The biggest film history news of 2010 was without a doubt the discovery of Upstream (1927), a John Ford comedy from the late silent era previously thought lost, found in a New Zealand film archive along with numerous other American shorts, features and fragments. After screenings in Los Angeles, Pordenone, New York and elsewhere, San Francisco Silent Film Festival kicked off with Upstream as their opening night event, accompanied by The Donald Sosin Ensemble (pianist and composer Sosin on piano with a makeshift group consisting of members of the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra and others) playing a score that he premiered at Pordenone.
Upstream is a lighthearted comedy set in the society of theater and show people in the lower rungs of entertainment, centered on the romantic triangle of a specialty act trio. Eric Brashingham (Earle Fox) is the black sheep of the acting dynasty, reduced to performing with knife thrower Jack (Grant Withers), a brash everyman sweet on the third member Gertie (Nancy Nash, cutting quite the modern girl), who loves Eric. Clearly his only contribution to the act is his name. The Brashingham family name might well have been Barrymore, for all the talk of theater royalty and all the profile posing for photographers and audiences. It’s said that he was disowned by his family because of his lack of talent. It’s more likely it was simply because he’s a jerk, something that Gertie seems willing to overlook. Even when he, of all people in the house, gets the opportunity of lifetime by virtue simply of his family name and jumps ship without a thought for anyone else.
It’s not the kind of film we usually associate with Ford but then Ford was a studio man who took on all sorts of films that we don’t necessarily think of as “Ford” films until we see them. This gentle comedy set in the community of show people in a theatrical boarding house was surely just another assignment but Ford makes it a Ford picture through his affectionate characterizations, good natured competiveness and joshing and comic sensibility. This sense of community, the show people as an extended family, is where his touch is apparent, at least in retrospect. Ford is already a master of storytelling shorthand when it comes to introducing a very large ensemble cast of boarders. Those first impressions are very much types but the interaction of the ensemble suggests family, even if it not by blood.
Ford has always had a boisterous streak in his comedy and was quite happy to indulge in ethnic humor, and there is a little of that here, from the dull-witted young black servant to the Callahan and Callahan comedy and dance duo, with an Irish name (even with one of them obviously Jewish) and minstrel show gags. But even with the snubbing and sneering and catty remarks tossed across the evening dinner table (especially at the haughty Eric), it’s all very good natured and they ultimately offer their support, both moral and practical, and send him off with the best of wishes. The initial incredulity and pangs of disappointment give way to genuine encouragement and Ford orchestrates the sequence and the shift in tone superbly, so that their send-off ends with authentic approval. He is insufferable, arrogant, self-involved and absurdly untalented, but he is one of the family and his success is celebrated as such, as is his betrayal of them. Where audience might expect some kind of public comeuppance, this story keeps it all in the family, where it belongs.
Upstream is, when put in the context of his career, a slight film, but its pleasures are great and seeing it is a reminder at the expressive qualities and visual grace of the state of silent cinema in 1927, and how Ford’s command of the medium in 1927 can transcend the simplicity of his material to create a film that, while not “great” by any definition, is more expressive than some of the more celebrated films of the year.
The 16th Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival plays July 14-17 at the Castro Theatre, San Francisco. Visit the SFSFF website for more information, schedules, program notes and tickets.