Sunday, January 30, 2011

Upstream (1927)

Recently discovered after being lost for more than 80 years, Upstream is a delightful light comedy that is distinctly Fordian. His theme of the family manifests itself neatly in the form of the family unit provided by a theatrical troupe, staying in a New York boarding house.

Earle Foxe stars as Eric Brashingham, “the last – and least” of a long-line of an acting family. He is in love with Gertie Ryan (Nancy Nash), but has a rival in actor Jack LaVelle (Grant Withers). Brashingham is called on to star in a London production of “Hamlet” – the producers don’t care that he’s a rotten actor, they just want the Brashingham name attached to the show. An old actor boarding with the troupe (movingly played by Emile Chautard) coaches Brashingham for the big performance. Surprisingly, Brashingham is a huge hit, and becomes the sensation of the theatrical world. However, he quickly finds that his behavior has alienated him from his long-time friends and colleagues.

The film is filled with customary Ford humor. A real highlight is the vaudeville comedy team “Callahan and Callahan” (Ted McNamara and Sammy Cohen) who provide many of the film’s best moments. And that grand old comedian, Raymond Hitchcock, has a wonderful supporting part. He’s a perfect fit for Ford’s stock company, and it’s a pity he died just two years after this film was made.

There had been much talk that this film demonstrated the Murnau influence on Ford’s visual style, but there doesn’t seem to be much in the film to support that idea. Murnau’s style did seem to influence Ford’s approach to filming Four Sons the following year, but Upstream seems to be fairly conventional by the standards of 1927, even though it was shot by Charles G. Clarke, who would also photograph Four Sons.

The film seems to be in keeping with other light comic work that Ford was doing in the late 20s, such as Riley the Cop (1928). It’s an interesting reminder of the wide variety of genres he was working in before becoming more established with Western and war films later on in his career. Comedy, of course, would remain an important part of Ford’s style throughout his career. Here, he demonstrates a light directorial touch that would serve him well again with the fun (and undeservedly underrated) comedy, The Whole Town’s Talking (1935), with Edward G. Robinson.

Following its rediscovery in New Zealand in 2010, Upstream had its re-premiere in Los Angeles. The film was screened at the newly-renovated Riklis Theater at the Museum of the Moving Image (in Astoria, Queens). The new music score was composed by Donald Sosin, and was performed by Sosin on piano along with violinist Susan Heerema, clarinetist David Tasgal, and drummer Ken Lauber. Joanna Seaton wrote lyrics for a new title song to the film, and performed vocals for a couple of other numbers used in the accompaniment (including “Give My Regards to Broadway”, “Oh You Beautiful Doll”, and “Auld Lang Syne”).

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