The Z Channel, Los Angeles’ homegrown pay-TV service, has on its schedule this week a rare 1930 movie starring two then-unknown actors in their first feature-film roles: Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart.
Jerry Harvey, Z Channel director of programming and a devout fan of director John Ford, had been searching for the film, “Up the River,” since the early 1970s, when he ran the Beverly Canon Theatre in Beverly Hills. But it wasn’t until June that Harvey turned over the right stone.
“Somebody said that the Museum of Modern Art in New York ran it in 1975,” Harvey said.
He made a new pitch to 20th Century Fox to try to locate it. Kathy Liddy, manager of pay-TV sales for the studio, was hooked into doing the sifting and searching, and she found an inner-positive or “duplicate negative” of the film at the Museum of Modern Art.
The print contains many skips and scratches but Harvey opted to run it anyway to give subscribers the opportunity of seeing it. It premiered on the Z Channel Sunday and has additional screenings today at 3:30 p.m. and Wednesday at 9:30 a.m.
The film is “significant because it’s supposedly the first movie that Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart appeared in, so that gives it a certain archeological (value),” said Andrew Sarris, film critic and senior editor at the Village Voice. “It’s interesting to look at it . . . and say they were going to become immortal.”
The author of “The John Ford Movie Mystery,” Sarris called the film “fun” but “nothing special in itself.”
During filming, the two actors became close friends, and Tracy, the movie’s lead, reputedly coined the nickname “Bogie.”
It was also the only time they were together on the screen. Bogart offered a role to Tracy in “The Desperate Hours” in 1955, but Fredric March was eventually cast because of a billing dispute.
Character actor Warren Hymer, who was listed above Bogart in the credits of “Up the River,” also made his screen debut as Tracy’s dopey sidekick. Ward Bond, later to be used regularly by Ford, also can be seen in the film.
In 1930, a prison riot in Auburn, N.Y., inspired the Fox people to come up with the idea for “Up the River.”
Originally written by Maurine Watkins as a melodrama, the concept was turned comedic by Ford, who hired William Collier Sr., an ex-vaudeville performer who had worked with Mack Sennett and George M. Cohan. Collier stuck in a baseball finale and Ford encouraged improvisation, added scenes and changed the dialogue throughout the two weeks of filming.
But the studio didn’t have much faith in a melodrama-turned-comedy/drama made by a director of Westerns who had enlisted a bunch of no-name actors, so the advertising budget was halved and the film was dropped to “B” status. “Up the River” premiered in October, 1930, in San Bernardino.
“And the audience went wild,” Harvey said.
The film became a huge hit (a shock to Fox), and it even inspired the studio to do a remake in 1938 with Preston Foster in the Tracy role.
“But it’s horrible. It stinks,” Harvey said. “Ford was asked about the remake and his answer was, ‘They tried to remake it.’ ”