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The White Slave; or, The Octoroon (1913)

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Cast

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Zoe - the Octoroon
Earle Williams ...
George Peyton
Herbert Barry ...
The Indian
Lillian Walker
William V. Ranous
Kenneth Casey
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31 May 1913 (USA)  »

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1.33 : 1
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Unsavoury slavery; not enough bravery.
19 May 2008 | by (Minffordd, North Wales) – See all my reviews

After I saw this movie, my brain wanted to wash its hands. I used a hand-held Steenbeck viewer to watch 'The White Slave', and some of the antics in this crude movie were so repulsive I nearly dropped the Steenbeck. 'The White Slave' is immensely racist: it's one of those antebellum mellerdrammers that celebrates slavery -- specifically, the enslavement of blacks by southern whites -- as an institution to be cherished rather than reviled.

A title card ushers us into the Terrebonne plantation in deepest Louisiana. Salem Scudder (Herbert Barry) is the kindly southern overseer who presides over the slaves. Also on the plantation is young Zoe, who looks white (portrayed by white actress Clara Kimball Young), but who is actually one-eighth Negro: the offspring of an encounter between the now-deceased "massa" (a judge, no less) and one of his quadroons. As anyone knows who has seen 'Show Boat', Zoe is technically black and is therefore a slave.

A slave boy named Paul (played by white actor Kenneth Casey in blackface) is murdered by Jake McCloskey (William Ranous), the former overseer ... who is actually a Northerner, and is therefore (in this story) automatically a villain. McCloskey frames a Red Indian named Wah-No-Tee (George Streaton) for the crime. Wah-No-Tee is depicted as a stereotypical 'noble red man', but at least this is a positive stereotype rather than a negative one. McCloskey lusts for Zoe, announcing to us in a title card: "I'll have her if it cost me my life."

Just in time, along comes the late judge's handsome nephew Peyton (Earle Williams) back from Paris, where he's been studying French women. The plantation is financially bankrupt (as opposed to the rest of this movie, which is morally bankrupt) and the bailiffs are about to auction all of its assets ... meaning, of course, the slave labour. The man who makes the winning bid for Zoe will be legally her owner! Will she be purchased by the noble Southerner or by the foul Northerner?

Who cares? This movie is racist drivel. Lurking in the canebrakes are annoying actress Lillian Walker as a brainless southern ingenue named Dora, and an apparently genuine black actor (unnamed in the titles) as Old Pete, the faithful old Negro whose greatest pleasure am to serve de white folks. What really angered me about this agitprop film is that, like 'The Birth of a Nation' (a much better movie), it never questions the morality of slavery. The damsel in distress here, Zoe, is a white woman in every sense except for the legal technicality which defines her as black and therefore as property. 'The White Slave' works itself into a froth over the unfairness of fair Zoe being treated as chattel, but doesn't have any objection to the fact that Old Pete, young Paul and the other blacks are slaves. Nor is there any concern that Wah-No-Tee is deemed inferior to his white neighbours, although (SPOILER coming now) at least there's enough justice here for Wah-No-Tee to receive a last-minute reprieve from a lynching.

This movie is badly photographed and statically paced, with tableau stagings on unconvincing sets that make the action (what there is of it) seem more stagebound than necessary. Clara Kimball Young's ethereal beauty comes through in a couple of close shots -- her husband James Young was this movie's director -- but some of the other actors are lighted so poorly (in blocking so badly staged and filmed) that I could barely make out their faces ... although I did spot the Vitagraph logo in a couple of the on-screen tableaux. Some of the costumes are impressive, but -- since this drama supposedly takes place in the early 19th century, and most of the characters are skint -- that workmanship actually worked against the story's credibility. My rating for this racist mess: just barely 3 points out of 10.


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