Director: John Ford
By Marilyn Ferdinand
It has been a few months shy of two years since I first learned about the cache of American films from the silent era found in the New Zealand Archive, and almost as long since I learned that a long-lost film by John Ford called Upstream was among them. Preparing for the first For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon, I was let in on the secret by the organization for which we chose to raise money, the National Film Preservation Foundation (NFPF). A lot has happened since those first organizing discussions: we’ve held another blogathon, one of the films whose restoration we funded (The Sergeant, 1912) is soon to be released on DVD by NFPF as part of a collection of Westerns, and Upstream made its repremiere in Los Angeles last September. The film has only shown in a handful of venues since then, none of them near Chicago.
That changed two weeks ago. A friend of mine told me Upstream was to screen at the University of Wisconsin Cinematheque in Madison in a few days’ time. How had this amazing information escaped my notice?! I was so excited I could barely contain myself. At last, a chance to see what I’ve known about and worked for for so long. And what a show it was! The UW Cinematheque is a wonderful venue for free screenings of a wide range of films during the school year. Jim Healy, the new director of programming, came to UW after 10 years at George Eastman House, so not only are his taste and pedigree impeccable, but he also has a direct line to film sources throughout the world. Upstream was to have played at Northwestern University’s Block Cinema during their “Illuminating the Shadows: Film Criticism in Focus” symposium (which brought my blogathon partner Farran Smith Nehme to town to sit on two panels), but an equipment problem caused the detour to the Cinematheque. Thus, with apologies to Farran for leaving her and the symposium behind, the hubby and I set off for our favorite neighboring state.
The evening Healy had planned was a tribute to the Fords, Francis and John, beginning with a screening of a short film, When Lincoln Paid (1913), directed by Francis (that’s him as Lincoln, too). The nitrate film had been found moldering in a New Hampshire barn and was taken on by Eastman House for restoration; Healy informed us that after the discovery, additional scenes were found elsewhere, so restoration of the title is ongoing. I look forward to seeing the film in its nearly complete form when the “new” scenes are edited in—it’s an extraordinarily gripping story of how Abraham Lincoln pays an I.O.U. to the owner of a boarding house years later, after he becomes president and is conducting the War between the States that caused the unfortunate woman to lose her son, a Union soldier, to a Confederate firing squad. (This film and brother John’s were both given brilliant piano accompaniment by David Drazin, a musician who has quite spoiled silent film lovers in Chicago with his witty, appropriate soundtracks improvised right on the spot.)
John Ford’s recovered film is a much different sort of film—a show biz story brimming with comedy and a lighthearted love triangle. Most of the action takes place in a boarding house for vaudeville performers run by Miss Hattie Breckenridge Peyton (Lydia Yeamans Titus), a former vaudevillian whose several posted signs let “resting” performers know that they must pay in advance. Raymond Hitchcock, in one of his last film performances before his death in 1929, plays the big star staying at Hattie’s with a wonderful shabby gentility. Hitchcock, a true star of the theatre whom audiences of the time were so sure to know that he wasn’t even given a character’s name, uses his reputation and liberal amounts of flattery to get Miss Hattie to overlook his outstanding debt to her. A knife-throwing act made up of the knife tosser Jack La Velle (Grant Withers), his target, Gertie Ryan (Nancy Nash), and their assistant, Eric Brashingham (Earle Foxe), aren’t booked up either. Worse for Jack, Gertie is carrying on a flirtation with Brashingham, the last in the line of an acting dynasty, and like the last in line for anything, he was shortchanged in the talent department.
All of the boarders, even Miss Hattie, hope for a big break when Gus Hoffman (Harry A. Bailey), a booking agent, shows up during their communal dinner. Everyone runs to greet him except Brashingham, who is far too busy slaking his appetite to bother; naturally, Hoffman is there to see him. The Brits want a Brashingham to play in a new production of Hamlet, and talent is no object. Dramatic actor Campbell Mandare (Emile Chautard), who reveres Shakespeare, offers to coach Brashingham. The pair stays up all night rehearsing, and Brashingham makes a breakthrough. He sets sail for London, makes an enormous triumph, and grows a head the size of the Titanic. He returns to New York and visits the boarding house as a publicity stunt on the day Gertie and Jack are married. Will Gertie, who carried a torch for the ham for some time, regret her marriage? Will Jack throw a knife at his former colleague’s fat head to deflate it? Will Brashingham be able to fit his head through the front door at all? It’s for the viewer to see and enjoy.
The performances in the film are uniformly wonderful. Chautard does Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” scene that, regardless of the lack of sound, is magnetic and full of feeling. We see the difference between his rendition and Brashingham’s over-the-top recitation not only in the lack of obvious gesticulation, but also through lighting that offers a dramatic counterpoint to Chautard’s emotive face. The comedy dance team of Callahan and Callahan is wonderful as an odd-couple pairing. Ted McNamara’s face is the map of Ireland, while Sammy Cohen’s is kosher for Passover. They couldn’t be brothers if they tried, but their differences land them a print ad for cosmetic surgery, with Cohen offering a side view of his angular proboscis in the “before” picture, and McNamara showing a diminutive nose in the “after” photo. The partners also dance quite well, and offer an early comic scene as their rehearsal in their room above the dining room sends plaques of thin, loose plaster crashing down from the boards that form both their floor and the diners’ ceiling.
I thought Earle Foxe was a little overstated during his snob phase, though the groundwork was laid very nicely by his half-hearted romancing of Gertie that was more mercenary than marriage-minded. His humanity comes out best when all of his lines go out of his head just before curtain in London, and he’s in a very believable panic. Ford offers a ghostly image of Mandare appearing in a dramatic special effect to bolster Brashingham’s courage. Nancy Nash looked adorable, (I covet her three-piece suit), and Grant Withers didn’t overdo the jealousy. I really felt for him when Brashingham crashed his wedding, sending Gertie into hiding upstairs.
I’ve seen a number of film critics tying themselves into knots trying to “auteurize” Upstream. The truth is that Upstream is a wonderful comedy that wouldn’t be recognized as a John Ford film if you didn’t know he directed it. But it does reveal that he was always great at directing ensembles that could accommodate stars without selling them the deed to the farm and that comedy was in his blood. I could never understand the strange mixed tone of his film Pilgrimage (1933), a rather serious World War I film that unaccountably goes slapstick in its middle act. Now I think I get it.