I’m sure you won’t be shocked to find out I chose a movie about… theatre folks – and the movie is John Ford‘s once lost silent “Upstream.”
Upstream had been on my Treasure Hunt List for some time – actually, since I heard about its European début at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto di Pordenone, back in 2010. I must say I’m not a Ford fan, but I find it hard to resist the appeal of things lost and found – and, more significantly, this was a tale about theatre…
Because, you see, Upstream was presumed lost – together with much of Ford’s silent work – until 2009, when it was unearthed from the New Zealand Film Archive, lovingly restored and provided with a wonderful new score. Then in 2013 a DVD called Lost & Found was released, containing a dozen or so of rediscovered titles – and this is how I came in possession of it.
And I found out that Upstream is an adorable little thing, with very little in the way of plot, but enough charm to make up for it – and then some.
Imagine, then, a shabby boarding house for performers, run by a former actress who isn’t half as tough as she would have her guests believe. The boarders are an assortment of stage people, mostly of the vaudeville variety. You have a sister act, a medicine show, a pair of pseudo-Irish dancing comedians, a somewhat faded soubrette flirting with the “star boarder”, an elderly Shakespearean player and a knife-throwing act comprising two men and a girl.
The girl Gertie, it goes without saying, is in love with the wrong colleague. Eric Brashingham, “the last (and least) of a famous theatrical family” is everything his unsubtle surname suggests – and insufferably conceited to boot. On the triangle’s other end, Jack the faux Spaniard is a nice boy who loves Gertie very much – but what would we write about if girls were sensible? So sweet Gertie pines, Brashingham leads her on, and Jack alternately pines in turn and seethes at his rival.
And then a cigar-smoking impresario walks in promising to whisk Brashingham away to London, where those misguided Brits want one of his name to play Hamlet – never mind that he is dreadful.
In steps old Mandare-Campbell, the worshipper of the Bard, eager to tutor his young friend in the art of “flogging dull words into wild music.” And perhaps blood is not water after all, because the last and least of the Brashinghams may be a cad who borrows large sums of money from hopeful and besotted girls – but he blossoms under the veteran’s teaching – enough to sweep London off its collective feet with his Hamlet… Can we – and his old housemates back across the Pond – hope that he has learned something besides his art?
Ah well – I won’t spoil the ending for you: you’ll have to see Upstream to find out, and really, you should, because this small confection is an utter delight. The performances are good all-around, with Earle Foxe having the time of his life as the obnoxious, self-absorbed Brashingham, Nancy Nash adorable as Gertie, and Emile Chautard capturing the dignified melancholy and rekindled fire of the old Shakespearean – and, actually, everyone else. This is a film that, with its vaudeville characters, vainglorious protagonist, and stabs at the Barrymores (especially John and his profile) might easily have veered into clownish parody. Instead, Ford makes it a piece of light and very pleasant fun.
I love how he contrives to give us a sense of both the individuals and the small community populating the boarding house. There are lighter, zanier moments, like everyone coming back after the season – and pretending to have sent money to the landlady… And then there are subtler things, like the boarders going from incredulously incensed when Brashingham is singled out by the manager, to gleeful when the boy makes a cake of himself over To be or not to be – to awed and supporting when Campbell-Mandare awakens the actor in Brashingham… Or the nicely rendered contrast between the dingy warmth of the boarding house and the grand and somewhat rarefied atmosphere of the London theatre. Or the pretty little scene in which the women close ranks around a disenhearted Gertie.
This movie pokes gentle fun at theatre and theatre people, the way one would with an elderly, beloved and possibly eccentric relative. One must remember that it wasn’t all that long since cinema had emancipated itself from theatre… Just enough for smiling parody and a touch of nostalgia – to tell a tale of a close-knit community of likable eccentrics living between shabbiness and art.