Most filmgoers think of John Ford primarily as a director of westerns, with 1939’s Stagecoach as his first important film. However, of Ford’s more than 140 titles, only about a third are westerns and nearly half are silents of which only 15 percent survive. The discovery in 2009 of a complete print of Upstream in New Zealand provides an unexpected opportunity to observe the nascent Ford style and the emergence of themes and techniques that are now signature marks of this great director.
Ford’s early career, described by critic Tag Gallagher as his apprenticeship years, was dominated by his older brother Francis Ford and cowboy actor Harry Carey. In 1914, Francis, a successful actor who wrote and directed his own star vehicles at Universal, gave Ford his start as his assistant. The younger Ford learned the fundamentals of filmmaking, working as everything from an actor and stuntman to a camera operator. In 1917, Ford stepped out of his brother’s shadow with his first solo directing assignment. Ford later claimed that studio chief Carl Laemmle promoted him to director in 1915 after Ford replaced a director too hung over to work. As part of the shoot, Ford staged a stunt-filled western action sequence for invited studio guests. “They thought it was great,” Ford told Peter Bogdanovich in 1971. “They had a picture coming up with Harry Carey and they had no director. Mr. Laemmle says, ‘That Jack Ford, he yells real loud. He’d make a good director.’” While Ford spun a good yarn, his promotion most likely came two years later on The Tornado, in which he himself starred, not Harry Carey.
Ford considered The Soul Herder (1917), the first in his four-year collaboration with Harry Carey, his real debut as a director. His brother described it as “a little gem,” going on to say: “Jack was no good until he was given something to do on his own where he could let himself go—and he proved himself then.” In the 24 subsequent films he made with Carey he did “let himself go,” with the support of his star who encouraged Ford to inject his own sense of humor into their films. He also began to add humanistic touches. In the climax of Straight Shooting (1917), for example, a seemingly redeemed outlaw helps Carey save a family besieged by bad guys but then samples and steals a jar of the family’s jam.
After establishing himself at Universal, Ford moved to Fox in 1920, lured by bigger budgets and a wider variety of story material. He began to work in multiple genres—westerns, melodramas, and romances—combining his craftsmanship with flashes of artistic ambition. The combination paid off with The Iron Horse (1924), a historical epic about the building of the transcontinental railroad, which grossed $2 million dollars and earned Ford a reputation as a leading American director.
At Fox, he encountered his third major influence, the films of German émigré F.W. Murnau, whose 1927 masterpiece Sunrise also marked a turning point for the studio. After seeing rushes of the film still in post-production, Ford told a reporter from Moving Picture World that he “believed [Sunrise] to be the greatest picture that had been produced.” In February 1927, Ford traveled to Germany to shoot footage for Four Sons (1928), a melodrama about a Bavarian mother who loses all but one of her sons in the Great War. While little or none of the actual footage was used, the trip allowed Ford to see several German expressionist films and to spend time with Murnau.
The impact of Sunrise is evident in Ford’s subsequent silents for Fox. In Four Sons, shot on Sunrise’s sets, he follows the characters’ movements with the camera in a way rarely seen in his previous work. While Ford returned to the static wide shot in his later films, he reserved the moving camera for moments of great import. Murnau’s influence can also be seen in Hangman’s House (1928), Ford’s atmospheric drama set in Ireland. Variety critic Alfred Rushford Grearson credited the film for “some of the most striking touches of of composition seen on the screen since those swampland shots in Sunrise, which they often resemble.”
Upstream, released a month before Ford’s trip to Germany, does not yet reflect what he learned from Murnau but does hint at Ford’s later style in other ways. Set among vaudevillians living in a boardinghouse, Upstream depicts a collection of diverse characters coming together as a community, a common Ford theme. Upstream’s love triangle among the knife-thrower Jack, his love interest Gertie, and the egotistical aspiring actor Brashingham also serves as a framework for a series of amusing and touching vignettes that reveal the personalities of the boarders. He famously reprises this method of character development in Stagecoach, with the travelers crammed together for their journey—the teetotaler whiskey salesman clutching his wares from the drunken doctor and the married lady who prefers not to sit near the prostitute.
While Ford was expanding his artistic repertoire, William Fox was expanding his studio in an effort to compete with the likes of MGM and develop a global reach. As a result, Upstream circulated internationally, getting released as faraway as New Zealand. In the silent era, studios ordered the destruction of all film prints at the end of their theatrical runs rather than incur the expense of shipping them back, especially from a foreign address. Luckily, not all exhibitors complied, and occasionally projectionists or theater managers hung on to prints or sold them to collectors.
This was the case with the presumed lost Upstream. In 1993, it was donated to the New Zealand Film Archive by the grandson of a former projectionist who kept dozens of nitrate prints in his garden shed. The NZFA, primarily dedicated to saving and archiving the works of New Zealand filmmakers, stored Upstream but left it untouched for 16 years. In 2009, while on holiday in New Zealand, Brian Meacham, a preservationist for the Academy Film Archive in Los Angeles, visited the archive and ended up discussing the possibility of repatriating American films in the archive’s collection with Steve Russell, the manager of corporate services. Russell later sent a list of holdings to him. Back in Los Angeles, Meacham noticed many valuable titles, including some reels of an early Clara Bow feature Maytime (1923), Won in a Cupboard (1914), the first surviving film directed by Mabel Normand, and something called Upstream. It wasn’t until Meacham returned to New Zealand with National Film Preservation Foundation consultant Leslie Ann Lewis and unwound the print on a bench that they knew for sure what they had.
As the only print in existence, Upstream was restored in New Zealand rather than risk shipping it home. A few small sections of the print had severe nitrate decomposition but, on the whole, the damage was minor and the tinted sections had retained their colors. In September 2010, the restored Upstream premiered in Los Angeles to a sold-out crowd. Brian Meacham described his reaction to seeing the rediscovered film on the big screen for the first time: “It was significant because it was a Ford film, but it also happens to be a good film. Audiences love it. I think they would love it whether or not they knew it was a John Ford film.”
Preceded by the short WHY HUSBANDS FLIRT, a Christie Comedies production from 1918, starring “Smiling” Billy Mason and Ethel Lynne, as Constance, his wife. Produced by Al Christie and directed by William Beaudine. Story by Robert N. Johnson and photographed by Ross Fisher. Print courtesy of George Eastman House.
Presented at SFSFF 2011 with live music by the Donald Sosin Ensemble