Uncle Tom's Cabin on Film 1: The Silent Era



  The best-selling 19th-century American novel was also the 20th century's most frequently filmed American book. Even if you don't count comedies like Topsy and Eva or Uncle Tom's Gal, or cartoons like Uncle Tom's Cabana, or the more recent made-for-TV version, the nine films called Uncle Tom's Cabin made between 1903 and 1927 still hold the record. These were all silent movies, and five of them, like so many other movies from that era, have completely disappeared. We'll probably never be able to see, for example, Thanhouser's 1910 adaptation, in which Tom apparently becomes an active accomplice in Eliza's escape. Or Paramount's 1918 production, which featured one actress, Marguerite Clark, playing both Topsy and Eva (left). Of the four films we can still see, three survive only in abridged versions. Two survive at all only because they were re-released more than a decade after they were made, in order to take advantage of the publicity surrounding Universal's 1927 big-budget adaptation. One of those, Vitagraph's 1910 Uncle Tom's Cabin, was the first 3-reel movie ever made, but the Empire Safety Film Company used only about half of it in the version they distributed in the late 1920s for home viewing. And at least one scene was cut from the 1914 World production, the first feature film to star an African American, when it was similarly re-released in the late Twenties. The surviving copy of Universal's Uncle Tom in the Library of Congress is actually the version the studio prepared a year after the film's first release, featuring a sound track with "synchronized" music and sound effects. It's at least three reels shorter than the movie audiences at New York's Central Theater saw when the film opened on November 4th, 1927.

  So the one silent Uncle Tom's Cabin that looks the same to us as it did to the people who originally viewed it is the earliest adaptation: the 15-minute version Edwin S. Porter directed for the Edison Company in 1903. Just because it looks the same, however, doesn't mean we can see it the same way. One reason early film-makers were so drawn to Stowe's story was its familiarity to their audiences. The first generation of movie-goers had to learn the new technology's language of story-telling, and at the same time the technological fact that the first movies were short and silent meant that the lessons needed to be as accessible as possible. The more familiar viewers were with a film's text, the more they could fill in the missing narrative pieces for themselves. By the time the movies came along, American audiences knew Uncle Tom's Cabin as well as any primitive tribe knows its ancestral myths.


  But the story they knew as Uncle Tom's Cabin was not the novel Stowe wrote. The text they were most familiar with at the start of the last century is one that none of us have ever seen: the Tom Show, the dramatic representation of Stowe's story that hundreds of companies had performed thousands of times for millions of Americans for over twenty-five years when Porter filmed the first Uncle Tom in 1903. For Edison's camera, for example, Porter films "The Auction Sale of St. Clair's Slaves" in a 60-second sequence. You can view this scene by clicking on the icon left. This 60-second clip will take a while to download, so please be patient. If you're like most modern viewers, knowing how to understand what you're looking at as it plays will take still longer — that's what we'll get to next.

  The action here is based on Chapter 30 of the novel, in which Adolph and Tom, as part of the estate of the late Augustine St. Clare, and Emmeline, part of the estate of a "pious lady of New Orleans" who died indebted to a firm in New York, are put on the block and sold, Tom and Emmeline to Simon Legree, who enters the novel in this scene. As far as these essential narrative elements go, the film follows Stowe's text, except that she describes Emmeline's sale last, to underscore the point that while the brutish Legree is the one buying this innocent young woman, "Brother B.," the church-going New York broker who authorizes her sale as a matter of business, is equally guilty in God's eyes of the moral horror of the transaction. The business that the camera captures, however, is largely dominated by characters and incidents that don't appear in Stowe's account of the auction: the kneeling and dancing blacks whom we see when the scene opens, or the white man with the top hat and umbrella who is so active during the bidding sequences.


  When the Edison company released the film, they announced it to exhibitors with a 7-page catalogue that includes a fairly detailed description of its 14 separate scenes. Because this catalogue glosses so much that modern users might not understand, we print it, scene by scene, alongside the film clips in the archive (left).

  It tells us, for example, that the kneeling black men are "shooting crap," and that the man with the umbrella is Marks. In Stowe's novel, of course, there are no crap shooters, nor is Marks, whom Haley hires to pursue Eliza as she flees north to Canada, ever in any scene with Uncle Tom.


  It's been suggested by some film historians that perhaps one use of the catalogue was to give exhibitors a script that could be read aloud while audiences watched the film, but given how long the descriptions are and how short each scene is, that seems unlikely. In any case, viewers in 1903 didn't need the catalogue to read the details of the auction scene. People who had seen Tom Shows would have instantly recognized Marks by his costume, especially his umbrella (left).

  They could probably have also supplied the dialogue of the shtick he performs, disrupting the auction repeatedly to bid "seventy-five" — 75 cents, that is — for Adolph, and then finally bidding the exasperated auctioneer good-by. It's not known who first introduced Marks' routine into the play, but it appears in many of the Tom Show scripts, including in the 1901 Brady typescript (click here to see text from this script), and also in undated promptbooks in the New York Public Library, Harvard and the Ohio State theater collections. The stage manager who created the NYPL promptbook adds an admonition at the end of the routine: "Note!! Marks must end his Comedy Scene before Uncle Tom is sold—else it will interfere woefully with the sentiment." In the Edison film he just gets off camera in time.


  I haven't found a Tom Show script that specifically mentions shooting craps, but the actions of the blacks we see at the start of "The Auction Sale of St. Clair's Slaves" were very much in line with the expectations movie-goers brought with them to the film. Large numbers of African American performers began appearing in dramatizations of Uncle Tom in 1876, as Stowe's story became the vehicle for more and more elaborate musical productions. Speaking parts like Tom and Topsy were still played by whites in blackface (as in the Edison film), but what advertisements typically called "genuine colored people" danced, sang, played the banjo and introduced other "black specialties" into various parts of Stowe's story, including the auction scene. At left, for example, is a page from the Brady script, setting the scene at the beginning of Act 4. Before "the auctioneer's desk is brought on" to commence the sale of what Stowe calls "the human article," audiences watched "the negroes on stage" watching a chicken fight, dancing a cake walk, and singing "Dixie." In a Tom Show this set of numbers might last 20 minutes or more. Because Porter has only 20 seconds, his shot combines the dice playing to the audience's left with the dancing on the right, but that was plenty of time for viewers familiar with the show to appreciate what was going on.

  And what is going on? A stage direction in the Brady script gives us the key to that: "They [the singing and dancing blacks] are driven off stage by the slave drivers." You can see the same thing in the film: the auctioneer comes in from stage right to stop the dicing and dancing with a crack of his riding crop. Although there are no scenes of slaves dancing in groups in Stowe's novel, she does describe both Harry and Topsy dancing — when the white men who own them order them to put on such a performance. Stowe's account of "The Slave Warehouse" in Chapter 30 refers to the "unthinking merriment" and "tricks of low buffoonery" of the slaves awaiting sale, but makes it clear that this too is a command performance: "The dealers in the human article make scrupulous and systematic efforts to promote noisy mirth among them." Whenever blacks act this way in the novel, it is white interests that are being served. In the film, however, as in the Tom Show, the implication is that this kind of mindless exuberance, even in the shadow of the auction block, is a sign of the African character: the dice-and-dancing show doesn't reflect the white audience's appetite, but rather the black performers' racial essence.


  There is an extraordinary amount of black dancing in Edison's Uncle Tom's Cabin: there are four separate scenes, including an elaborate cake walk at St. Clare's, that together make up almost 20% of the film. With that in mind, it's important to note the movie's subtitle: Slavery Days (left). The historical reference clearly suggests that Porter's camera is giving 20th century Americans a way to see their national past, a re-creation of what "slavery" really was like. Stowe made the same claim about her fiction, that it was a representation of the "living, dramatic reality" of slavery. But where she uses the auction scene to establish the complicity of the North with the South in the sin of selling Tom and Emmeline, that same episode, as revised by the Tom Shows and recorded by the film, lets white America's conscience almost entirely off the hook. Not only does Tom and Emaline's sale almost disappear behind the entertaining behavior of Marks and the blacks, but also by dancing so happily the slaves themselves suggest that Slavery Days were not so bad after all.




  If it's necessary to know the Tom Shows in order to read the film, the film in turn is also one of the best modes of access we have to those shows. Porter's Uncle Tom is actually the first movie ever to include scene titles, but there are no credits. There is general agreement among scholars, however, that Porter employed a real troupe of Tommers to provide the movie's actors, costumes, set designs and much of the stagecraft. Although highly abbreviated, the film thus gives us a way to bring back to some kind of life the pieces of the Tom Show that have survived — playbills, posters, scripts, stage paraphernalia. For example, we do have a set of uncaptioned photographs from Brady's big budget "revival." Here (top left) is how its auction scene looks, as a still life.

  Notice the riverboats in the background. In Ohio State's theater collection, we also have a set of canvas scenic drops, designed and painted about 1915 by the famous Armbruster Studio; here (middle left) is the backdrop labeled, simply, "AUCTION."

  But to appreciate what "AUCTION" meant by this point in the performative history of Uncle Tom, to these first two images — event and setting — we need to add a third: the image bottom left, a Courier lithograph poster, from about 1900, from the collection of the Library Company of Philadelphia.


  I'm not sure that without the movie I could have put these pieces together, and realized that when the poster says "On the Levee," what Americans also "saw" was the auction block, that these grinning and dancing darkies aren't "waitin' for the Robert E. Lee," which is what I assumed when I first saw the poster, but rather waiting to be sold. If we go back to the film catalogue we can read that the setting for the auction is "a dock scene"; if we go back to the film, this time knowing what to look for, we can see the same painted riverboats in its background; and if we play the clip again, we can see exactly how hard Porter makes it to find the moral point of Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. One additional fragment from this brief excavation of the Tom Show as a cultural site suggests that for turn-of-the-century American audiences that point had almost completely disappeared. We have the playbill from the Brady revival that was still touring the U.S. when Edison's film was released. In the Brady script, Eva dies at the end of Act 3 and Tom is sold in the first scene of Act 4. But while the playbill describes in considerable detail the "OLD FASHIONED NEGRO FESTIVAL" that it calls "Incidental to this Scene," it leaves out the scene's central narrative event. By Act 4, Scene 2, Tom is "On the Road to Legree's," but nowhere in the description of 4, 1 is the sale of Tom even mentioned (see the playbill).


  None of the other three surviving films reflect the Tom Show so obviously. There is much less dancing in all of them, for instance. The scene of Tom being sold to Legree is treated with more moral seriousness in both Vitagraph's 1910 movie and the 1914 World Corporation version. Harry Pollard, director of Universal's 1927 "Super Jewel" production, deploys some of his most inventive cinematography to convey the human suffering Stowe associates with the slave market (see clip at left). All these subsequent films, however, were profoundly shaped by the Tommers' various conventions. By 1927, for instance, traveling Tom Shows had almost vanished from the nation's landscape, and when Harriette Underhill reviewed Universal's Uncle Tom's Cabin she celebrates Pollard's decision to eliminate the variants introduced by the dramatizations and instead to film Stowe's novel "exactly as it was written." To support this claim, Underhill notes that when Pollard shows Eliza on the ice, he makes sure that the dogs chasing her are "real bloodhounds and not mastiffs." As members of the audience that had been seeing dogs run across stages for decades, both Pollard and Underhill forgot that in the scene Stowe wrote there are no dogs at all. By the 1920s, then, the Tom Show may be almost dead, killed in fact by the growth of the movie industry, but culturally its legacy lives on in the films that displaced it.


  Where this legacy acquires its greatest significance is when we look for the ideological content of the movies, in particular their representation of slavery. While there is much less dancing in the films that follow Porter's, they all share with the Tom Show the apparently paradoxical desire to use the story Stowe wrote to protest slavery as a guilt-free way to carry white Americans back to the old plantation. Born at the very moment that Reconstruction was abandoned, the Tom Show was a major component of the cultural project that historian David W. Blight analyzes in Race and Reunion: the white North and the white South healing the wound left by Civil War at the expense of the moral obligation to give emancipated slaves a legitimate place inside the social order. Vestiges of this reconciliation project are visible in the history of Uncle Tom on film. For example, on the cover of the souvenir booklet Universal sold in the lobbies of movie theaters (left).

  Even more striking is the very first image movie-goers saw when the theater's lights went down and the picture began (see clip at left). Trust Hollywood to find a way to suggest that the nation's most famous abolitionist author and its most famous Confederate were on the same side!

  But by the 20th century the country's anxiety about reunification had lost its sense of urgency. The only returns that governed the men who took Uncle Tom to the movies were box office receipts. At least, that's the meaning I find in another filmed auction scene — the one that isn't there in Universal's 1927 production. If you bought that souvenir program and read its synopsis of the film's plot while waiting for the lights to go down, you would have expected that once General Lee's image had faded away, the story would begin at "the Slave market in New Orleans," with what the synopsis describes at some length as "the heart rending scene of [a] mother and child being torn apart." The mother is Cassy, whom Pollard's script makes Eliza's mother. That's un-authorized by Stowe's novel, of course, but making the first visual representation of slavery a scene of a mother losing her child is a choice Stowe would certainly have endorsed. If you look closely at the scene of Tom's sale to Legree (above), you can see an enslaved mother being pulled away from her child. But although Pollard filmed the auction scene with Cassy and Eliza, we can see it only in several publicity stills:



  Universal spent a lot of money making the movie — it's the third most expensive film of the silent era — and before releasing it into theaters they screened it for focus groups made up of southerners. Strong objections from these groups led the studio to cut the opening auction scene entirely, reminding us that reading Uncle Tom's Cabin on film sometimes depends on seeing what isn't up on the screen. When the movie was released, its first scenes instead treated audiences to images of the elegant party thrown by the Shelbys — "whose gentle rule of the slaves," as an early caption puts it, "was typical of the South" — for Eliza and George's wedding (see clip at left).

  Tellingly, the two biggest charges in the film's $1,763,008 budget were for building the elaborate Shelby and St. Clare mansions on Universal's lot, and the point made most insistently in the studio's two-year publicity campaign was that nothing about the movie would offend "the South," by which, of course, they always meant "the white South." (Click here to see one of Universal's publicity pieces.)

  Economically, there was a crucial difference between the "Tommers" and the movie makers. Competing Tom Shows usually staked out different parts of the country for their itineraries, and almost all stayed out of the South. Even if they'd wanted to, it was physically impossible for a single Uncle Tom's Cabin Company to reach a national audience. There were no such geographic limitations on the distribution of copies of a film, however, and so like Stowe, the studio heads at Universal designed their work to try to reach the largest possible audience on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line. Their motives may have been more purely commercial than Stowe's, but the results of their attempt was pretty much the same. When the movie went into national release in 1928, places like Atlanta and Birmingham banned it entirely, and city officials in Dallas agreed to allow it only after Universal assured them that it depicted Simon Legree as a Yankee.



  I confess that even after all the time I've spent exploring the adaptations of Stowe's story, it's still very difficult for me to see what so many white southerners eighty or a hundred years ago apparently saw when they attended the story in theaters, tents or movie houses. To me there's a fairly straight ideological line between the Tom Shows' plantation and levee scenes, or the films' reconstructions of slave life at the Shelbys' and St. Clares', and the kingdom of Tara and Twelve Oaks that Margaret Mitchell and David Selznick enshrined in the national consciousness in the 1930s. What southerners saw, on the other hand, is typified by the reaction of General A. T. Goodwyn, Commander in Chief, United Confederate Veterans, who told a newspaper in 1929 that Pollard's film was "an insult to our ancestors and a laudation of the maligners and traducers, invaders and despoilers of our Southland." To my way of looking, it makes perfect sense that when M-G-M began planning to produce a new Uncle Tom's Cabin two decades after Pollard's film, the protest movement that killed the plan was organized by the N.A.A.C.P., and not the Confederate Veterans. The easiest explanation of the white South's rejection of Stowe's story at the movies, despite the efforts the movies made to placate them, would be to say that it was a form of reflex allegiance to the way their ancestors had hated her book. But their disapproval can also serve as a provocation to take one other look at the films that have survived. It's easy to see how reactionary they are, but is there anything revolutionary or at least revisionary about them?

  When in 1914 the World Film Corporation, for example, cast Sam Lucas as Tom, it made the first American film to feature an African American, rather than a white actor in blackface, in a starring role. In context, however, that was less radical than it sounds. In his seventies when the movie was made, Lucas had been playing Tom onstage for almost four decades (see poster above left).

  He was one of the few actors billed by name in Tom Show posters, but even as Tom he was often identified as a "colored comedian." And in the Tom Shows he had plenty of practice playing Uncle Tom as an Uncle Tom (for example, see clip at left).


  But even as this casting choice reminds us of the influence of Tom Shows on Tom films, other elements in the World production do have real revisionary potential. The film begins with a series of shots establishing "slavery" as its setting (see clip at left).

  The shots of "picaninnies" — as black children were invariably labeled in this period — fit the profile of racial stereotypes white audiences brought with them to the movie. The very first shot, on the other hand, subverts even as it recalls the Tom Show tradition. In the background is the group of dancing slaves that typically would have been center stage when the curtain went up on Act 1. The audience's point of view, however, is that of Aunt Chloe, the motionless woman in the foreground, and from her point of view the most visible image is not the happily dancing darkies, but Tom, making his way toward a cabin in obvious pain, whose bent body here does not suggest cringing servility but instead the way slavery has used him up. And for contemporary audiences there was more to this scene than meets our eye. Silent films were hardly ever really silent, since most screenings were accompanied by live music. It would be great to know what kind of music the pianists played as the sound track to this very first scene: whether they chose a lively minstrel song in step with the dancers in the distance or a solemn spiritual to keep time with Tom's slow walk across the middle of the screen. Either way, the familiar representation of slavery is broken up. Taken together, and considered from Chloe's pensive perspective, the images in this opening sequence — carefree children, dancing young men, an exhausted old man — turn the meaning of slavery into an unanswered question.


  Near the end of the film there's an even more radical moment. In Stowe's novel Legree is dying the last time we hear of him, of drink and a guilty conscience. When the fiction went onstage, that ending to his story wasn't good enough: live audiences had to witness the villain's death with their own eyes, and so the plot was adjusted to make Legree the murderer of St. Clare as well as Tom, which gives Marks a reason to go to Legree's with a warrant for his arrest, and to shoot Legree just before Tom dies in George Shelby's arms. Earlier films follow this Tom Show tradition, but in the World's version Legree is killed by another slave, a young man whom Tom (in another plot revision) had refused to whip when Legree ordered him to. When this slave learns of Tom's fatal beating at Legree's hands, he has a reaction Stowe had not allowed for — though the film's caption describes his response by using the same word, "sympathy," that she put at the heart of her aesthetic. When this slave finds Legree's gun, the caption tells us that "Sympathy for the poor old slave creates a desire for swift revenge in the heart of the boy whom Uncle Tom refused to whip." You'll see from the clip that the film's use of the word "boy" here is racial rather than realistic. He's not a boy, but a young man, whom "sympathy" turns into a rebellious slave. There are no tears in his eyes when he uses the pistol (see clip at left).


  Strikingly, the film embeds this scene inside its representation of Tom's death, putting it under the title at left, right after a touching scene between Tom and George Shelby and right before a touching scene of Tom with the spirit of Eva (hanging by wires from above). The "boy" shoots Legree as Tom blesses "Massah George" for remembering him and God for giving him the "victory." Like "sympathy," that word also derives from Stowe. The film defines "victory" just as Stowe did, as the triumph of Christian love and faith over such merely human emotions as hatred and wrath. In Stowe's novel, Tom tells Cassy she mustn't sell her soul to the devil by even thinking about murdering Legree. In the film, though, Cassy and Emmeline's smiles vouch for the righteousness of this young man's unscriptural action. What I find most striking about the sequence is the perspective from which it's shot: the way the camera puts white film-goers exactly in the place of the black man shooting down the white man who has oppressed him. We could call this "visual" or "perceptual sympathy," and it may remain in effect even as the camera backs away to show the black man, gun still smoking, moving off to — well, it's by no means clear where he's going, what other righteous scores against white America he may plan to settle with the weapon in his hand. While the death of a villain is supposed to reassure an audience, the way that plays out here must have challenged the complacencies of white movie-goers, and perhaps enlarged their racial sympathies in ways that Tom's martyrdom could not.

  Studied together, the four silent films tell another story besides Stowe's. Made over a period of 25 years but all beginning with hers as their common point of departure, they allow us to watch early film makers learning to inhabit their medium, discovering what was possible with the new technology of their art. From the point of view of the story that this multi-media archive attempts to trace, the ways in which Uncle Tom's Cabin and American culture illuminate each other for seven decades, perhaps the most telling detail to focus on is what the camera allows that neither novelistic narrative nor dramatic staging were likely to achieve.


  To explain this, we can look at a scene from the one movie we haven't yet watched, the 1910 Vitagraph version. It's the movie's representation of the scene Stowe's novel opens with: the first time Tom is sold, when Haley forces Shelby to sell him both Tom and Harry, Eliza's little boy. The movie's setting follows Stowe's prose description of a "well-furnished dining parlor," but looks even more like a stage set, with a table C and a practicable door in the rear flat. As we watch the two white men doing business at that table, it seems at first as if director J. Stuart Blackton is filming the story just as Porter had: as if the camera were seated in the audience at a play. The shot is more closed in than any of Porter's, but the static perspective is entirely that of someone who has bought a ticket and is watching a theatrical spectacle. At least, that's how it starts. You can see for yourself what happens next by clicking on the clip at left.


  As the scene develops, it becomes dramatically clear that telling the story through the aperture of a camera rather than a proscenium arch means that viewers can be taken around to the other side of that door at the back of the set, and re-view the event from Eliza's point of view as an enslaved mother, effectively powerless to do anything but watch, surreptitiously, as the price of her child is negotiated by those white men. To her credit, this was Stowe's goal too. After recounting the conversation between Haley and Shelby, Chapter 1 proceeds to describe Eliza's feelings at the thought of losing Harry. Chapters 2 and 3 take readers even more fully into Eliza's character and life, and Chapter 4 takes white readers to a place it's likely most of them never imagined themselves going: into the cabin of an enslaved family. But the one means Stowe has for carrying us into the lives of what she calls "the lowly" is her narrative voice, which, no matter how "black" are the lowly being described, remains unmistakably "white." Here, for example, is the opening sentence of Chapter 4: "The cabin of Uncle Tom was a small log building, close adjoining to 'the house,' as the negro par excellence designates his master's dwelling."

  Film can introduce us into the lives of others in a much less mediated way than Stowe's literary narrative. The blackness of the image we see at first when director Blackton takes us around to the other side of that door (left) is probably just an accident, the result of the degradation of the cinemagraphic image over all the years and film formats it has passed through to get to us, but I think we can also appropriate it as a metaphor. When we join Eliza on the other side of the barrier between the white parlor and her black life, theatrical spectacle becomes private trauma. Because we share her perspective so intimately, there's an opportunity for genuine transformation of our understanding and allegiances.


  Moments like this one, or the shooting of Legree, occur in all the silent film versions of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Another look at the scene of Tom's sale reveals that Pollard decided to bring Simon Legree into the story by looking at him through Tom's eyes, from the perspective, that is, of a human being being disposed of as property. From that point of view, the title the film supplies to ingratiate itself with white Southerners is deeply subverted, for to Tom as that human being, it makes no difference whether Legree is "from the North" or not. As we look directly into James Lowe's expressive eyes, looking at the man who will buy him, all that matters is the power race and slavery give Legree and the rest of the white slave buyers over Tom (see clip at left). On the other hand, no movie version of Uncle Tom's Cabin comes close to fully achieving such a radical re-presentation of slavery. These moments occur just often enough to suggest what might have been. Culturally, for me, this nostalgia for what could have happened is one of the strongest legacies of the story of Stowe's story in all the forms it has taken over time. For close to a century Uncle Tom's Cabin was the nation's best-known representation of slavery and race. As a text, however, and on stage, in movies, and in so many other media, its representations remained captive to the needs and desires of its white audiences. Selling it to those audiences — this is the one auction scene that never was cut from the script of Uncle Tom's Cabin as a cultural performance.

© 2007 Stephen Railton. This essay derives from a presentation at the June 2007 Uncle Tom's Cabin in the Web of Culture conference, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, and presented by the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center (Hartford, CT) and the Uncle Tom's Cabin & American Culture Project at the University of Virginia.

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