Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1903)

Does it strike anyone else as ironic that a movie based on a book that screams for black equality has not a single African American playing a lead character? Does anyone else find it strange that the same movie based on the same book contains cheap racial stereotypes?

Despite what I just said, this remains a solid movie for 1903, and an interesting adaptation of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s source material by Thomas Edison’s company. It doesn’t take too many liberties, which is impressive–see Edison’s Frankenstein for a film that, while fascinating, departs from Shelley’s novel quite drastically–but as said originally, those who haven’t read Uncle Tom’s Cabin might find themselves a bit lost.

This is yet another old post from Crane’s Cabinet of Kinetographic Curiosities, by the way–for those at home keeping score.

Originally posted February 12, 2018.

Summary: Uncle Tom is an African-American slave who, often, finds himself befriending the children of the white masters he serves.  An older man who’s been owned by several masters, Tom’s considered wise and is well-respected by his peers; a devout Christian, Tom is a source of hope and spiritual guidance for his fellows.  When his current owner Augustine St. Clair is killed in a bar fight after promising Tom his freedom (St. Clair is killed for an issue unrelated to Tom’s freedom), Tom is sold to the brutal plantation owner Simon Legree.  Wokeness ensues.

Thoughts: Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe is possibly the origin of the idea of the “great American novel.”  It was a tough indictment of slavery in the 1800s, and especially of Southern law as it pertained to slavery (by its suggestion that “good” and “kind” slave owners would free their slaves right there in the South if they were legally able to do so, instead of helping them run to the North).  Due to its examination of the human cost of slavery, the novel was poorly received by the Democrat South, but loved immensely in the Republican North–and it is credited with being a key factor in starting the American Civil War.  You think you’re woke?  You ain’t got shit on Harriet Beecher Stowe.

As one can imagine, the novel itself is several hundred pages (depending upon edition), and contains a number of subplot threads and supporting characters.  It’s a complicated (if not overly complex) narrative.  And this film by Edison Studios (as in, Thomas Edison) and director Edwin S. Porter attempts to condense this novel into fifteen minutes of loosely-related tableaus in the hopes that you’ve read the novel and thus have some idea–any idea–of what’s happening onscreen.

This was a typical practice in 1903.  There was no such thing as a “feature film” and anything longer than fifteen minutes didn’t seem like it would sell.  The basic movie-going audience was used to rapid-fire vaudeville routines and novels that would take weeks to read.  Film wasn’t yet seen as an art form, or even as a primary medium of telling a complex story.  And so my final sentence of the last paragraph wasn’t sarcasm, or meant to be funny–they really did hope that the general audience read the novel.  In fact, in all likelihood, the general audience did.  Modern audiences who haven’t, though, will be hopelessly lost.

There’s also little to no dialog.  Instead, we get periodic intertitles that announce what part of the novel the action on screen is supposed to illustrate.  Again, this is a product of the times, and not unusual.  And don’t expect to know who starred in this film.  Actor credits weren’t a thing in Edison’s company, or anywhere for that matter–not until stage stars King Baggot and Florence Lawrence sought to lend their star power to the movies in the first years of the 19-teens.

Historical caveats aside, the film is standard for Edison Studios, and for the time.  The camera work is stationary, the action is stagey.  Some of the visual effects (such as Eliza’s escape across an icy Ohio River, whereby faux ice chunks adorn said moving river) are impressive, though not particularly inspired; Melies and the Lumiere Brothers had been creating similar special effects for a decade or more by this point.

The acting is…bizarre.  It’s not so much the white actors in blackface that strike me as odd (this is to be expected when viewing movies from the “Golden Age” of cinema–not an excuse, just a refusal to litigate it), nor is it the over-exaggerated pantomime (also to be expected).  No, it’s the dancing.  No matter the situation, no matter the environment, the slave characters sporadically break out into dance.  Wedding?  Time to dance.  Slave auction?  I said “time to dance,” damn it!  Though I must say that the dances are very modern (as of the Jazz Age), indicating to me that white people’s dances during the 20s were just as influenced by African-American moves as they were in the 50s, 60s, 70s, and–well, any other decade in the 1900s, really.

As for the print: Grapevine Video has supplied a beautiful transfer of a movie that’s over a century old but looks like it was made just yesterday.  Well, okay–that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but not by much.  I bought the blu-ray during the Kickstarter and can honestly say that Grapevine has continued its tradition of quality.

Conclusion: Uncle Tom’s Cabin is worth a view, but only for its historical value–which, for a silent film collector, will be reason enough to pick this up.  The film’s running time of fifteen minutes is its blessing (as you won’t waste too much of your time watching it) and its curse (it’s a good running time for early adaptations of short stories, and considerably less so for long multi-part novels).  If you’re looking to become old school woke in the style of Republican Senator from Massachusetts Charles Sumner (1811-1874), this adaptation is not going to do it for you.  But this is the first of two early adaptations Grapevine put in its set.  How will the 1914 version fair?

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