John Ford’s 1927 Fox comedy UPSTREAM starts off in a theatrical rooming house — and stays there for half its running time. The scenario allows Ford to have fun with stereotyped theatre types, and a little fun with space, too.
The movie has that early Fox look, all smoky and grimy yet luminous, to which Time has added a loving filigree of nitrate decomposition, dancing away at the edge of frame like the fingerprints of a jellyfish.
In this dinner scene, the whole cast is gathered around a table — we see that the landlady is at the head of the table and her lodgers are arrayed along both sides. News comes that an important booking agent has arrived at the front door, and each struggling ham briefly imagines that the call is for him or her. And here Ford does something very strange.
Tracking laterally along the table, he captures the reverie of each of his cast — in a single, straight line.
The weird thing about that is that it’s impossible, since we’ve already seen that half the actors are at one side of the table, half at the other. But since Ford wanted an unbroken, linear track, he’s brought in a table twice as long as the one in the establishing shot and sat everybody along one side, like in The Last Supper.
Oddly, this abandonment of elementary continuity isn’t off-putting. I doubt if everybody even notices it, so compelling is Ford’s tracking shot (a bit like the starry crab dolly along the canteen tables in SHOW PEOPLE). The idea is consistent with the German expressionist approach at Fox. Edgar Ulmer claimed that the expressionists would build a new set for every camera angle, to get their compositions to work out just the way they’d drawn them. In Frank Borzage’s masterpiece SEVENTH HEAVEN, how many viewers have any problem with the glaring fact that the garret where Janet Gaynor lives is apparently reached by two completely different stairwells, one that’s angular, for the crane shot, and one that’s spiral for the overhead angle?
This kind of vigorous warping of the physical universe was continued by Hitchcock in SHADOW OF A DOUBT, when he had different shapes and sizes of dinner tables used to allow him to group his actors as tightly or loosely as the compositions required. One table was egg-shaped, so that the cast could be clustered at the sharp end and all appear in a shot representing the mother’s POV. But that isn’t near as bold as the Fox examples — you aren’t meant to notice it, and you don’t.
I would like to see more of this kind of creative craziness.