In the pre-Civil War South, a sadistic plantation-owner brutalizes his slaves to the point of them heaving no other choice but to rebel. Always obedient, peaceful and honest old slave Tom plays a central role in this tragedy.
Géza von Radványi
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The role of "Uncle Tom" was originally given to Charles Gilpin, but when Universal executives saw the first few days' dailies, they objected to Gilpin's "aggressive" performance and demanded that he be replaced. Character actor James B. Lowe auditioned for the part, gave a more "acceptable" reading and was awarded the role. See more »
Little Eva's spirit touched the life of Uncle Tom, like a sunbeam in a darkened room.
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Universal Pictures also released this movie without a soundtrack. See more »
Simplified and sanitized version of one of the most influential books of the 19th century.
This big-budget, silent adaptation of Stowe's famous novel has not aged well. Presumably the producers did not want to alienate Southern viewers (the Civil War being only 60 years in the past): the film opens with a quote by Robert E. Lee condemning slavery and then introduces the first slave-holding characters as "Mr. and Mrs. Shelby, whose gentle rule of the slaves was typical of the South." While the slaves are mistreated in the film, the casual cruelty and wanton brutality described in the book is greatly toned down. The movie makes some significant changes to the story, notably shifting the period to the beginning of the Civil War (allowing the "Yankee" Army to free the slaves), eliminating the shootout between George and pursuing slave-catchers (perhaps the image of an escaped slave shooting at white men was considered too incendiary for the times), and adding a more 'Hollywood-style' ending (a last minute heroic rescue and the villain's righteous comeuppance). The film also combines the characters Eliza and Emmeline and eliminates most of the story that takes place amongst the Quakers in Ohio (all of whom, despite living in a 'free state', were breaking the law by helping the runaways - again perhaps to spare the audience's feelings). Like the movie, the novel includes many good, honorable, Christian slave-owners, but the book clearly distinguishes between 'being good' and 'doing good'. Self-righteous Northerners who promote emancipation but still consider blacks inferior are condemned as well as are 'benign' slave owners, who, despite their personal distaste for the system, do little to end the practice. The film is uneven at times, abruptly switching from high melodrama to broad comedy. While Stowe's book as some humorous moments (e.g. spitting tobacco juice, Ophelia's battle with her trunk), the movie movies pushes for laughs through stereotypes that parody both blacks (Topsy, the black children devouring a watermelon, slaves mugging and energetically dancing to 'Turkey in the Straw') and whites (lawyer Marks). The slapstick is badly dated, offensive to some modern sensibilities, and out of place in what is generally a somber and tragic story. The film is noted for having most of the significant black characters played whites in blackface with the exception of Tom himself, who was played by African American actor James B. Lowe. The main characters Eliza and George are not even in blackface and to modern viewers, the idea that the obviously white actors are runaway black slaves may seem ridiculous. The casting may have been part of an attempt to make the two more sympathetic to a largely white audience, but the book does makes it clear that Eliza and George were of mixed parentage and could pass themselves off as white if necessary. The arbitrariness of racial divisions is a theme in the book. The film has some good moments. Eliza's escape across the ice flows is well done and exciting and there is a visually striking scene in which Eva's soul ascends to Heaven. Lowe is good as Tom but needs to be appreciated in the context of the stagy, theatrical acting style that characterized most silent films. The movie is worth watching for fans of the book, social and cultural historians, and silent-film aficionados. Other viewers may find it offensive, dated, overly long, and/or slow moving.
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