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This is perhaps the best film adaption of the classic Harriet Beecher Stowe novel. One of the more expensive films for the time, a price tag of $1.8 million, it is brimming with brilliant photography and fine performances. A film beautifully restored with the original movietone score and one of the few surviving works of director Harry Pollard, a lesser known name in the annals of cinema history but nonetheless an innovative filmmaker. Mr. Pollard successfully captures the mood of the old pre-war South while emphasizing the horror and immorality of slavery. James Lowe gives a fine performance in the title role, obedient yet not lacking integrity. Some characterizations may seem degrading to today's audiences, but this film was groundbreaking for its sympathy for African-Americans of the time. This film is also important in that it features a great actress of the silent period and wife of the director, Margarita Fischer. I had seen many striking photos of Ms. Fischer in Daniel Blum's Pictorial History of the Silent Screen and was delighted to find one of her few surviving films on video. She stars as Eliza, a fair skinned servant who eventually falls into the hands of the sinister Simon Legree, played by George Siegmann. Ms. Fischer gives a powerful performance of a young woman defying the evils of a cruel world and there is a memorable scene of her flight to freedom across the ice flows with her son. This was this lovely actresses' swan song, for she retired prematurely after this film and lived many more years. An early appearance of Virginia Grey as Little Eva, Harry Pollard's mastery of filmmaking, and Margarita Fischer's beauty and talent all combine to make film preservation an important cause.
While this movie certainly suffers from the prevailing prejudices of
the times it still carries great emotional weight and manages to
humanize slaves and rightfully demonize the institution of slavery
itself. Turkish actor Arthur Edmund Carewe is a little more believable
as a light skinned black person than is Marguerite Fischer in her role
as Eliza but Fischer's performance is pretty effective. I was a little
surprised to find that she was once promoted as the "American Beauty".
She seemed particularly unattractive to me and even though she had
quite a successful film career prior to this film (her last) I can't
help but think that being married to the film's director,
co-screenwriter and co-producer helped get her cast. Still, standards
of beauty are mutable and she is not the only actress from early
twentieth cinema whose physical appeal is a mystery to modern eyes.
The oddly and somewhat eerily talented Lassie Lou Ahern plays her son Harry.Even though cross gender casting was not uncommon for child roles(nor for "Lassie's" either come to think of it) she is not very believable as a little boy. The fairly common habit in the years before and the early years of the 20th century of dressing up boys in girlish clothing doesn't help either. Still it is an amazing performance, for a 7 year old. Her acrobatic dancing being particularly notable.
James B. Lowe, the only actual African-American actor in one of the lead roles is outstanding as Uncle Tom. What is even more outstanding is the dignity and lack of minstrelsy in the way he is allowed to play him. Not at all typical of even the few films with sympathies toward the plight of black Americans and slaves from the start of American cinema to the late 1950's, this treatment and characterization of Uncle Tom goes a long way toward negating the ridiculous portrayal of the slaves of the kindly Shelby's as happy and content, even thankful (Tom and his wife proclaim how the Lord has blessed them with their life on the plantation)to be in bondage. For a slave, happiness was relative. I wish I could remember who said it but I have heard it said that 'the slave with a cruel master wishes for a kind one-the slave with a kind master wishes for freedom'. The myth of the contented slave grew out of the necessity for self-preservation and the fact that protests fell on deaf ears anyway. Certainly some slave owners were otherwise decent people who were also victims of the pseudo-science that proclaimed blacks as simple naive and in need of white guidance at one end of the philosophical spectrum and as sub-human and even evil at the other. The prevailing attitude was probably somewhere in-between. Certainly contact with slaves served to humanize them for some whites and their value as property and investment and laborers called for some humane treatment if only to protect them as such. The saintly Eva is a bit unrealistic but there certainly were many Southern whites who were rightly disgusted with slavery and the treatment of black people in general. Eva's declaration of love (and Aunt Ophelia's declaration of same after Eva's death) for Topsy is a major statement socially and cinematically. Affection on a non-patronizing level between blacks and whites on screen was almost never displayed and even more rarely stated outright. The physical contact between Uncle Tom and Eliza's mother Cassie was also exceptional. Even though the characters are both "black" the actress playing Cassie was not and the hand holding with and affectionate nursing of Lowe's Uncle Tom was the kind of action that would normally raise howls of protest from certain audiences. This avoidance of physical contact between especially a white female and a black male was still occurring even into the 1970's when some TV stations banned a special featuring a prominent white British female singer and a famous black actor/singer holding hands during a duet.
One of the first multi-million dollar productions, this film is not quite faithful to the book but still catches the viewer up in the plight of George and Eliza in particular and manages to indict the evil institution of slavery despite its concession to certain "sensibilities". A scene showing Uncle Tom rescuing Eva from the river was cut-probably so as not to give a black character too much heroic prominence but Eliza's escape over the ice floes is as realistic (even though it was done, or rather re-done on a studio backlot after having some footage shot on location originally) as anything of the times or even later. Actors and stunt people blend seamlessly and there is a real sense of danger conveyed.
Cinematically and dramatically the film more than justifies its huge budget and if a modern viewer can stomach some of the cliché portrayal of blacks and slaves and the cartoon-ish portrayal of some of the white characters they might find themselves understanding why Abraham Lincoln upon meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe was supposed to have remarked "So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war!" Only a true Simon Legree could look at even this stylized portrayal of slavery and still support the "peculiar institution".
Added December 12 2005:
Wanted to mention to Joseph Ulibas that while he is right that this film marks an innovative use of a racially mixed cast thecharacters of the slaves George, Eliza and Topsy were all played by white actors.
Well I didn't think I'd like this one but it turned out to be pretty
good and with a few terrific performances. Based on the 1852 novel by
Harriet Beecher Stowe, this silent film is a grand melodrama with all
the trimmings and includes some of the most famous characters and
scenes in American literature. Oddly there has never been an American
talkie version of this classic.
Released by Universal with a "no-star" cast, the film captures most of the highlights from the novel, including Eliza's flight across the frozen river pursued by bloodhounds (very well done), the death of Little Eva, and the villainous Simon Legree. The film gets better as it goes along building to the death of the villain.
Notable perhaps as one of the first mainstream Hollywood films to cast a Black actor in a major role (James B. Lowe as Uncle Tom), most of the other parts are also played by Black actors (but I suspect a few were whites in black face).
Margarita Fisher (in her final film) stars as Eliza, 10-year-old Virginia Grey in her film debut plays Little Eva, George Siegmann is a terrific Simon, Lucien Littlefield is the lawyer, Aileen Manning is Aunt Ophelia, Mona Ray is Topsy, and Eulalie Jensen is wonderful as Cassy. I spotted Clarence Wilson among the auction bidders; Louise Beavers is an extra.
The film was not a great success and Universal lost money but it remains as an interesting film version of the biggest-selling book of the 19th century. I taped this from TCM's May series on Blacks in films......
Harry Pollard is my great uncle, and Margarita Fisher is my great aunt,I
loved the movie and i couldnt belive that they had this on video.I
as a kid all the stories and pictures about my aunt and uncle that my
grandmother Katherine Havens would tell me and to see all this on the
internet just blew me away. I had no idea that anyone really knew who
were or cared.
In these days Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel of Uncle Tom's Cabin is
known more by historians as a contributing cause of the Civil War than
as an actual literary work. I would happily include myself in that
number. The only exposure I had to the story at all was in watching The
King And I where Tuptim puts on the play for the king recognizing the
story as an indictment of slavery. So sadly did the king, but that's
What you're seeing in this 1927 version is not Harriet Beecher Stowe's story, it couldn't be because there are references in the film to the Dred Scott decision, the firing on Fort Sumter and the Emancipation Proclamation all in the future because her story was published in 1852.
What slaves, free blacks, and sympathetic northerners like the Quaker family you see who rescue Eliza and her baby are afraid of the new strict fugitive slave law. The law was part of the Compromise of 1850 which almost mandated help for slave catchers who found runaway slaves in the north. It was a stench in the nostrils of folks like the Quakers who were prominent in the anti-slavery movement.
We're not seeing Stowe's story, but we are seeing her vision of the cruelty of slavery as an institution. Even the idea that black people were to be thought of as equal was radical in too many eyes back in the day.
Stowe used a lot of what would later be labeled stereotypes, most importantly the phrase 'Uncle Tom'. That which denotes a person willing to accept inequality in all its forms. The criticism has certain validity, but I think for the wrong reasons.
As seen her old Uncle Tom is the elder head of the plantation blacks on a Kentucky estate who the master even trusts to go to free state Ohio on business for him. No one can believe that Uncle Tom actually returns, the criticism is that his pride is so broken he accepts what the slave owners give him.
Tom returns, not because he accepts, but because in that cabin are his wife and children, even in slavery he's a family man. This is the most horrible thing of all for Stowe, the human beings are property. Even the kindly masters shown here like the Shelbys, Tom's owners accumulate debts and have to sell Tom and break up that family. Families being destroyed is the cardinal sin for Stowe.
Except for young Virginia Grey playing little Eliza the innocent who hasn't learned to regard certain people as beneath treating as human, most people today won't know the cast members. Some might know Lucien Littlefield who has a small role as a bottom feeding slave dealer. This was not a profession that attracted the best in society. James B. Lowe as Uncle Tom you will not forget, he invests great dignity in the original Uncle Tom role of them all.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This is a beautifully photographed film and a lavish production.
Recently, I've mostly viewed pre-1920s films, and it's pleasantly
revealing to then return to the late 1920s cinema and witness how
gorgeous silent films became. Camera movements are fluid and plenty, as
are the glossy close-ups, and sometimes the camera moves during
close-ups. Even the backgrounds in close-ups are glossed over or
manipulated in a way to affect emotions. This production in particular
features top-notch production values, including expensive sets and
staging. The negative cost alone was nearly $1.8 million; moreover,
historian David Pierce says only "Ben-Hur" (1925) and "Old Ironsides"
(1926) had cost more. It shows from the start to finish, opening on an
ornate antebellum Southern plantation, complete with period costumes,
the in-studio created snowstorm and ice flow getaway, the use of a real
riverboat and in Legree's rundown home.
As it turned out, the film was a box-office flop, despite the immense and decades lasting popularity of Stowe's novel and its stage adaptations. Updating the story to America's Civil War and bringing the Union army into the South was a mistake in all regards, but it's doubtful the film would have done well in the South anyhow. Reportedly, the stage plays tended to be more faithful to the anti-slavery theme and sympathetic racial views of the novel in Northern US states, while they transformed the story into minstrel shows in Southern states. With the Jazz Age, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, segregation and widespread racism, screen adaptations of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" went out of favor. According to Pierce, this film fell over a half million short of breakeven. Nevertheless, it doesn't seem surprising to me that Carl Laemmle would approve of this production. After all, it had proved a popular source for decades.
Additionally, the last time a Southerner (director Harry Pollard came from Kansas) made an epic concerning slavery and the Civil WarD.W. Griffith's "The Birth of a Nation" (1915)it was one of the biggest hits ever. Of course, those are about the only similarities between the two films, as an abolitionist wrote "Uncle Tom's Cabin", and "The Birth of a Nation" was based on a novel by a notorious white supremacist who wrote his book as a racist reaction to "Uncle Tom's Cabin". One other connection, however, is the casting of George Siegmann. He portrayed one of the more appalling racist characters in "The Birth of a Nation", as Silas Lynch, the mulatto made lieutenant governor who leads a black mob to seize control from white Southerners, deny their rights and rape their women. In "Uncle Tom's Cabin", he's the villain again, but as the slave trader and owner Simon Legree. Siegmann also gives the best performance in this one.
This film's narrative is also interesting and engaging, but flawed. This adaptation reworks Stowe's novel to focus less on Uncle Tom and more on Eliza, who, surely not coincidently, is played by the director's wife. To me at least, those playing Eliza and her family are too clearly Caucasians, making the nature of their continued enslavement despite attempts of escape rather unbelievable. In the novel, Eliza and her family escape to Canada shortly after the chase on ice, which was followed by a shootout not included in this adaptation, so there wasn't this problem. In reality, it could be relatively easy for mulattoes this light of skin color to become free or pass as appearing Caucasian. Instead, in this film, we get rather absurd images of whites auctioned and enslaved among blacks in the South. (There were slaves who appeared white, by the way; I'm merely suggesting that the plot is unconvincing in this respect and rather offensive for featuring Caucasian actors in the parts.) Caucasians in these parts weren't unusual, however, and, for romantic roles especially, it would have probably been controversial then to have them appear darker skinned. The 1914 film version, which I've recently viewed, also featured Caucasians as mulattoes, although it was more faithful to the novelthankfully in this respect. (Also, a girl plays, for no apparent reason, Eliza's child, who in the story is a boy.)
An African-American plays Uncle Tom, which was also the case in the 1914 film. James Lowe was too young for the part, though, and spends the film not seemingly to know whether to appear older or more vigorous and his own age. Topsy is played by a Caucasian in blackface and as somewhat of a pickaninny stereotypethis role seems to tend to be one of the more offensive. The two deleted scenes included on the Kino DVD feature Topsy and are more racist than anything in the rest of the picture.
As aforementioned, however, I did find the narrative engaging, as well as somewhat emotionally involving, and the film retains enough of Stowe's anti-slavery standpoint to be politically pleasing. More important, I think, it's visually engrossing. Sure, there are pictorially more amazing films from the late 20s, but this is still one of the better ones. The chase across breaking, flowing ice is reminiscent of the climax in "Way Down East" (1920). It also reminds me of the climax in "Our Hospitality" (1923), especially the waterfall suspense. The sequence in "Uncle Tom's Cabin" isn't as good as the ones in those two films, but it's impressive, nonetheless. Some shots of the rest of the blizzard are even, perhaps, more beautifully composed. Some compositions that especially struck me were those through windows and archways of characters looking at other characters. For the beauty of the image alone, this film is worth seeing.
(Note: The print does have constant speckling and some scratches due to age, but is, nevertheless, a very good restoration and transfer.)
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Okay, it's true that people watching this well-intentioned movie today
will very likely be offended by some of the over-the-top imagery of
happy slaves singing and dancing and enjoying their bondage during the
first portion of the film. This "happy slave" myth is advanced in the
film--most likely to assuage the guilt of White America concerning the
evil of slavery. However, once this section of the film is over, the
rest of the film is amazingly well done and the treatment of slaves in
the film is exceptional for its time. So, before you dismiss this film
for some relatively minor racist images, understand that the 1920s saw
an amazing re-birth of the KKK and the movie's message of love and
tolerance is a strong counterpoint to this racist organization.
While the original story by Harriet Beecher Stowe is extremely melodramatic and, at times, silly, this film is actually better than this source material. Plus, as the movie was made after the Civil War while the book was made in the 1850s (before the war), they were able to give it a more satisfying conclusion--leaving the audience with an uplifting segment where the Union Army frees the slaves of Simon Legree's hellish plantation.
The movie gets very high marks for some of the camera-work--especially the rousing scene where Liza crosses the ice flow with her young son. While this sort of scene had been done before on film, its realism still makes it a high mark in the history of silent film. Acting is generally good--particularly by Mr. Lowe as Uncle Tom, though there were quite a few silly and overacted scenes here and there. And, while this was one of the most expensive silent films ever made, the film is quite lovely and it looks like they got their money's worth.
Very hard to take, but, historically important and interesting. There are some wonderful scenes- Eliza and little Harry's escape from the plantation in the wintry night, their flight across the ice covered river, the surreal death of little Eva, the turning of the tables (first by Eliza and later by Cassie) that have enslaved women using whips to beat off white men! Margarita Fischer is quite good as Eliza. She has an interesting appearance that is quite right for this kind of melodrama. Virginia Grey as the impossibly saintly Little Eva is weirdly intense- sort of like those unsettling early performance by Jodie Foster. It works to make this character strange enough to be believable. Most of the actors playing Black slaves (some of them played by unnaturally painted white actors) have a more difficult time of it- James B. Lowe does his best and does bring some quiet dignity to the central role of Uncle Tom- but the script and conception defeat him at times. Arthur Edmund Carewe (an actor whom IMDb fascinatingly claims is of Native American descent- Chickasaw- and yet is said to have been born in Tebiziond Turkey?) is quite good as George Harris the light skinned husband of Eliza and father of Harry- although he barely appears in the film since much of George's story has been edited out. The most painfully offensive scenes belong to Mona Ray who plays the ridiculous caricature of the happy little mischievous slave Topsy. Interestingly the DVD has deleted scenes that push Topsy further towards a psychological study in self hatred- check them out of you rent this one- I am not sure if they were deleted in 1927 or at a later re-release date (Topsy uses the N word to refer to herself in the deleted scenes and in one fascinating scene ritualistically powders herself white in an attempt to become "good" like Ms. Eva. Of course, the film is a ridiculous and utterly offensive view of the history of slavery- that shamelessly panders to racist notions of European superiority. In this it does not depart from novel as much as make the narrative mo
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This mesmerizing film shows the brutality of slavery better than
anything else I've ever seen.
It's a bit jarring, and confusing initially, for modern viewers to see most of the main slave characters portrayed by whites. But you get used to this as you root for their relentless strivings toward freedom.
Margarita Fischer, an actress I'd never seen before, is superlative as a privileged slave who has a Southern belle-type wedding and a child with ringlets but is never quite safe from the spectre of the auction block.
The scene of Eliza racing through a blizzard and over ice floes, her child wrapped in her arms, just barely escaping death in a waterfall, is unforgettable. Her struggle to wrest her child back from the savages who would buy him is also stunning.
The movie includes a bizarre, perhaps overly long segment in which a staid white woman tussles with a mischievous slave (played by a phenomenally expressive Mona Ray in black face). I'm not quite sure what to think of this part of the film but I won't soon forget it.
Also impressive was Virginia Grey, only about 10 at the time, as the angelic and tragic Little Eva. (It's interesting to consider that Grey, much later in her career, went on to play the hardened whorehouse madam Candy in "The Naked Kiss.")
This story ends on a triumphant note that is all the more powerful when one considers the impact this 1850's novel had in fueling the Civil War.
This movie is the origin of the stereotypical "Uncle Tom" not Stowe's novel. The three dimensionality of the characters in the novel is virtually stripped away in this movie version. The awkward "smiles" and inappropriate laughter of the black characters caters to the post-Reconstruction mentality of the re-claimed South. Stowe's novel has a much more realistic treatment of characters from both regions. The poignant scene between Topsy and Eva is rendered cartoons in the movie. The faith connection between Tom and Eva is completely absent from the movie, yet one cannot appreciate the true nobility of their characters without seeing this bond between them brought about by a shared love of the world beyond. This movie does not properly capture the traditional paternalistic objectification of the slaves that the Master Shelby takes for granted and haunts Mrs. Shelby nor does it capture the "enlightened" position of Augustine St. Clare, who still is not moved to actually free his slaves until it is too late. George and Eliza's "priveliges" are virtually ignored in the movie, hence the contrast with these and the definitive reinforcement of their slave status at critical moments is lost. Legree is more of a Grimm-like ogre than the unbelievably inhumane monster of a man he is in the novel. This is a Jim Crow movie, Stowe's is not a Jim Crow novel. The South lost the war, but it won with this movie. It is a distant cousin to Griffith's "Birth of a Nation."
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