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Sunday, 4 October 2009

Uncle Tom's Cabin (1927)

The 1927 version of Uncle Tom's Cabin would seem to be a pretty important one, as such things go. It's the last of the silent adaptations of Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel, the film having been a mainstay on the silent screen for years. After all it was the best selling novel of the 19th century, outsold only by the Holy Bible. Edwin S Porter directed the story for Thomas Edison as far back as 1903, the same year he made the groundbreaking The Great Train Robbery. Eight more versions followed before this one, including a Mack Sennett comedy short and a 54 minute version in 1914 that cast a black actor, Sam Lucas, in the title role, something not often done in that era.

One in particular from 1913 seems to have set the stage for the 1927 version. In 1913 Harry A Pollard played Uncle Tom, in the usual blackface of the time as he was a white man; in 1927 he was the director and producer, as well a contributor to the writing. In 1913 his wife Margarita Fischer played the minor role of Topsy; in 1927 she was top billed as Eliza. Universal Studios must have had serious confidence in this version, pumping a huge two million dollars into the production, and it's populated throughout by more black actors than I've seen in that era outside an Oscar Micheaux production. It even opens with a quote from Robert E Lee, decrying slavery, a couple of days after Christmas in the year the film begins, 1856.

We're in Kentucky for a wedding, at the opulent house of the Shelbys, 'whose gentle rule of the slaves was typical of the South'. In fact the wedding is of a couple of slaves, Eliza and George, who were light skinned in Stowe's novel but demonstrably white here. Fischer, as Eliza, was of German stock, and in fact she changed her stage name to Fisher during the First World War to avoid negative impact from anti-German sentiment in the States. The credits here show she changed it back again afterwards, but this was her last film as an actress even though she lived until 1975. George is Arthur Edmund Carewe whose rhythmic name is ripe for turning into verse, except he was born Jan Fox in Turkey. He could play both hero and villain and except for this film is probably best known for his prominent role in Lon Chaney's version of The Phantom of the Opera two years earlier. He also appeared in The Cat and the Canary, Doctor X and Mystery of the Wax Museum, before committing suicide in 1937 after suffering a paralytic stroke.

Though Eliza and George are both slaves, they have very different backgrounds: Eliza has grown up with the Shelbys almost like one of the family, while George is rented to them by the month from a man named Edward Harris. The Shelbys are happy to host a wedding for them, turning it into something of a society affair, but it ends badly when Harris turns up to retrieve his slave. He's so incensed that George marry without his consent that he even rips him out of the arms of his new wife. Apparently the Shelbys aren't as typical of the South as we may have been led to believe. They're played by Jack Mower and Vivien Oakland, both of whom I've seen recently, the prolific Mower as a bartender in Gold is Where You Find It and Oakland looking much older than the sexy neighbour in Mama Behave only a year earlier.
Another apparently untypical man of the South is Tom Haley, a businessman who frequently lends money to Mr Shelby. Eliza and George's wedding day is the day another of his notes becomes due and Haley is stunned to discover that Shelby has sent one of his slaves, the Uncle Tom of the title, into the free state of Ohio to bring back the money. Uncle Tom is a third generation slave at the Shelbys and is utterly trustworthy, so when he and the money both come back unscathed he marks him down in his mind for future reference. Sure enough, the opportunity arises because Mrs Shelby is an expensive wife and Shelby can't pay one of her debts, so he takes Uncle Tom in payment instead. He also takes little Harry, Eliza and George's son, who is unfortunate enough to walk in and dance a little dance in front of them right as they're making their deal.

And so the saga runs on. George escapes from Harris, aiming for Canada where he plans to raise money to buy his wife and son. Eliza and Harry escape from Shelby before they can be separated, only to be chased by Haley, along with Harris and his bloodhounds who erroneously believe that George is with them. Of course, they all run in to no end of villains, because as we find the Shelbys aren't even remotely typical. First it's an unscrupulous lawyer and slave chaser called Marks with his bear like assistant Loker. Then it's Lemuel Proctor to whom they sell Harry, right out of his mother's sleeping arms on a paddle steamer. Eventually we'll get to Simon Legree, one of the earliest real villains of American fiction who transcended his source material to become something of a bogeyman. He even has a unibrow here to emphasise his vileness, though surprisingly not in all scenes.

There are some great scenes here, as we should hope for in a 1927 movie that cost a couple of million bucks but didn't feature any major stars. The best has to be the one when Eliza escapes from her pursuers across a partially frozen river by jumping from ice floe to ice floe. In a snowstorm. While being chased by bloodhounds. Right above a waterfall. Cradling her baby (well, 'baby' is what everyone keeps on saying even though scenestealing actress Lassie Lou Ahern was seven years old and looked it). In the end they're hauled clear by a Quaker called Phineas Fletcher, who hangs upside down from a tree overhanging the falls to snatch them both from imminent death. It's a great action sequence, though it doesn't make any difference in the grand scheme of things because the Dred Scott decision means that an escaped slave can be taken wherever found, even in a free state. So off they go back into captivity to be sold down the river.

The paths of what seem like every character in the film promptly intersect on a paddle steamer running from Louisville to New Orleans, though most are unaware of it. Haley is there, taking Uncle Tom home to be his slave. George is there, surreptitiously flitting around trying to find his wife and child. Eliza and Harry are there too, hidden below decks by Marks and Loker. When we leave the steamer, George has escaped again after having been seen by Haley; Harry is sold off to someone new in another great scene that even has Eliza whipping Loker; and Uncle Tom is sold off again too, to a new hero in the story, Augustine St Clare of New Orleans.
St Clare is travelling back home with his cousin Ophelia and his daughter Eva, a little girl with extreme ringlets who dishes out apples to the negroes downstairs. She's also played by the biggest star in the cast, Virginia Grey, though she was hardly that at the time, being a mere ten year old in her film debut. She'd been 'discovered' on the Universal lot a year earlier, though she was hardly a stranger to the movie business. Her father, Ray Grey, was one of the Keystone Kops and somehow she managed to command babysitters like Gloria Swanson. Her career would continue all the way to 1970's Airport and almost included a marriage to Clark Gable.

And all of a sudden it's 1861 and the Civil War begins, making me wonder about how much of this story is quite what Harriet Beecher Stowe told in her book. After all, Uncle Tom's Cabin was published in 1852 and it was a major influence on the public sentiment against slavery that helped lead to the conflict. In fact there's a famous quote from Abraham Lincoln at the beginning of the Civil War that emphasises this. When Lincoln met Stowe, a preacher and active abolitionist, he apparently told her, 'So this is the little lady who made this big war.' Regardless how famous and massively selling the book was, I haven't read it, probably due to having grown up in England rather than the States, and now I wonder just what she did write, because it's obviously not a lot of what I watched here. Perhaps the spirit is intact, but the filmmakers just couldn't resist playing with the timeframe.

It's an interesting film, not least because it was such an expensive effort made right at the tail end of the silent era. There are scenes of cinematic power, using all the technology available at the time, yet there are other scenes of what could only be described as silent screen excess. Some come almost simultaneously, such as the scenes surrounding the death of little Eva St Clare. The death scene includes an excellent tracking shot and some effective special effects as Eva ascends to Heaven, but surrounding it all are the histrionics of Topsy, the piccaninny companion of Eva. The actress is Mona Ray, a white girl in blackface who looks like Mickey Rooney and gets to overact up a storm. When she leaves the film, George Siegmann enters it as Simon Legree, and the ensuing scenes are the epitome of silent screen melodramatics, albeit well done silent screen melodramatics.

This leaves the picture a little schizophrenic. Half of it is firmly grounded in old school melodrama, powerfully done but full of the sort of overblown theatrics that keep many from the joys of the silent era. All the later characters are guilty of this, not just Simon Legree, but his entire household of slaves, including Cassie, Eliza's mother, and Legree's black enforcers Sambo and Quimbo. Yet the other half is forward looking, full of impressive cinematography, decent double exposure effects, synchronised sound and far more subtle acting from people like James B Lowe as Uncle Tom. I wonder what this would have looked like five years later, when the silent era was dead and gone and sound had come to terms with itself. We'll never know, as the next version surprisingly didn't arrive until 1965, made in Europe, with Herbert Lom as Simon Legree.

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