#53 in my ranking of John Ford’s filmography.
Another film filled to the top with amusing side characters, Upstream is a modest and slight entertainment that does well enough to fill its sixty minutes and little else. It’s another instance of an early John Ford film that really could have done good use with twenty to thirty more minutes to help flesh out some key details.
The majority of the action takes place in a boarding house for performers, and the film’s first large bulk is simply introducing them all. There are dancers, retired actors, and the landlady (Lydia Titus) who is always asking for advanced payment from those without contracts. The center of the action falls upon a trio of a knife thrower, Jack (Grant Withers), his female assistant Gertie (Nancy Nash), and the last son of a great line of actors who is no great actor himself Eric Brasingham (Earle Foxe). The appeal of this early section is the light comedy of the variety under the landlady’s roof as the different personalities clash in light and amusing ways, like the pair of dancers who practice in their room immediately above the dining room.
Everything changes when a famous theatrical agent appears, everyone in the house eager for their moment of fame having arrived (except for Brasingham who remains seated at the table eating). He’s there for Brasingham specifically, though. He’s been charged with finding a name to help open a new production of Hamlet in London, and it doesn’t matter if Brasingham isn’t actually a good actor at all. This is the moment that one of the elder boarders takes upon himself to act as mentor to the inept Brasingham, offering him up lessons in a single night before he departs. At the same time, Brasingham breaks the heart of young Gertie, seemingly implying that he was going to take her with him to England but instead just asking for money. Gertie sulks back to Jack, unhappy to continue in the knife throwing business.
Brasingham takes the quick lessons he had and becomes a great actor, impressing on the London stage and even getting a nod from the royal box upon his inaugural performance. Like most things in this little film, this feels drastically underdeveloped, a hapless actor suddenly becoming a sensation. But okay, we can deal with it.
The action moves forward by a few months and the boarders all seemingly return to their rooms in the boarding house at once after a season. Picking up with the light comedy once again, the boarders insist most earnestly that they had send large envelopes full of cash for their rent in the mail, but it must have gotten lost. This is also the time when Gertie decides to get over Brasingham and admit her hidden love for Jack (again, underdeveloped, but okay). As they get married, we see Brasingham in New York for a performance, convinced by his theatrical agent to make a stop at his old boarding house for a promotional moment.
This kind of amalgamation of events is part and parcel with John Ford’s filmography at this point, but it’s interesting to see it laid out in such a small scale and without any significant action elements. Brasingham comes in right as the wedding photos are taken after the ceremony, convinced the flowers, decorations, and pictures are for him. The common motif of haughty folk lording over the little people manifests, and Brasingham gets his comeuppance in crowd pleasing style.
None of this is challenging, but more importantly, none of it is as fleshed out as it should be. With the sheer number of minor characters that get their time to shine, that leaves shockingly little time for the central love triangle to play out. However, it’s amusingly told with its side characters and Ford’s adeptness with the camera helps provide some solid amusement in the film’s final reel.
It’s a small effort from Ford towards the end of the silent era (really his last fully silent film before he started using soundtracks of any kind). It’s entertaining enough for a small distraction, but little else.