Up the River (1930, USA)
Up the River is a low-key comedy drama starring Humphrey Bogart and Spencer Tracy very early in their careers. An early talkie directed by John Ford, it was apparently going to be a drama until The Big House (1930) beat it to the punch.. so it was rewritten as a comedy.
Bogart plays young Steve Jordan, a trusty in a mid-Western prison who comes from a well-heeled New England family. His family believe he’s in China. Tracy (in his first Hollywood film) plays a feted baseballer (Saint Louis) who is brought back to the same prison after having escaped from another prison with his simple sidekick, Dannemora Dan (Warren Hymer). Steve falls in love at first sight with a newly received prisoner in the women’s section, Judy Fields (Claire Luce), who has landed in prison after taking the rap for Frosby (Morgan Wallace), a much-older swindler with whom she was teamed. Steve and Judy get engaged after two brief meetings; the Warden kindly allows them a third on the day he is paroled.
Steve returns home. Frosby tracks him down, sets up his scam in the same town and threatens to expose Steve to his mother if he blows the whistle. Judy asks Saint Louis for help… not such a difficult task as conveniently the men’s and women’s exercise yards are separated only by bars. Saint and Dan escape again, this time during a concert in the prison, and head straight to New England where they manage to sort things out with the blackmailing Frosby… and then surrender themselves back into prison just in time for Saint to take his place in a much-awaited baseball match against a rival prison.
It does have a number of features that distinguish it from most other prison movies. For starters, it is an extraordinarily benign, almost-utopian prison. Then there’s the warden’s 8-year-old daughter Jean, for example, (in real life the daughter of Lewis Lawes, the Warden of Sing Sing), who plays unsupervised out in the yard with all the male inmates, doing cartwheels and showing off her bloomers. There’s the prison’s baseball mascot, a zebra - the only zebra ever to have a role in a prison movie, as far as I’m aware. A big brass band. And a foolish, upper-class welfare worker, at whom much fun is poked as she dispenses apples, magazines and judgmental opinions to the prisoners, and is the unwitting means through which kites are trafficked from the women’s section to the men’s.
It’s not a standout prison film by any means, but it stands out as being quite different to other films of its era.
Posted on May 22nd, 2010 at 5:24 pm. Updated on June 21st, 2012 at 8:52 pm.
#343 in the Top 500