John Ford Upstream


The latest installment in the National Film Preservation Foundation’s Treasures series is a single-disc gold mine of long-lost American silents from the collections of the New Zealand Film Archive. It’s both a tribute to the diversity and vitality of early American cinema and a snapshot of an especially urgent moment in film preservation.

Highlights include the 1923 animated short Happy-Go-Luckies, memorable, among other things, for the sight of a man carrying a dachshund over his shoulder like a plank of wood; The Love Charm (28), a dewy South Seas romance shot in stunning two-strip Technicolor and marked by some expectedly unfortunate racial politics; the surreal 1920 educational whatsit Birth of a Hat (whose opening title card solemnly declares that “the origin of hats is unknown”); Won in a Cupboard (14), an early Keystone romp from pioneering writer-director-comedienne Mabel Normand; and Virginian Types (26), a meticulously hand-tinted two-minute sketch of rural Appalachian life. The closing selection, The White Shadow, co-produced in 1924 by director Graham Cutts and his 25-year-old assistant Alfred Hitchcock, only exists in fragments, but the beautifully restored footage reveals traces of future Hitch motifs: shifting and mistaken identities, mysterious doublings, and the blindness of romantic love.

The centerpiece of the set is John Ford’s Upstream (27), a luminous late silent feature set almost entirely inside a New York theatrical boardinghouse. The sketchy plot—a conceited actor of questionable skill is whisked away to international stardom, leaving the house’s other residents behind—gives Ford space to indulge in a series of tender, tossed-off portraits: an imperious landlady who, we learn in passing, was a star in her day; a monocled, sixty-something would-be Don Juan; a hell-raising aspiring vaudeville duo; a dignified thespian forced to pawn his Shakespeare bust for cash. The film ambles along in a wistful minor key; everyone’s disappointed or dissatisfied or hungry or cooped-up. It all takes place—partly thanks to Ford’s gift for expressive lighting, partly thanks to 85 years of nitrate decay—in a glowing, soft-focus dreamworld, full of haloed profiles, glowing skin tones, and lit-up fringes of hair. Sometimes, as in many of the films included in this collection, the nitrate film stock will fray, bubble, dissolve, or break up around the edges, reminding us of what Upstream’s characters already know: there’s no reliving the past. Except, in this case, by way of New Zealand.