September 1, 2010

Unearthing a Lost Cinema Treasure: John Fords' "Upstream"

Photo credits: The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the National Film Preservation Foundation

Film Preservation

I've always had a rather romantic conception of film preservation: guardians of film history long thought lost hacking through the thickets of exotic foreign locales to unearth cinematic treasures--Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Film Archives. Romanticized, yes, but not without some basis; two years ago, twenty minutes of lost footage from Fritz Lang's masterpiece Metropolis (1927) was discovered in Argentina. Three months ago, another major find: seventy five American films previously thought lost in time forever were unearthed in a bunker of the New Zealand Film Archive. The jewel of the collection is a silent film from John Ford's days at Fox, 1927's Upstream. Now, as a joint effort of the NZ Film Archive and the National Film Preservation Foundation (NFPF), these films have been restored and repatriated back to the United States for their first public exhibitions in more than eighty years.

Like any adventure story, the retrieval and recovery of these films spins a great yarn. It all started a year ago with a Kiwi vacation. Brian Meacham, an archivist at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles, was vacationing in New Zealand when he decided to drop in on his colleagues at the Film Archive. Taking a tour of the collection, he inquired about any American films they might have. As luck (and savvy archive detective work) would have it, they did. A lot of them. Turns out in the days of silent cinema, international distribution was costly and dangerous. (All features were printed on nitrate filmstock, which, as explained to modern audience by Quentin Tarantino in Inglourious Basterds, is extremely flammable.) Besides, many studios didn't want their prints back. Instead of shipping the films back to America at the conclusion of their theatrical run, it was cheaper to stash them in-country. In fact, the problem persists to this day: all the discovered films were restored in New Zealand where many copies were made (to ensure longevity) and then shipped back home in special crates for hazardous materials.

Film archivists may not be Indy-style pulp heroes, but they are heroes. It's estimated nearly 80% of all films produced in the silent era (before 1927) are lost, incomplete, or irreparably damaged. Of John Ford's silent work, which comprises nearly half the master's filmography, it is estimated 15% is missing. Some of his silent westerns at Fox have been collected in the spectacular Ford at Fox boxset, but Upstream, a comedy, represents a major find for Ford connoisseurs and cinephiles. It is due to the pioneering work of the international film community that these films are available to view at all.

In the era of movies On Demand, Netflix Streaming, Hulu, and YouTube, the filmgoing experience is increasingly disposable. These innovations are invaluable to the spread of film culture, but it is important to remember that film has a physical manifestation--it doesn't just magically appear on your computer screen. It is an exciting time to be a film fan, with the proliferation of media outlets and multifarious viewing experiences, and film preservation is an important component of that experience. New discovers like this one remind us that film history is not archaic, but immediate, a dynamic facet of media culture that forces us to reassess our relationship to conceptions of production history, exhibition practices and canonical classics. To learn more about preservation or to donate to the cause, please check out the National Film Preservation Foundation.

Film Review

Earle Foxe as Eric Brashingham, a brash/dashing ham of a Shakespearean actor

Upstream is set in and around a theatrical boarding house stocked with a large cast of colorful characters. The main romantic entanglement is between Eric Brashingham, a thinly-veined John Gilbert/John Barrymore character, and Gertie Ryan, one half of a knife-throwing act, which the other half of the act, Gertie's boyfriend Jack (Grant Withers), is none too pleased with. Everyone in the troupe is down on their luck, regularly skipping out on rent by tricking the landlady (played by vaudeville veteran Lydia Yeamans Titus) into believing their checks had been lost in the mail. While waiting for work, the troupe amuse themselves; whether it's the hammy monologuing of veteran Campbell-Mandare (a quietly powerful Emile Chautard) or the mischievous antics of Callahan and Callahan (Ted McNamara and Sammy Cohen), a pair of hoofers.

Campbell-Mandare rhapsodizes Hamlet to a skull-shaped toothpick holder to the embarrassment of fellow actor Eric Brashingham

One day, a cigar-chomping theatrical agent comes to the boarders, who flock around him eagerly like pigeons around the last picnic french fry. Alas, the agent only has one role: Hamlet. He calls for Brashingham. The actor, who had not even bothered to get up to greet the agent, is instantly transformed into a preening prima donna. The theatrical agent explains it's not because he's a good actor, they just need a famous name--any Brashingham will do. Campbell-Mandare immediately volunteers to tutor Eric in the nuances of the Bard and they begin preparation.

Gertie, meanwhile, believes Eric will take her with him to England. She breaks it off with Jack the knife-throwers (a delicate business) and prepares herself for Brashingham's marriage proposal.

In the film's funniest scene, Brashingham approaches Gertie: "I have something very important to ask you." She blushes and on the verge of saying yes, Eric asks, "Can you loan me fifty dollars?" The landlady ascends the stairs just to time to see Gertie hand Eric a wad of money, her hilarious misconception a definite no-no in the boarding house business. Campbell-Mandare bids Brashingham goodbye, "Go upstream to success!", giving the film its title.

Eric arrives in London, debuting to spectacular reviews. His performance as Hamlet is shot by Ford with extraordinary beauty. The production design of the sets and costumes is exquisite. The lighting of the theater footlights and spotlights complements Brashingham's glittering jewelry, bathing him in the overwhelming radiance of a star.

The earlier moment at the dinner table is recalled when Brashingham has attained fame by playing The Great Dane, the self-involved actor not acknowledging Campbell-Mandare's assistance or his initial reticence to be tutored by a washed-up old ham. This shot also shows the tremendous quality of the film's sets and Ford's deep focus on figures in the background and foreground.

On the homefront, dejected from receiving no letters from Eric, Gertie consents to marry Jack. At the same time, Brashingham is sent back to the boarding house as a publicity stunt. Stadnding in all his well-tailored glory in the doorway of the boarding house, Eric Brashingham emerges dramatically from the flash and smoke of a photographer's bulb. He looks around (and down his nose) at the parlor decorated with flowers and ribbons. Brashingham assumes the photographer, the decorations and the boarders' fancy dress is for his benefit; he doesn't seem to realize he's stepped into the middle of Gertie and Jack's wedding.

Ah, but those who forget their roots will always get their comeuppance. Jack, already a dangerous man, advances on Brashingham. Campbell-Mandare, hurt that he's never acknowledged his tutelage, gives the egomaniac the chewing out of a lifetime. The Callahans, noticing the newsreel cameras outside poised to capture Brashingham's return from the slums, seize Eric and chuck him out the door and into the street. Brashingham's pride is hurt but seeing the cameras, he gets up, dusts himself off, and in a wonderful piece of acting by Earle Foxe, attempts to regain his dignity by turning sideways to they can capture his magnificent profile. The film ends happily, with the villain displaced, the couple united and the theatrical unit intact.

At a lean 60 minutes, Upstream is a quick-moving, photographically interesting film. Excluding the work of the great silent clowns (Chaplin, Keaton), Upstream is much funnier than most silent comedies I have seen; I laughed out loud several times. The performances were universally good and Earle Foxe and Emile Chautard were especially excellent as Brashingham and Campbell-Mandare. A few scenes were noticeably damaged, but not so far gone that the images were obstructed. The restoration is beautiful; the film has a crisp clarity that complements its handsome lighting and multi-color tinted scenes. I wouldn't call Upstream an instant classic on par with the restored Metropolis or The General, but it is a very, very good film and a fine example of an A-class production from the late silent era.

Ford, Fox, and Murnau

Upstream is an especially exciting discovery because of its uniqueness in the John Ford filmography. Like most people, when I hear the name "John Ford," I think Westerns--Stagecoach, The Searchers--those painted landscape epics with John Wayne. Previous to Upstream, Ford had filmed two very well regarded Westerns, The Iron Horse (1924) and Three Bad Men (1926). But this film represents an evolution in Ford's style stemming from studio head William Fox's recent hiring of German director F.W. Murnau. Murnau was a legend in Europe for the German expressionist classic Nosferatu (1924) and The Last Laugh (1924). These films featured innovation use of forced perspective and fluid, mobile camera work. In 1927, Fox commissioned Murnau to produce Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, which many critics (including myself) consider one of the greatest silent pictures ever made. Murnau and Ford were working on the Fox backlot at the same time and Upstream features several stylistic cues from the German master.

One of the most noticeable similarities in is Ford's use of camera movement. John Ford's signature style is in immobile framing, allowing the action to unfold like a stage play (see: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance), and the way in which he choreographs many actors in a single scene, often around the dinner table (see: Stagecoach, How Green Was My Valley). Upstream features both these signatures in prominence but also represents an experimentation with more fluid camera movement. Two moment in particular struck me. The first occurred early in the picture when Gertie and Brashingham are caught canoodling by Jack the knife-thrower.

As Jack approaches the couple, Gertie and Brashingham break their embrace and the camera tracks back from their close-up to a long shot that shows Jack intrude into the frame. It struck me as an unusual moment for a tracking shot. Although effective, it seems sudden and slightly out of place. The romantic plot in Upstream is not of any great import or melodrama, unlike Sunrise, which centers on the deeply painful and emotional break-up and reconciliation of a marriage. The shot almost seems like an experiment, something John Ford might have seen on a Murnau set and decided to lift for his own film.

The second moment comes when the boarding house is assembled for dinner. Ford shoots each theatrical act descending the stairs and being seated for dinner separately; the knife-throwers walk in, the Callahans skip, hop, and dance, the Soubrette (Jane Winton) sashays. Once they're all seated, he cuts back and forth between Campbell-Mandare, who's captivated by a toothpick holder shaped like Yorick's skull, Brashingham's amused disdain, and the other boarders. Then, a theatrical agent arrives and the action stops. Ford shoots all the boarders' reactions in one continuous tracking shot, moving horizontally across the top of the dining room table to catch each of their reactions in close-up. It's a wonderful, thrilling shot, recalling the earliest photographic experiments of Eadweard Muybridge. Here is where I think Ford is best able to combine his own strengths of capturing character moments and Murnau's prowess with kinetic camera movement.

Brashingham and Campbell-Mandare rehearse in Upstream (John Ford, 1927)

In a crucial scene, Brashingham rehearses before his big debut as Hamlet. His mentor Campbell-Mandare appears as a ghostly image to assuage the young actor's stage fright. This effect is achieved with double exposure, a technique Murnau perfected in Sunrise.

Double exposure in Sunrise (F. W. Murnau, 1927)

Here, The Man (George O'Brien) imagines the vampish Women from the City (Margaret Livingston) enticing him to leave his wife. Double exposure was often employed to convey a ghostly or otherworldly feeling. In Ford's film, the apparition is inspirational, spurring on the actor to greatness; in Murnau's, the effect is one of sexual fervor, possession and psychological distress.

Although Ford may have borrows visual cues from Murnau, thematically, Upstream does not resemble Murnau's horror-twinged films. Whereas Murnau was renowned for using intertitles sparingly, Upstream features frequent intertitles, both dialogue and story. In fact, many of these are sources of great humor and generally Upstream is a very strongly written, both in gags and character. However, the connection between two great directors is certainly there. It would be worth investigating how much of the film was the result of Murnau directly influencing Ford or if the stylistic similarities were more a result of the in-house Fox style. William Fox wanted to create a studio for high-quality artistic productions, which he got from Murnau and John Ford, along with Frank Borzage (Seventh Heaven, also from 1927). Upstream offers an interesting nexus in film history; one that deepens understanding of an auteur's oeuvre, enriches the silent era, and sheds light on a fascinating period of studio production when the studio head actually encouraged uniqueness and individual artistry in filmmaking.

Film Screening

John Ford's Upstream screens for the first time in decades on Wednesday, Sept. 1 at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater at the AMPAS in Beverly Hills. The screening is open to the public and tickets are five dollars. The film will be screened with live three piece orchestral accompaniment, lead by Michael Mortilla, composer for the restoration. Also being shown: a trailer for another lost Ford film Strong Boy (1929) and a Vitaphone short that showcases Santa Monica beaches and mountains, circa nineteen-twelve. More info and tickets available here.


  1. Great write-up! I particularly liked your example of the tracking movement with the couple's embrace; I hadn't caught that.

    Very nice site, by the way.

  2. Thanks, Doug! Appreciate you reading and commenting. I really dig your site, as well. That was one of the first places I read about other "Upstream" recaps.

  3. Seriously. Wow. I mean, who knows what else they've got in at the salt mines where these celluloid things are usually deposited. The past really surprises.

  4. The film is now on DVD from the National Film Preservation Foundation with a new score by Donald Sosin.