UNCLE TOM'S CABIN (1914)
Director: William Robert Daly
Writers: Harriet Beecher Stowe (novel), George L. Aiken (play)
Stars: Sam Lucas, Walter Hitchcock, Hattie Delaro
Runtime: 54 min
Sound Mix: Silent
Color: Black and White
Courageous individuals help slaves find freedom via the underground railroad.
Sam Lucas in the title role is generally considered the first black actor in a leading role in a feature film.
Stowe's novel, which predated America's Civil War, was immensely popular, at least in America and Britain, where it was an inspiration to abolitionists. It had a very real influence in changing people's attitudes on slavery and race. Today, it's difficult to appreciate the historical importance of this story; we're further removed from this 1914 film than that film was from Stowe's novel, not just in years, but also in accessibility. As widely published as the novel was, it may have reached even more people through the stage. "Tom shows" were still common in the early 20th Century. "Uncle Tom's Cabin", probably especially for some of the stage versions, may be best remembered today for the racial stereotypes it fostered, including the title role.
As indication of the novel and plays' lasting popularity, one only need look at the several film adaptations, mostly from the 1910s. IMDb lists six versions from that decade, which still isn't all of them. Two of the more accessible silent screen adaptations are the 1903 tableau style Edison Company short film by Edwin S. Porter and Universal's 1927 epic production. Another notable adaptation was one of the 1910 versions, made by Vitagraph; at three reels length, it was longer than most films at that time. Additionally, one from 1918 served as a vehicle for silent film star Marguerite Clark; like Mary Pickford, she often played young girls, including the Eva St. Clair character in "Uncle Tom's Cabin".
This 1914 film remains obscure today, but I think it's actually a rather good adaptation. I might not be as offended by the genre as other modern eyes are, since I've seen a good number of such old pictures, but this adaptation doesn't seem overly sentimental or melodramatic, surprisingly, given its source, although it does maintain the novel's puritanical sermon. The Christian message is only dominant in two deathbed scenes, however, which, albeit, are prominent to the photoplay. These involve superimposed spirits to create heavenly imagery. Furthermore, although the photography and visual film-making here are nothing exceptional, this film is not stagy, either. The pacing and editing, although choppy in the print available to me, is well paced and with decent continuity for its era, although nothing especially remarkable. There are few close-ups (which would've helped given the effect of age on the reduction print, which I'll mention more on).
The best decision here was probably to cast Sam Lucas, a real African-American and former slave, in the title role. He demonstrates commendable restraint in a role that could have too easily served for some stereotypes or over-the-top hams. Nothing that nice can be said about most of the rest of the cast. Although the print I saw was dark, unclear and rather blurry, so much to the point where it was difficult to see faces or make out skin color, it appears that some of the black and mulatto slaves are played by white actors. A Boots Wall in blackface as Topsy is notably rather offensive—providing a generic pickaninny stereotype. Regardless, plot-wise, this is a clear and concise adaptation of an old tale.
Silent film versions
Uncle Tom's Cabin was the most-filmed story of the silent film era with at least nine known adaptations between 1903 – 1927. This popularity was due to the continuing popularity of both the book and "Tom shows", meaning audiences were already familiar with the characters and the plot, making it easier for the film to be understood without spoken words.
A 1903 version of Uncle Tom's Cabin was one of the earliest "full-length" movies (although "full-length" at that time meant between 10 and 14 minutes). This film, directed by Edwin S. Porter, used white actors in blackface in the major roles and black performers only as extras. This version was evidently similar to many of the "Tom Shows" of earlier decades and featured a large number of black stereotypes (such as having the slaves dance in almost any context, including at a slave auction).
Another film version from 1903 was directed by Siegmund Lubin and starred Lubin as Simon Legree. While no copies of Lubin's film still exist, according to accounts the movie was similar to Porter's version and reused the sets and costumes from a "Tom Show."
In 1910, a 3-Reel Vitagraph Company of America production was directed by J. Stuart Blackton and adapted by Eugene Mullin. According to The Dramatic Mirror, this film was "a decided innovation" in motion pictures and "the first time an American company" released a dramatic film in 3 reels. Until then, "full-length" movies of the time were 15 minutes long and contained only one reel of film. The movie starred Florence Turner, Mary Fuller, Edwin R. Phillips, Flora Finch, Genevieve Tobin, and Carlyle Blackwell Sr.
Another 1910 version by the Thanhouser Company was directed by Barry O'Neil, starred Frank Hall Crane as Uncle Tom, Anna Rosemond as Eliza, Marie Eline as Little Eva, and Grace Eline as Topsy.
A 1913 release was directed by Otis Turner and adapted by Allan Dwan. It starred Edward Alexander, Margarita Fischer, Harry A. Pollard, Iva Shepard and Gertrude Short.
Another 1913 release was directed by Sidney Olcott and starred Anna Q. Nilsson.
A 1914 version was directed by William Robert Daly. It was adapted Edward McWade from the play adaptation by George L. Aiken. It starred Sam Lucas, Teresa Michelena, Marie Eline (again), Roy Applegate and Boots Wall. This was the first "white" film to have an African-American star. This version was added to the National Film Registry in 2012.
The Birth of a Nation (1915) deliberately used a cabin similar to Uncle Tom's home in the film's dramatic climax, where several white Southerners unite with their former enemy (Yankee soldiers) to defend what the film's caption says is their "Aryan birthright." According to scholars, this reuse of such a familiar cabin would have resonated with, and been understood by, audiences of the time.
A 1918 version was directed and adapted by J. Searle Dawley. It starred Marguerite Clark (as both Little Eva and Topsy), Sam Hardy, Florence Carpenter, Frank Losee and Walter P. Lewis.
A 1927 version was directed by Harry A. Pollard (who'd played Uncle Tom in the 1913 release of Uncle Tom's Cabin). This two-hour movie spent more than a year in production and was the third most expensive picture of the silent era (at a cost of $1.8 million). Black actor Charles Gilpin was originally cast in the title role, but was fired after the studio decided his "portrayal was too aggressive." James B. Lowe then took over the character of Tom. One difference in this film from the novel is that after Tom dies, he returns as a vengeful spirit and confronts Simon Legree before leading the slave owner to his death. Black media outlets of the time praised the film, but the studio—fearful of a backlash from Southern and white film audiences—ended up cutting out controversial scenes, including the film's opening at a slave auction (where a mother is torn away from her baby). The story was adapted by Pollard, Harvey F. Thew and A.P. Younger, with titles by Walter Anthony. It starred James B. Lowe, Virginia Grey, George Siegmann, Margarita Fischer, Mona Ray and Madame Sul-Te-Wan.
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