Finally after many years this film has reappeared for evaluation by new audiences. It's about time. It was the only film that John Ford directed Humphrey Bogart in, and the only film that Bogie appeared with one actor he really respected (who respected him): Spencer Tracy. Ford would eventually make THE LAST HURRAH with Tracy, with better equipment and production values, and (to be fair) one of the best political screenplays in movie history. But if THE VAGABOND KING has to be taken as symbolic of the changeover of motion pictures to sound, and how it was not a total success at first, so is UP THE RIVER a similar transition film.
Currently it is in a package of twenty movies (surviving films) of Ford made at 20th Century Fox from the 1920s to 1952. In 1930, Ford had at least seven years of heavy movie work behind him, laying the groundwork for his magnificent westerns and regular films like THE GRAPES OF WRATH and HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY. But he was just getting used to sound, and while he was more creative than the forgettable director of THE VAGABOND KING, there are moments when you see him struggling to place his performers into position near microphones (the number of scenes of people aimlessly congregating is amazing in this film).
Positively it does show a young Tracy and a young Bogart playing off each other. Less positively Bogart is separated from Tracy for much of the film - Bogart is leaving prison on parole, when Tracy is returned, and Bogie heads back to his home in New England. But problems dealing with a blackmailer forcing Bogart to work in a swindle with him leads to Tracy promising Bogart's prison sweetheart (Claire Luce) that he will help Bogart out. So they do reunited for more scenes (including one odd one - they are on a relaxing hay ride with Bogart's friends).
Bogart is a good guy who killed a man in a fight and was sent to prison as a result. Tracy is a smart-aleck crook, who is teamed usually with occasionally smart, but frequently stupid Warren Hymer (in the beginning of the film Tracy abandons Hymer rather simply by having him check a back tire on their getaway car - one that is not damaged actually). Still Hymer does occasionally trump an amazed Tracy - at a dinner with a clergyman, Hymer's brief period as a member of the Salvation Army proves to be useful. Despite being a smart-aleck, Tracy is actually a decent type, which is why he helps Bogart with the blackmailer.
A number of others are sprinkled in the film. William Collier Sr. is the 40 year life termer at the prison who is now captain of their baseball team. Note the scene where he tries to get Tracy an extra pillow at the expense of either Hymer or Bogart to protect Tracy's arm. Robert Emmett O'Connor, soon to be driven to distraction as the immigration detective chasing the Marx Brothers in A NIGHT AT THE OPERA, is the warden here. The prison is a prison to the men, but they are not a bad bunch and do thank the warden for his efforts for them (including putting on a yearly show of their own talents). I suspect that O'Connor's character (although the prison is in the mid-west) is based somewhat on the leading American prison warden penologist of that period: Warden Lewis Lawes of Sing Sing Prison. Lawes did everything he could to try to make Sing Sing a real place for rehabilitation, and was even an early outspoken (and eloquent) critic of the death penalty. Remembered only by criminal historians and penologists today, he was a very famous man in 1930.
One problem with the film is that African-Americans will find the use of a minstrel act in the prison show is actually offensive (although Ford shows a tall African-American prisoner enjoying the humor). On the other hand, those African-American prisoners who are in there mix and mingle pretty easily with the white prisoners. Ford was ahead on that point.
Another problem is due, possibly, to deteriorating film stock. Sequences in the film jump - dialog is lost. Also a plot point - the associates of the blackmailer warn him not to try to cheat them or else. He is later followed into his office late at night by these suspicious associates. We never (now) see if they carry out their threat.
Two other people who appear are Ward Bond as a bullying prisoner, put in his place by Bogart and Tracy (Bogart would re-team with Bond eleven years later in THE MALTESE FALCON, on friendlier terms). The other is Bob Burns, the "Arkansas Traveller" musician and comedian whose career really took off in the later 1930s. Burns is part of the minstrel show, in black-face (unfortunately), but he is playing his famous "bazooka" musical instrument.