Motion Picture Classic
Paul Thompson
September 1927

Uncle Carl Sells Uncle Tom Down the Movie River

  WHATEVER the literary and dramatic merits or demerits of the Harriet Beecher Stowe slavery epic—there is no question about its longevity. Written before the Civil War, and by the unthinking often credited with having started that internecine warfare, it is still widely read all over these United States.

  It has been done on the stage for three quarters of a century and several times in the movies with varying success. The most pretentious screen version of the story is at hand—one that will make any future attempt to use the same theme futile and financially suicidal. This is because "Uncle Carl" Laemmle, as he is affectionately known in celluloid circles, is selling Uncle Tom down the river for two million dollars, probably the highest price the slave has ever cost.



  What price this investment will bring to Universal will become known only when moving picture houses—after the two-dollar legitimate theaters—have been converted into auction marts and the movie fans have made their bids. If it enters the select circle of successful road shows, which, of course, is the reason for the two million dollars splurge, then Simon Legree Laemmle will be more than repaid for his purchase.

Universal Made It Before

  AS said above, "Uncle Tom's Cabin" has been done several times before. The World Film did a version in 1914; Kalem gave their version to the public in the same year. Imp—and what memories these names, World Film, Kalem, and Imp, recall of the early days of the movie game—showed the public how it felt the Harriet Beecher Stowe classic should be screened. This was a four reel Universal-super-Jewel released the year before, 1913. In it was Harry Pollard, the director who has just completed the elaborate new Universal production. He played Uncle Tom and his wife, Margarita Fischer, Topsy! And fourteen years later Pollard has become a famous director and—more remarkable from some points of view in the movie world—is still married to the same wife. She is in the Universal picture of her husband's as Eliza. J. F. McDonald, of "The Iron Horse" and "Three Bad Men" fame, played in the piece as did Gertrude Short as Little Eva.



  There was also a burlesque of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" in 1913 with such well-known names as Charles Murray, Sylvia Ashton, Gus Pixley, C. L. Barr and Eddie Dillon. But returning to the serious film versions, Famous Players shot the slave drama in 1918. It is interesting in the retrospective because Marguerite Clark, then so popular, doubled in the roles of Topsy and Little Eva. How she did it is difficult to figure out.

  Incidentally, in the version in which Harry Pollard played Uncle Tom , and his wife, Margarita Fischer, Topsy, Robert Z. Leonard, himself now a famous director and ex-husband of Mae Murray—not that there is any connection between the two facts—played Simon Legree. In real life he holds the whip hand over Gertrude Olmstead, who is now the little woman.

  There are some interested personalities in this new version, names known to every movie fan. A negro actor, James B.


Lowe, plays Uncle Tom, which in itself is a distinct novelty. Paul Robeson, the legitimate actor and spiritual singer, was supposed to get the part at one time. Charles Gilpin, of "Emperor Jones" fame, started it. Other players are Virginia Grey as Eva, George Siegmann as Simon Legree, Arthur Carewe as George Harris, Margarita Fischer (Mrs. Pollard) as Eliza, Lucian Littlefield as Lawyer Marks , Mona Ray as Topsy, Vivian Oakland as Mrs. Shelby, and Gertrude Astor as Mrs. St. Claire. Truly, an interesting cast.



Two Years of Painstaking Effort

  THE story of the filming of the piece is one of disaster and persistence on the part of producers and directors in the face of all sorts of difficulties—difficulties which took almost two years to overcome. In the first place, one may be interested to know that it is Pollard's version of the famous novel.

  Mrs. Stowe's book has always been misunderstood, particularly below the Mason and Dixon line. Pollard shows that the conditions of the negro in the South at the time the novel was published were better than those of his color in the North. Theatrical people from time immemorial sought to accentuate the brutality and drama for the sake of eliciting sympathy and increased attendance at the box office. For example, they always make Uncle Tom an old, broken-down man, which is contrary to Mrs. Stowe, who intended him as a young, vigorous negro in his thirties, the father of two children aged four and five. He must have been comparatively young and husky to have brought the price he did from Simon Legree. He never could have rescued Little Eva had he been a decrepit old man.

  Instead of cheap theatrical tricks to arouse through this propaganda the hatreds of the North and South, Pollard is presenting a true, sympathetic story of the South in ante-bellum days, in other words, doing the Stowe novel as it should have been done and as she would have had it done had she had any control over the dramatic rights. Not only through her failure to reserve these rights did the authoress lose any possible chance to tell how her novel should be dramatized and presented, but she also lost every possibility for the huge royalties which should have been hers. The result is that anybody and everybody has done the play and the picture in any manner they wished, absolutely ignoring the intent and spirit of the book itself.



  In staging one of the most important scenes in the picture, that of Eliza crossing the ice, there came of of those unforeseen and unavoidable contretemps which held up the production for months and nearly caused its abandonment.

  The Saranac River at Plattsburg, New York, familiar to Americans because of the officers'

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training camp there before, during and after the World War, was the site selected for the thrilling episode. Thousands of dollars were spent in equipment for the lighting and wind machines.

  The scenes were shot, but Pollard developed an infected tooth. A bungling dentist broke his jaw trying to fix the aching molar and the director found himself in the hospital for five months. Finally he resigned his job and Lois Weber, one of the few women directors in the business, was brought in to carry on the work. It was no go, however, and she soon resigned. Back on his feet after these months of idleness, Harry Pollard again took up the megaphone and reassembled his cast.

  Incidentally, several drownings by members of the cast were narrowly averted at Plattsburg, so that when the troupe left that place they all breathed a heartfelt sigh of relief. But that was merely one of the hard-luck tales. Before they had arrived at Saranac River, Pollard and the location man had dashed all over the country to find the proper setting for the ice-crossing sequence, only to find that the ice had just melted or some other handicap had appeared to make that particular location impossible. That was just prophetic of difficulties to come.

The Silvery Lining Appears

  AFTER Pollard's recovery from his fractured jaw, things changed for the better. Four Chambers of Commerce in the South welcomed him and his troupe when they entrained for Southern scenes. There had been a feeling that possibly open hostilities might ensue, or at least a sullen resentment at the taking of any pictures in the Southland, which had been slandered all these years by the plays born from the novel. The reverse was true; everywhere the finest kind of hospitality greeted them. The luck had really changed at last. They took levee shots and a Mississippi River boat scene at Memphis. Pollard completed his pictures on the Kate Adams, a side-wheeler, and on his return to Hollywood learned the boat had burned down to the water's edge. He knew then his luck had really changed. From that time on, weather and every other factor favored the completion of the classic. But it was coming to him and Universal after what they had gone through; an excellent illustration of the ever-working law of compensation.

  Los Angeles is accustomed to the unusual, naturally, because of the moving picture studios located there. Anything that in another city would have the populace craning their necks out of the window is wise-cracked with "Oh, just another movie stunt." But for the negro population of the city "Uncle Tom's Cabin" will always be remembered, because the entire Senegambian colony was engaged in certain sequences. Hundreds of negro families were hired to work for weeks in many scenes. Thousands and thousands of black extras were used in this way.

  Figure out their salaries even at the minimum extra wages, add the months of idleness because of Pollard's illness, $350,000, at a minimum, the country-wide search for locations for such sequences as Eliza crossing the ice, the trip of a company of seventy-five players and other technicians to the Mississippi and elsewhere to take levee and other Southern scenes, forty thousand dollars for the Shelby mansion erected at Universal City, and it is not so difficult even for one lack-


ing an accountant or bookkeeping mind to realize that two million dollars for the total cost of production of this "Uncle Tom's Cabin" picture is probably a conservative estimate and not a press agent's cipher-intoxicated brain.

  While nominally only eight months were spent on technical research for the picture, actually twelve years were taken up with the idea for the picture. Dating back to Pollard's last appearance as Uncle Tom, and his debut as a director, he has spent his entire directorial life looking toward the picturization on a magnificent scale of the Stowe novel. He gathered data and information until he had acquired twenty-seven huge scrap-books of material. How successful the years of preparation have proved to be is illustrated by the fact that the Smithsonian Institution in Washington has already requested that a print be supplied them for historical reference purposes.

  If the picture goes over, all the trouble and expense will be forgotten, because the monetary return will be so great that the production cost will be wiped out and a Monte Cristo dividend declared that will have Carl Laemmle declaring like Dumas's immortal hero, "The World Is Mine."

Printed from Uncle Tom's Cabin & American Culture
© 2006 the University of Virginia
Stephen Railton; Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities; Electronic Text Center
Charlottesville, Virginia