#56 in my ranking of John Ford’s filmography.
The first feature film appearance of both Humphrey Bogart and Spencer Tracy! In a movie directed by John Ford! How is this not a huge thing?! Because it’s kind of a middling little comedy of dubious construction. Far from worthless with enough little laughs here and there to get an audience through to the end, it’s just kind of a minor little work from everyone involved. I’ve seen far worse.
Up the River is a prison comedy, of sorts. It starts in a prison with a new batch of detainees coming in on buses, one for the men’s ward and another for the women’s. St. Louis (Spencer Tracy) waltzes in like he owns the place, and Judy (Claire Luce) is nervous and scared for her future after her scam artist partner, Frosby (Morgan Wallace) escaped justice and is operating outside on his own. St. Louis shows his mettle early, especially when it comes to pitching a baseball for an upcoming inter-prison game, and Judy meets Steve (Humphrey Bogart), a prisoner in a suit who processes her like he works there rather than is incarcerated there. Steve adopted a false name when he got arrested, his family back home thinking that he’s on a ship to China, and Steve and Judy, of course, immediately fall in love.
Steve is soon released from prison, with nothing but good feeling from the warden whom Steve had been working for, and he heads home with promises to Judy of being faithful and keeping her secret from his family in exchange for her going to him when she gets out. Frosby discovers the connection and follows Steve to New England and sets up shop in town as a stock broker, making it quite clear to Steve that if Steve gets in his way he’ll tell Steve’s family his real past in prison.
Back in prison, St. Louis and his partner Dan (Warren Hymer) find out what’s going on to Steve in New England, and quickly break out of prison during a talent show when the lights go out. They hitch a ride on a train to Steve, and they find ways to protect Steve, giving them enough time for entertaining comic business like their efforts to play with knives on the train or Dan falling for Steve’s younger sister.
And this is where it really feels like the movie is two movies smushed together. Judy never enters the picture again. St. Louis and Dan seem to jump from a prison movie to some kind of small town gangster movie and then they jump right back into the prison movie when they show up at the prison gates to surrender themselves because St. Louis never breaks a promise. For a comic film, the conceit is good for a laugh, but it doesn’t change the fact that it really feels like one movie ends and another one begins in the middle of it. Really, though, the comic sensibilities, especially from Tracy and Hymer, make the affair light enough to let these concerns just drop off at a certain point.
The film ends with the promised inter-prison baseball game, with the home team losing because of the absence of St. Louis on the mound. The warden has to balance his need to punish St. Louis and his desire to win the game, another small comedic moment to end the film with.
It’s not really good. It’s fine. As a curiosity, the only film Tracy and Bogart made together and directed by John Ford no less, it’s entertaining enough to sustain its running time. Slightly amusing but fractured, there are worse ways to spend your time.