John Ford’s “Upstream”–A Gem of a Silent Film

September 3, 2010 § 3 Comments

Nancy Nash and Grant Withers in "Upstream"/Courtesy Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

Wednesday night’s premiere of the newly rediscovered “Upstream” at the Academy surpassed my greatest expectations. While I went (cursing rush hour traffic all the way to Beverly Hills, where I found parking just in time) hoping for the best, I was unprepared for what I saw: not only a beautifully preserved silent film but a droll comedy,  expertly shot and directed, by a director who later would make his mark in dramas and westerns.

The story is set in an actors’ boarding house, where John “Juan Rodriguez” Rogers and Gertie Ryan  (pictured above) and their acting partner/rival love interest Eric Brashingham (Earle Fox)  live with (among others) an over-the-hill Shakespearean star, a “sister team” consisting of a mother and daughter, and a hilarious tap-dancing duo called the Callahan Brothers, who are most certainly not brothers.  Ford renders this group of struggling, mismatched entertainers with a light touch, neither trivializing nor sentimentalizing their hand-to-mouth existence.

When Brashingham gets a huge break–a contract to play Hamlet on the London stage–all the housemates rejoice at his good fortune. Since his luck is derived solely from his name–he’s the least talented member of a famous acting family–Brashingham even gets a crash course in “Hamlet,” courtesy of the Shakespearean actor, that results in his triumph. Months later, Brashingham–having abandoned his actor friends–returns to the boarding house to pose for publicity pictures, only to walk in on the wedding of Gertie and John.

Many silent films are tedious to contemporary audiences, not only because the stories are dated but because the lack of dialogue makes them seem overly long. Not “Upstream,” with its riveting and unpredictable plot, clever titles and terrific sight gags. I would have gladly watched it again immediately. With any luck, I’ll have another chance to see it, as will you: “Upstream” is going to be shown in various cities, after which it likely will be available on DVD.

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