Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Upstream (d. Ford, 1927): An Archives Experience

The Movie

When Marilyn Ferdinand of Ferdy on Films and Farran Smith Nehme of The Self-Styled Siren held a blogathon fundraiser for the National Film Preservation Foundation earlier this year, I never thought I'd have the opportunity to see one of the films preserved on the big screen with original musical accompaniment but that's just what happened recently. Of the 75 American films from the silent period that were discovered in a New Zealand film archive in 2009, the one that garnered the most attention was an early John Ford backstage comedy, Upstream, and last week it was shown at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

As I now work for the National Archives, it was my honor to attend and meet Eric Schwartz, one of the co-founders of the National Film Preservation Foundation (NFPF) and Brian Meacham, Short Film Preservationist at the Academy Film Archive of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS). Both were more than familiar with the blogathon and Brian even told me he had just finished work doing the commentary for The Better Man (1912), one of the films that our blogathon specifically helped restore (the other was The Sergeant (1910)).

Upstream was presented with an original score composed by Michael Mortilla and performed by Mortilla on piano and Nicole Garcia on violin. An excellent score, it captured the essence of the film by providing the perfect counterpoint to what was happening up on the screen while never detracting from the experience by calling attention to itself.

As for the film, it's quite entertaining even if nothing more than a lark, but a very well done lark, to be sure. Primarily, it shows Ford had an early flair for the kind of pacing that comedy demands, and it's a pacing that would serve him well in his later dramas and westerns. It also celebrates the kind of communal existence evident in so many later Ford films, from the migrant workers in The Grapes of Wrath and the coal mining community of How Green was My Valley to the ragtag collection of brothers-in-arms in Stagecoach and The Searchers.

The film takes place in a boarding house for performers: actors, dancers, knife-throwers and other barrel-bottom-scraping followers of the footlights. The story concentrates on Jack La Velle (Grant Withers), knife thrower, Gertie (Nancy Nash), his assistant and object of his affection and Eric Brashingham (Earle Fox), his rival in love. Brashingham is, as his name suggests, a brash, ham actor from a famous acting family (insert "Barrymore" here) who gets pegged to play Hamlet in London simply because his name is Brashingham. John Barrymore Hamlet and profile jokes ensue with little relent. After some coaching by another boarder, Mandare (Emile Chautard), Brashingham becomes a hit in London, despite everyone's expectations of his outright failure. He returns to America an acting idol and finds Jack and Gertie have married, much to his chagrin.

There's not much more plot than that but there doesn't need to be. Upstream throws more jokes at the screen than a feces hurling howler monkey imitating Mel Brooks on a three day joke-writing bender. Not two seconds pass in this movie without a new joke and if that one doesn't work, don't worry, here comes another. It's this perpetual motion machine brand of comedy that makes the thin plot work and Ford never lingers on a shot for too long, lest the pace be broken. I found myself quite surprised both by how quick the film was and how well the audience responded to it, which is to say, there was plenty of laughter.

In the end, while it may be an entertaining movie for anyone who enjoys good farcical comedy, it is of particular interest to cinephiles who can see John Ford steadying his hand and becoming his own director. The lighting is a little different for Ford, making use of tinting and harsh lighting effects, although a little haphazardly(Murnau and German Expressionism were mentioned in the discussion but, perhaps because I have watched Murnau again so recently, I found little similarity between the two). Ford doesn't do a lot with the camera, it's true (most of the film is medium distance, center framed, stationary camera all the way), but when Ford does move in on something; a close-up of a skull-fashioned salt shaker or the expression of Gertie as Brashingham ruins her wedding day, it has a purpose and confidence. Besides, Ford didn't need to do much because the supporting cast of oddball boarders are entertaining enough that to dolly around them too much would have detracted from their compulsive energy.

What really made the film a great experience to watch was seeing it on the big screen with live musical accompaniment. I really can't emphasize strongly enough how important it is to take in silent films on the big screen whenever possible. Just last year, viewing The Crowd at the AFI Silver Theatre with an organist playing the original score, took it from being an excellent movie in my mind to being a truly great one. More than any other type of film, a silent film comes alive on the big screen like nothing one would expect. The difference between seeing one on DVD and seeing one in a theatre could be measured by factors of ten. If you see Upstream on DVD (it will be released as the next set of DVDs by the National Film Preservation Foundation) you will enjoy it but if you can see one of the too few theatrical presentations of it being escorted about the country by Brian Meacham, you will have a wonderful filmgoing experience that will stay with you for years.

The Restoration

Brian Meacham and Eric Schwartz spoke to the audience before and after the presentation, with Brian Meacham revealing the incredible story of how the discovery came about and how the restoration took place. In 2009, Brian and his wife were set to take a vacation to New Zealand and Brian, as he does before any trip, e-mailed the local film archives in New Zealand and asked if a tour would be possible when he arrived. He was given the green light and received an e-mail back detailing all the American films in their archives. From John Ford to Mabel Normand, big names popped out and arrangements were made to select 75 shorts, trailers and features to be restored and returned to the United States.

The reason the American films were in New Zealand in the first place is quite mundane, really, having to do with, of all things, shipping costs and rental cycles. As it turns out, New Zealand was usually at the end of the rental cycles for film prints from Hollywood making their way around the world. By the time they were done the American studios had little desire to pay exorbitant shipping costs for movies they'd never show again. Besides, the prints at that point were pretty worn so the studios gave the go ahead to junk the films. Thing is, many theatre owners kept them rather than toss them into the garbage and eventually they made their way into the New Zealand Film Archives. In 2009, they made their way back home, finally.

Because of the deteriorated condition of the nitrate film, the decision was made to restore Upstream in New Zealand and then ship it to the United States. The process was lengthy and costly but fortunately, Fox Studios picked up the tab knowing there was no real prospect of making any money off the venture. Good for them, and us.

One final note: the title. Why exactly is a farcical comedy about an eclectic group of performers all living together in a boarding house called Upstream? In the movie, there is one belabored moment that doesn't fit at all, where Mandare is telling Brashingham, about to leave for London, to "go upstream to your success!" And, indeed, the word is bolded and italicized just like I have it here because they're clearly trying to tell you, "This is where the title comes from." Only, who in the hell would say that and even if they did, why make that one word, from that one isolated line, the title? The real answer, provided by Brian Meacham, was all business.

Back in 1927 the studios not only churned out movies like Model T's coming off an assembly line but also owned the theatres in which they were shown, the better to keep the line moving smoothly. This meant programs, information, placards and posters were sent out well in advance to populate the lobbies and let moviegoers know what was coming next. Sometimes, plans changed in the middle of the process. After sending out all the info for a Dolores Del Rio film, Upstream, the production fell through and eventually went to MGM where it was released in 1928 as The Trail of '98. Meanwhile, Fox Pictures had just wrapped up a comedy directed by John Ford called The Public Idol. Since no advertising had gone out on it yet, and everyone was expecting a film called Upstream they inserted a new title card, threw in the intertitle delivered by Mandare quoted above and Upstream was born. Somehow, after all it's been through to finally return home in good condition, the title at long last seems apt.