posted By Wendy T. Merckel : February 1, 2011 2:38 pm

Thanks, Moira, for this wonderful,informative article on Upstream.

I so appreciate your taking the time to write about your experiences seeing it, since this is the only hope for Ford fans like me who live in the sticks to find out about the film.

What a coup it would be for TCM to air this long lost movie!

Posted By Wendy T. Merckel : February 1, 2011 2:38 pm

Thanks, Moira, for this wonderful,informative article on Upstream.

I so appreciate your taking the time to write about your experiences seeing it, since this is the only hope for Ford fans like me who live in the sticks to find out about the film.

What a coup it would be for TCM to air this long lost movie!

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Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : February 1, 2011 3:05 pm

Wendy – Moira always deserves praise, but I was the one to write this up. So thanks! Considering 20th Century Fox’s investment in preserving the film, I would imagine it will make it to TCM at some point, if not DVD as well.

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : February 1, 2011 3:05 pm

Wendy – Moira always deserves praise, but I was the one to write this up. So thanks! Considering 20th Century Fox’s investment in preserving the film, I would imagine it will make it to TCM at some point, if not DVD as well.

Posted By Wendy T. Merckel : February 1, 2011 3:19 pm

Oh , my. I’m terribly sorry! Well, thanks to you then for helping those of us who may likely never get to see any of the tour…. I certainly do appreciate it.

Posted By Wendy T. Merckel : February 1, 2011 3:19 pm

Oh , my. I’m terribly sorry! Well, thanks to you then for helping those of us who may likely never get to see any of the tour…. I certainly do appreciate it.

Posted By JeffH : February 1, 2011 3:25 pm

I was so lucky to attend the screening in Los Angeles last fall, and the film is truly delightful. At first glance you might not find it a Ford story, but his treatment of the story and the way he makes the characters into more than types is just another of his master strokes. My favorite Ford silent is FOUR SONS, which also has Earle Foxe in it, and he is totally unrecognizable from the character he plays in UPSTREAM, if not in temprement at least in looks. Supposedly Fox is planning a home video release of the film once it has toured the country-I hope so.

Now if we could just find NAPOLEON’S BARBER with the soundtrack…

Posted By JeffH : February 1, 2011 3:25 pm

I was so lucky to attend the screening in Los Angeles last fall, and the film is truly delightful. At first glance you might not find it a Ford story, but his treatment of the story and the way he makes the characters into more than types is just another of his master strokes. My favorite Ford silent is FOUR SONS, which also has Earle Foxe in it, and he is totally unrecognizable from the character he plays in UPSTREAM, if not in temprement at least in looks. Supposedly Fox is planning a home video release of the film once it has toured the country-I hope so.

Now if we could just find NAPOLEON’S BARBER with the soundtrack…

Posted By moirafinnie : February 1, 2011 6:10 pm

After seeing this movie on Saturday at the George Eastman House in Rochester I was going to post about Upstream on Wednesday too, Rob, but I think that you’ve done a great job encapsulating this delightful movie’s verdant appeal.

The only thing I’d add are a few observations about Ford’s themes that seem to be in this movie and would be elaborated on throughout the director’s long career. I thought that Ford, as he did so often in his films, (The Lost Patrol, The Long Voyage Home,She Wore a Yellow Ribbon) focused his story on a disparate group forming a kind of ad hoc family from the boarding house residents, who jostled with one another but were all each other had as well. Ford also included small rituals (the group of boarders lined up to say goodbye to the obtuse Brasingham character,the wedding party) that would not have been out of place in later movies such as My Darling Clementine. He also acknowledged the mythmaking inherent in worldly pursuits, which were often in marked contrast to private emotions and the worthiness of the mythic figure, as seen in the portrait of the actor (and became so poignant and pointed in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance).

I was also impressed with the affection that Ford displayed for the older actor,(played by Emile Chautard) who kept reminding me of the thespian played by Alan Mowbray in Wagon Master and My Darling Clementine.

Most of all, I was delighted to see a John Ford movie that made people laugh out loud over 80 years after it was made. I really hope that this movie might find its way to the TCM Film Festival and eventually be screened on TCM itself, since I could not imagine a more appreciative audience for this movie.

Posted By moirafinnie : February 1, 2011 6:10 pm

After seeing this movie on Saturday at the George Eastman House in Rochester I was going to post about Upstream on Wednesday too, Rob, but I think that you’ve done a great job encapsulating this delightful movie’s verdant appeal.

The only thing I’d add are a few observations about Ford’s themes that seem to be in this movie and would be elaborated on throughout the director’s long career. I thought that Ford, as he did so often in his films, (The Lost Patrol, The Long Voyage Home,She Wore a Yellow Ribbon) focused his story on a disparate group forming a kind of ad hoc family from the boarding house residents, who jostled with one another but were all each other had as well. Ford also included small rituals (the group of boarders lined up to say goodbye to the obtuse Brasingham character,the wedding party) that would not have been out of place in later movies such as My Darling Clementine. He also acknowledged the mythmaking inherent in worldly pursuits, which were often in marked contrast to private emotions and the worthiness of the mythic figure, as seen in the portrait of the actor (and became so poignant and pointed in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance).

I was also impressed with the affection that Ford displayed for the older actor,(played by Emile Chautard) who kept reminding me of the thespian played by Alan Mowbray in Wagon Master and My Darling Clementine.

Most of all, I was delighted to see a John Ford movie that made people laugh out loud over 80 years after it was made. I really hope that this movie might find its way to the TCM Film Festival and eventually be screened on TCM itself, since I could not imagine a more appreciative audience for this movie.

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : February 1, 2011 6:50 pm

I didn’t mean to scoop you Moira! But I don’t think anyone would object to further analysis of the movie if you want to do a double-post. The more written about this movie, the better.

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : February 1, 2011 6:50 pm

I didn’t mean to scoop you Moira! But I don’t think anyone would object to further analysis of the movie if you want to do a double-post. The more written about this movie, the better.

Posted By April : February 1, 2011 7:33 pm

Wonderful article and your scene descriptions made the movie come alive. I am so impatient to see this movie. I live in New York but was unable to attend this screening. Wish it had been in the City, but a TCM broadcast or DVD by Fox would be the next best thing.

Posted By April : February 1, 2011 7:33 pm

Wonderful article and your scene descriptions made the movie come alive. I am so impatient to see this movie. I live in New York but was unable to attend this screening. Wish it had been in the City, but a TCM broadcast or DVD by Fox would be the next best thing.

Posted By suzidoll : February 1, 2011 8:16 pm

I am going to e-mail this to my fellow film historians who are major Ford fans and scholars. Thanks for writing about this film. I wish it would play Chicago.

Posted By suzidoll : February 1, 2011 8:16 pm

I am going to e-mail this to my fellow film historians who are major Ford fans and scholars. Thanks for writing about this film. I wish it would play Chicago.

Posted By michaelgloversmith : February 1, 2011 8:34 pm

I’ve been following this story ever since the film was discovered in New Zealand in ’09. Thank you so much for the detailed review and the stills. Comparing it to 3 Bad Men is high praise indeed.

Here’s hoping it plays Chicago AND receives a home video release (preferably on bluray).

Posted By michaelgloversmith : February 1, 2011 8:34 pm

I’ve been following this story ever since the film was discovered in New Zealand in ’09. Thank you so much for the detailed review and the stills. Comparing it to 3 Bad Men is high praise indeed.

Here’s hoping it plays Chicago AND receives a home video release (preferably on bluray).

Posted By dukeroberts : February 2, 2011 1:53 am

Is there a way we can find out the tour schedule? Of course, I couldn’t hope that it would come to Jacksonville, Florida, but who knows? We did host a Super Bowl once.

Posted By dukeroberts : February 2, 2011 1:53 am

Is there a way we can find out the tour schedule? Of course, I couldn’t hope that it would come to Jacksonville, Florida, but who knows? We did host a Super Bowl once.

Posted By moirafinnie : February 2, 2011 9:57 am

You didn’t “scoop” me, Rob!! The more people who see this movie the better and you did a great job analyzing and reporting on this enjoyable–and different–John Ford discovery. I’ve been trying to find out more about possible future showings of Upstream around the country and will post here when I have more to share.

Posted By moirafinnie : February 2, 2011 9:57 am

You didn’t “scoop” me, Rob!! The more people who see this movie the better and you did a great job analyzing and reporting on this enjoyable–and different–John Ford discovery. I’ve been trying to find out more about possible future showings of Upstream around the country and will post here when I have more to share.

Posted By TCM's Classic Movie Blog : February 4, 2011 12:00 am

[...] fellow Morlock, R. Emmet Sweeney has written an excellent appreciation of the restoration of the long-lost John Ford film Upstream (1927)  that was recently screened at [...]

Posted By TCM's Classic Movie Blog : February 4, 2011 12:00 am

[...] fellow Morlock, R. Emmet Sweeney has written an excellent appreciation of the restoration of the long-lost John Ford film Upstream (1927)  that was recently screened at [...]

Posted By Sales on Film : February 4, 2011 9:00 am

Nice write-up! I was able to see this last fall in Los Angeles and also noted Ford’s economical use of camera movement, especially in the first scene with the love triangle and the long scene of the troupe at dinner. I’m glad Upstream is going on tour and hope for a TCM premiere in the near future (followed by a lavish DVD release, of course).

Here’s the article on the film I posted last September, if anyone is interested in more plot details: http://salesonfilm.blogspot.com/2010/09/unearthing-lost-cinema-treasure-john.html

Posted By Sales on Film : February 4, 2011 9:00 am

Nice write-up! I was able to see this last fall in Los Angeles and also noted Ford’s economical use of camera movement, especially in the first scene with the love triangle and the long scene of the troupe at dinner. I’m glad Upstream is going on tour and hope for a TCM premiere in the near future (followed by a lavish DVD release, of course).

Here’s the article on the film I posted last September, if anyone is interested in more plot details: http://salesonfilm.blogspot.com/2010/09/unearthing-lost-cinema-treasure-john.html

Posted By moviemorlocks.com – Lost and Found: American Treasures From the New Zealand Film Archive : September 25, 2013 6:48 pm

[...] “If life in general is a play, then a theatrical boarding house is a burlesque show.” I already wrote about Upstream and The White Shadow (1924) in this space before, though, so today I’ll be focusing on the [...]

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