Obscured from the eyes of the main house audience, the bowels of a Vaudeville theater often play host to a secondary dramaturgical rite. Therein, ego is pit against skyrocketing ego, practical jokes advance with tactical brilliance, and a bastard’s chewing-over of the Immortal Bard’s prescription is none too rare. When the performing season is through, however, the dramatis personæ must transplant the epicenter of their performative shockwaves to a theatrical boarding house, where they can shack up on the cheap. There’s Juan Rodriguez, the exotic (though less than you’d imagine) knife thrower; Gertie Ryan, narrowly missed misstress of said impaling instrument; Campbell Mandare, a wizened grandmaster of all things elocutory; and Eric, misbegotten of acting’s royal family, The Brasinghams. The pinhole camera of stardom has room enough for just one closeup, and when Mr. Brasingham has the unmerited chance to make it his own, he does so with an ungrateful eye toward the supporting cast of his struggling days in the boarding house.
John Ford’s Upstream is an eloquent production – a compelling hybrid of silent cinema and literature – summoned forth in service of a tidy and funny story. The lingering and sensationally poetic title cards pave the way for a considered linguistic texture that might not be achievable in talkies, if only because believable speech moves by so damn fast: Mandare beckons his floundering apprentice to “wear humbly the laurel of success,” and, in reciting Hamlet, to “flog dull words into wild music.” Ford hoists the crystallized effects of written language into the still pliable vocabulary of cinema. At the outset of Brashingham’s narcissistic rise, our director has him gazing squarely into a clouded mirror and, after prolonged consideration, buffing it, to reveal his untarnished visage. The hermetic nature of his flight is concisely realized in a shot where we glimpse Brashingham’s dejected ascent to the boarding house’s second floor, foregrounded by the house dining room, where the family of entertainers partake vivaciously. Gertie’s capacity as a human dartboard could surely have been locked away in subtext, but, in a move that lightens the experiential burden of century-ago misogyny, Ford’s playfully graduates it to a literal plane. Upstream exposes us to the frostbit destitution of Vaudevillian life then thaws us with its ebullience.
- Upstream (Ford 1927) @ Castro Theater #SFSFF11