John Ford's long-lost Upstream returns to Chicago tomorrow

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Earle Foxe (center), channeling his inner John Barrymore
  • Earle Foxe (center), "channeling his inner John Barrymore"
Tomorrow night marks the first Chicago screening in roughly 80 years of Upstream, a silent feature directed by John Ford in 1927 and long presumed lost; it happens at the Portage Theater at 7:30 PM. The movie was found in 2009 in New Zealand's film archive (along with over 70 other rare and long-lost American titles), restored, and then returned to the United States the following year. Dave Kehr has reported on this staggering rediscovery since it first came to light, at which point he wrote:

Although Ford was already famous as a director of epic westerns like The Iron Horse (1925) and Three Bad Men (1926), Upstream appears to be his first film reflecting the influence of the German director F.W. Murnau, who had arrived at Ford's studio, Fox, in 1926, to begin work on his American masterpiece, Sunrise. From Murnau, Ford learned the use of forced perspectives and chiaroscuro lighting, techniques Ford would use to complement his own more direct, naturalistic style.

When the restored print received its U.S. premiere two years ago, Los Angeles Times reporter Susan King described the movie as "a charming comedy set in a New York boarding house for actors. The action revolves around a love triangle between a ham actor (Earle Foxe, channeling his inner John Barrymore), the youngest and least talented member of a famed acting family, a young, cute member of a knife-throwing act (Nancy Nash) and the knife-thrower (Grant Withers)." King added that "more than 80 years after its original premiere, the film still provoked frequent laughs from the appreciative audience" that attended the L.A. screening.

Ford worked in nearly every popular genre, from biopics (Young Mr. Lincoln, The Wings of Eagles) to comedies (collaborating three times with Will Rogers vehicles) to detective movies (Gideon's Day). The backstage story was not only one of the more popular genres of the 20s and 30s; it was one of the more malleable ones as well, inspiring both cheery Hollywood musicals (much of the Busby Berkeley ouevre) and intense German melodramas (Variety, The Blue Angel). Based on the summaries I've read, it sounds like Upstream combines the tone of the former with the style of the latter. Given Ford's towering status in American movies, this screening would be a must-see even if the film proves uninteresting.

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