Up the River (1930): John Ford’s Drama Directs Tracy and Bogart in their Feature Debut and Only Film Together

From Our Vaults

John Ford directed Up the River, a pre-Code comedy, starring Claire Luce, Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart, all playing convicts.

Up the River
Up the River (film poster).jpg

Poster: Claire Luce and Bogart

The plot concerns escaped convicts, as well as a female convict. It was the film debut role of Tracy and Bogart.

It was the film debut role of Tracy and Bogart, in what became their only teaming together.

Despite Bogart being billed fourth (under top-billed Tracy, Claire Luce and Warren Hymer), his role was almost equal in size to Tracy’s.

Up the River is also Bogart’s only film directed by John Ford (who would be instrumental in launching John Wayne’s career).

Bogart’s image, rather than Tracy’s, is featured with Luce on some of the posters since Bogart played the romantic lead.

Fox remade the film in 1938, starring Preston Foster and Tony Martin.

Two convicts, St. Louis (Tracy) and Dannemora Dan, befriend another convict named Steve (Bogart), who is in love with Judy, a prison inmate.

After being paroled, Steve promises Judy that he will wait for her release. He then returns to his hometown in New England and his mother’s home.

Steve is followed by Judy’s former “employer,” scam artist Frosby, who threatens to expose Steve’s prison record if he refuses to go along with defrauding his neighbors.

Steve goes along with it–until Frosby defrauds his own mother. Meanwhile, Louis and Dannemora break out of prison and come to Steve’s aid.  They take away the gun he planned to use on the fraudster, and stealing back bonds taken by Frosby.

They return to prison in time for its annual baseball game against a rival penitentiary.

In the happy ending, Saint Louis is on the pitcher’s mound with catcher Dannemora Dan, ready to lead their team to victory.

Tracy had previously starred in two Warner shorts earlier, and Bogart was an unbilled extra in a silent film, as well as starring in two shorts.

Up the River is the first credited feature for both actors, and it is the only film that Tracy and Bogart ever appeared in together.

Both had been cast in The Desperate Hours in 1955, but neither would consent to second billing, so the role intended for Tracy went to Fredric March.

Bogart is listed fourth after top-billed Tracy, but his role is equally large and his likeness is featured prominently on posters that did not include Tracy’s image.

This is the only film Bogart made with director John Ford. However, in case of Tracy, three decades later, Ford directed him again in The Last Hurrah (1958).

After Up the River, Fox signed Tracy to a contract as a leading man. Though Tracy’s Fox films are now better regarded, at the time, they were not commercial. Tracy was eventually fired by Fox, then quickly hired by producer Irving Thalberg at MGM, where he became a long-lasting successful star.

Spencer Tracy as Saint Louis
Claire Luce as Judy Fields
Warren Hymer as Dannemora Dan
Humphrey Bogart as Steve Jordan
Morgan Wallace as Frosby
William Collier, Sr. as Pop
Joan Lawes as Jean


Directed by John Ford
Written by Maurine Dallas Watkins
Produced by William Fox
Cinematography Joseph H. August
Edited by Frank E. Hull
Music by James F. Hanley, Joseph McCarthy

Distributed by Fox Film Corporation

Release date: October 12, 1930

Running time: 92 minutes