"Uncle Tom" Comes to the Screen
The behind-the-scene story of the making of "Uncle Tom," the culmination of a decade-old ambition of Carl Laemmle, contains many tears and not a few laughs, a sigh or two and an occasional chuckle.
A year ago, last winter, the company made the cross-continent trek to Plattsburgh, New York, where the immortal Eliza-crossing-the-ice was to be perpetuated in celluloid. Untold hardships were the lot of the hardy band who undertook the journey, hardships of unbearable cold and illness, annoyances and discomfort, sleet and frost, hardships that, were they to be related here, would sound like a bid for sympathy by a hard-boiled press agent.
It was then that Director Harry Pollard felt the first qualms of what he thought was a severe toothache, superinduced perhaps by the bitter cold. A local dentist was visited and Pollard returned to his snow and ice and wind-machines and bloodhounds. His jaw tormented him, but he bravely continued. At length, the pain became excruciating and he collapsed. He was rushed to New York and taken to a hospital where it was discovered that the jaw had been broken thirty days before due to the maltreatment of the inept practitioner.
For months the life of the unfortunate director hung by a thread. Unable to receive nutrition, his system poisoned by malignant secretions, recovery was despaired of. However, a rugged constitution and years of clean living triumphed and Pollard emerged from the institution, disfigured for life, but undaunted, ready once more to resume his megaphone.
The company returned to Universal City and started work on the widely-heralded $60,000 "Shelby" set, the sequence in which Uncle Tom is introduced to the story. This home, practical, by the way, was an exact reproduction of a celebrated, old-time Kentucky estate, with the "big house," the slave quarters, lawns, stables, a bayou of the Mississippi cutting one corner of the place, cotton-weighing sheds, cotton gins and the thousand and one other appurtenances of the antebellum, aristocratic planter. The owner's house contained nine rooms, each furnished in complete period, a triumph of set-dressing.
One night was devoted to shooting a revival in which Uncle Tom plays the principle role. Cameras were set, lights placed, directions given, and the three-hundred-odd negroes rehearsed in their action. Pollard gave the command, "Camera!" Uncle Tom started his exhortations and the colored actors responded vociferously.
After shooting about 200 feet Pollard smiled with satisfaction. The cameras stopped but the darkies didn't. Suddenly a wild cry was heard and an ebony-hued religionist jumped to his feet, beating his breast with his fists shouting : "I've got religion: Jesus is in me." A score of other darkies followed suit. The negroes disregarded the orders of the director entirely in their fervant devotion. It was sometime before they recovered their poise.
Pollard experienced considerable difficulty with the colored children, the majority of which had never seen a camera before. He hit on a happy device to insure tractability. It was extremely fortuitous that the watermellon season was at hand, too, as the success of that particular sequence is attributable directly to the succulent citrullus.
A big adventure was an eight-week location trip to the Mississippi where the "Kate Adams," last of the mighty river sidewheelers, was chartered.
The old, ante-bellum South has been faithfully translated onto celluloid as a result of this trip which saw several amusing experiences and several tragic ones.
At Greenville, Miss., Pollard discovered that he was shy one old woman to complete the personnel of the slave gang. Accordingly, the boat landed and a scout was sent out to seek the missing character. One woman was found and brought back to the boat. After being outfitted on the wardrobe barge, she went below decks where the lights and camera were set.
She looked about, shrieked and promptly fell into a faint. The first aid man was sent for and after a time she was brought to. She sat up and wrung her hands.
"Don't whup me," she exclaimed. "Don't whup me. I'll do anything, but don't whup me."
Pollard assured her that she wouldn't be "whupped!" and it developed that the aged crone, seeing the negroes in shackles for the scene had actually thought that slavery had returned. Incidentally, the director later remarked that she was one of the best natural actresses he had even seen.
One day near Natchez, while a group of extras were doing a dance scene on the upper deck, the dread cry of "Fire!" was heard. The wardrobe barge was seen to be blazing merrily and in an amazingly short time the fire had reached a dangerous stage with flames licking at the combustible cotton bales on the boat. Fortunately, cooler heads averted a panic and the fire was extinguished after an hour's work. The damage was estimated at $5,000, and seriously set back the production schedule until new costumes could be rushed from Universal City.
A few days before Christmas saw the finish of the Southern "exposure" and the company returned home in time to celebrate Yuletide. Work was immediately started upon the St. Clare sequence, a scene of rare beauty and fidelity to the architectural loveliness of old New Orleans.
Experts declare that the settings for "Uncle Tom's Cabin" are as genuine as the art of man can reproduce.
Certainly no other picture has had the time and care and money expended on it that have been lavished on "Uncle Tom." More than eight months were spent in preparation before a line was placed on paper. The cast was selected with minute care, each member might have been born to play his role. The players are as follows:
Eliza, Margarita Fischer; George, Arthur Edmund Carew; Uncle Tom, James B. Lowe; Topsy, Mona Ray; Eva, Virginia Grey; Marks, the Lawyer, Lucien Littlefiend; Aunt Ophelia, Aileen Manning.
Shelby, Jack Mower; Mrs. Shelby, Vivien Oakland; St. Clare, John Roche; Mrs. St. Clare, Gertrude Astor; Harris, Seymour Zetiff; Haley, Adolph Milar; Loker, J. Gordon Russell; Johnson, "Cap" Anderson.
Simon Legree, George Siedmann; Adolph, Rolfe Sedam; Sambo, Dick Sutherland; Quimbo, Tom Amandares; Phineas Fletcher, Nelson McDowell; Mrs. Fletcher, Grace Carlyle; Lieutenant, Francis Hardy; Little Harry, Lassie Lou Ahern; auctioneers, James Marcus and Bill Dyer; Aunt Chloe, Gertrude Howard, and many others.
Advance reports indicate that Charles Stumar, chief cinematographer, has invested the production with a photographic quality and beautiful simplicity that will go far toward making "Uncle Tom's Cabin" live up to the high ideals of its sponsors.
This picture is now being edited by Daniel Mandell and Gilmore Walker under the supervision of Lloyd Nosler.—S. B. J.