The Batter’s Eye: Up the River

Happy Opening Day! It’s officially baseball season, with all the ups and downs that come with being a baseball fan (and since I’m a Nationals fan, that’s mostly downs, sadly).

To celebrate baseball season this year, I’ve decided to watch a baseball movie every week. I’m starting with Up the River from 1930.

Poster for Up the River

Honestly, Up the River is barely a baseball movie in the traditional sense. It does involve baseball, though, as a major plot point. Mostly, it’s an interesting curiosity — it is a pre-Hayes Code John Ford movie that was the feature film debut for both Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart. It was also the only time the two of them appeared together on screen.

There is, strangely, a lot of plot for a movie where not that much happens. St. Louis (Tracy) is an ex-baseball player and convict who befriends fellow convict Steve (Bogart). Steve is in love with a woman convict, Judy (Claire Luce). Once Steve is released from prison, Judy’s former partner-in-crime, Frosby (Morgan Wallace) catches up with him and threatens to reveal his history. St. Louis escapes from jail to help Steve, only to return to play in the annual baseball game.

That’s it. That’s the entire movie. There is a sequence featuring the prison talent show which has some slight plot significance but mostly just seems like an excuse for some unfortunate blackface (not that there’s any other kind). It’s only about 90 minutes but it does feel a bit stretched.

I would not have watched this if I hadn’t been looking for baseball movies and there’s no real reason why anyone should, other than the novelty of it. Still, the jokes are funny for the most part and the performances are charming. Bogart is incredibly sweet here, and Tracy is fun. I don’t particularly regret watching it but it’s nothing I ever need to see again.

Also, it probably needed more baseball.