erik lundegaard


Thursday June 15, 2023

Movie Review: Up the River (1930)


Considering its historic importance—the first feature film for both Humphrey Bogart and Spencer Tracy, not to mention directed by John Ford and based on a story by Maurine Dallas Watkins, who wrote “Chicago”— treats “Up the River” rather shabbily. The version I streamed for $3.98 was not only blurry but chopped up. It kept skipping bits of dialogue. Nips here, tucks there. The movie is suppose to run 92 minutes but the version I streamed was 84, so I lost eight minutes. Two to five seconds at a time.

It's another 1930 prison movie—there were a lot of those—but this one’s a comedy-romance. Saint Louis is a gangster, while Steve Jordan is a nice-guy inmate who falls for a female prisoner. Guess who plays who? Right. Tracy is the gangster, Bogie the romantic interest. They didn’t know who these guys were yet.

G-rated Shawshank
The third lead is Warren Hymer as Dannemora Dan, a malaprop-laden foil for Saint Louis. The movie begins with them breaking out of a prison in the South, but when Dan implies he’s going straight and starting a chicken farm, Louis leaves him high and dry. So long, sucker!

They next meet when Dan is a member of the Brotherhood of Hope, a Salvation Army type group, and he’s in the midst of telling how he came to be saved when Louis pulls up in a big car with two dames and a shit-eating grin. “And verily,” Dan intones, “I say to you, the wages of sin is—a punch in the jaw, you louse!”

Cut to: Bensonatta, “A penitentiary in the Middle West,” a title card tells us, where the cons jeer the newcomers like in a G-rated “Shawshank Redemption”:

  • “Oh, look at the mug on that guy.”
  • “Look at that pan!”
  • “What did you do, boy, rob your mama’s bank?”

Claire Luce plays Judy Fields, the romantic interest, and she’s willowy and lovely to look at but conveys little. She also doesn’t seem like much a con—hardened or otherwise. When she’s released and Louis asks about her plans, she says brightly, “I’ll go back to the old racket, I suppose,” and you believe exactly zero of it.

She’s also not that Claire Luce. For some reason, I thought Clare (no “i”) Booth was an actress before marrying Henry Luce, but she was socialite and playwright (“The Women”), and then went on to become a U.S. rep (CT-4th), ambassador to Italy (under Ike), and, with hubby, strong, stupid supporter of Chiang Kai-shek. Claire with an “i” had a short career in Hollywood and a fairly long one on Broadway. Among her stage roles: Curley’s wife in “Of Mice and Men” (1937-38) and Katharina in “The Taming of the Shrew” (1951).

The plot here isn’t much and isn’t the point. Steve is paroled and promises to wait for Judy, and Louis and Dan break out of prison and wind up helping Steve. Seems the reason Judy wound up in the can was a con artist named Frosby (Morgan Wallace), who shows up in Steve’s New England town and blackmails him into staying mum about a stock investment scheme. But when Frosby scams Steve’s mom, Steve grabs a gun. Saint Louis grabs it back. “It’s a sucker’s game,” he says, and talks about friends on death row who were there one day and not the next. Instead, they just steal the bonds back from Thursby. I mean, Frosby. Sorry. Every time Bogie said “Frosby” here, I couldn’t help but think of Bogie saying “Thursby” in “The Maltese Falcon.” 

Steve gives the two men a message for Judy but Dan loses it on the train back. They show up worse for wear just as Judy is being released, and just in time for the big baseball game run by Pop (William Collier Sr.). The movie ends with them taking their positions as battery mates as the newly energized prisoners sing the title song:

Rolling home like a beautiful song
Rolling home up the river
Where you belong

Oddities and not-oddities
If the plot isn’t the point, what is? Personality. It’s poor, dumb Dan forever losing out to the charismatic Saint Louis. Tracy’s character has a catchphrase, “I never break my word,” which he constantly does. That’s the gag.

Louis: Tell you what, I’ll give you my word. And you know I never break my word.
Warden: No?
Louis: Well, never twice in succession.

Future Ford mainstay Ward Bond also shows up as prison bully with undertones of sexual violence. “What are you gonna do—make a favorite of that punk around here?” Bond growls at Bogie. “Say, who are you to tell me to keep my hands off anybody?” he growls again before getting decked by Louis. You get a sense Ford knows what happens in prisons.

There’s oddities. The warden’s daughter Jean (Joan Lawes), who’s about 8 or 10 years old, is always hanging in the prison yard. Sure, what could go wrong? The oddest moment may be in Steve’s New England town, when twin sisters May and June (Elizabeth and Helen Keating) burst in to dinner with news of a hayride. They’re dressed alike and they speak in unison? It’s like “The Shining” but played for laughs.

We also get some not-oddities for the period: society matrons sticking their noses in; Judy calling Frosby a “dirty rat”; blackface. The big crowd-pleaser at a prison talent show is a minstrel routine, “Black ‘n’ Blue,” with Amos ‘n’ Andy-type dialogue. A Black con in the audience roars with laughter. “See?” Ford seems to be saying. “They like it, too.”

I do like Hymer, who played not-smart throughout the 1930s, then ruined his career with a not-smart move: urinating on the desk of movie mogul Harry Cohn. Here, at that New England dinner, Dan is sitting next to Bogie’s sister, but when the twins arrive seats are shuffled and he loses his spot to—of course—Louis. Now he has nowhere to sit. After pouting a bit, and with nowhere to go, he simply slips behind a dressing screen in the corner and sits on a stool there, hoping to not be noticed. It felt like me at half the parties I was at in my teens.

Posted at 03:45 PM on Thursday June 15, 2023 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s