#339) Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1914)

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#339) Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1914)

Directed by William Robert Daly

Written by Edward McWade. Based on the novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe and the stage adaptation by George L. Aiken.

Class of 2012

In the alleged words of Clark Gable, “Let’s get this over with.”

The Plot: Tom (Sam Lucas) is a slave on a Kentucky plantation who is sold to the benevolent St. Clair (Garfield Thompson) when his owner (Walter Hitchcock) must pay off his debts. Once in New Orleans, Tom finds himself bonding with St. Clair’s daughter Eva (Marie Eline) over their shared Christianity. Following the tragic deaths of both Eva and St. Clair, Tom is sold to the vicious Simon Legree (Roy Applegate) in Louisiana. Only Tom’s faith in God keeps him going in this increasingly problematic American story.

Why It Matters: The NFR brings up this version’s main talking point as “the first feature-length American film that starred a black actor” and how this “set an important milestone in American movie history.” There’s also an extended essay by English professor Stephen Railton.

But Does It Really?: This…is a tough one. The novel “Uncle’s Tom Cabin” is a Pandora’s box of American race relations. On the one hand, the book helped spark the abolitionist movement, but on the other hand, it inadvertently prolonged the negative African-American stereotypes of the day (some would argue to the present). I will not try to defend the book and its place in our history; I’m just here to watch the movie. This “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” is one of several made during the silent era, and having Sam Lucas as the lead is a point in its favor. I don’t believe in censoring art or sweeping our national mistakes under the rug, so sooner or later we have to confront “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, and this version might as well be the one to start the conversation. If you’re going to watch this “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, make sure to do your homework first.

Everybody Gets One: The son of former slaves, Sam Lucas found fame by performing blackface in minstrel shows, using his success to pursue more dramatic avenues. In 1878, Lucas became the first African-American to play Uncle Tom in a serious stage version of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”. Nearly 40 years later, Lucas reprised the role in this film version, a role previously played by white actors in blackface. Speaking of…

Wow, That’s Dated: This is one of the movies I had in mind when I came up with the BLACKFACE WARNING. Uncle Tom is the only major African-American character in the film actually played by an African-American. All the others are played by white actors either in blackface (Topsy) or with no makeup, with the explanation that they’re mulatto (Eliza and George). And that’s just scratching the surface of what’s dated about this movie.

Other notes

  • Before we go any further, there are a few things you need to know about “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”. The original 1852 novel was staunchly anti-slavery, though Harriet Beecher Stowe’s solution to the problem seemed to be…Christian love? The book was a success, but raised a lot of ire from the pro-slavery population. Copyright laws were a more lax back then, and several stage productions of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” appeared throughout the country. Many of these were re-written to give the story a pro-slavery tint, relying on many of the African-American stereotypes of the day, including “Uncle Tom”; the African-American always subservient to their white master. These “Tom shows” became better known than the original novel, leading to today’s somewhat misguided notion that the book is pro-slavery.
  • Off the bat, this film version is closer to Stowe’s original intent, referring to the slave owners as “heartless traitors” in the first intertitle. It helps that this film was made over 60 years after the book was first published, and over 50 years after the Emancipation Proclamation. Hindsight is 20/20. The opening intertitle also says that this story “will live forever”, which is true, just not for the reasons they thought it would.
  • One of the things I noticed is how few intertitles are in this film. The assumption was that a 1914 audience was familiar with “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and didn’t need a refresher course. Do yourself a favor and at least read a plot synopsis before attempting to watch this movie.
  • Apparently Eliza escaping across the icy river is an iconic moment, but this version just glosses over it. That might be an artistic decision, but it also might be the result of a choppy print.
  • This whole movie is problematic for a variety of reasons, but wait until we get to Topsy. One of St. Clair’s younger slaves, Topsy is essentially every bad stereotype in one character: lazy, ignorant, prone to stealing, and on top of all this, she’s portrayed by a white actor in blackface. Topsy dares you to watch this movie.
  • “Uncle’s Tom Cabin” is a faithful, if streamlined, adaptation of the novel, with the major exception of the ending. Following Tom’s fatal whipping, an unnamed slave takes revenge by shooting and killing Simon Legree. And no, I’m not worried about spoiling the ending to the 105-year-old film version of a 167-year-old book.
  • If the new ending wasn’t enough evidence of the film’s abolitionist leanings, the final intertitle is a selection from the actual Emancipation Proclamation, with an illustration of Lincoln in the background just in case you haven’t figured it out yet.
  • This may be the one instance in film history where the book is not better.

Legacy

  • There were nine feature-length film versions of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” between 1903 and 1927. Since the silent era ended, only one full film version has been made: a 1987 TV-movie for Showtime starring Avery Brooks, Phylicia Rashad, Paula Kelly, and a then-unknown Samuel L. Jackson.
  • Want to see something really unsettling? Here’s the 1933 Mickey Mouse cartoon “Mickey’s Mellerdrammer”, in which Mickey and friends put on a production of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”. Three words: Mickey is Topsy.
  • Perhaps the best-known variation of the book is “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” from the increasingly problematic “The King and I”.
  • As for the cultural influence of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, it’s still a part of the cultural dialogue about African-American stereotypes, whether we know we’re referencing the book or not. You don’t have to watch this film version, but you should at least look up the book and learn about its history. Context doesn’t excuse anything about “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, but it does put things in perspective.

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