Monday, October 05, 2015

Uncle Tom's Cabin (1914 starring Sam Lucas)

Sam Lucas as Uncle Tom. The image is not from the 1914 movie.
Uncle Tom's Cabin (1914). Photo: Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation, Culpeper, VA
UNCLE TOM’S CABIN (World Producing Corp.; dist: World Film Corp. – US 1914) D: William Robert Daly; SC: Edward McWade, from the novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852) + from the play by George L. Aiken (1853); C: Sam Lucas (Uncle Tom), Walter Hitchcock (George Shelby), Hattie Delaro (Mrs. Shelby), Master Abernathy (George Shelby, Jr.), Teresa Michelena (Eliza), Irving Cummings (George Harris), Paul Scardon (Haley), Marie Eline (Little Eva St. Clair), Garfield Thompson (St. Clair), Roy Applegate (Simon Legree), Boots Wall (Topsy); 35 mm, 4200 ft, 62' (18 fps); titles: ENG; print source: Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation, Culpeper, VA.
    Le Giornate del Cinema Muto (GCM), Pordenone.
    Viewed at Teatro Verdi, with e-subtitles in Italian, grand piano: Donald Sosin, 5 Oct 2015

Ron Magliozzi (GCM catalog and website): "Until the release of D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation in 1915, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the most influential work of fiction by a white author on the subject of race in America. "
    "Lax copyright laws in the U.S. and Britain allowed for the rapid proliferation of touring stage companies, and the melodramatic blend of thrills, sadism, and sentiment concocted from the book was a phenomenal hit with audiences. Cultural historian Eric Lott has estimated that at least 3 million people had experienced the novel in some form before 1900. It is no surprise then that Uncle Tom’s Cabin was also among the earliest and most-often adapted narratives to appear on film: in 1903 by Edison and Lubin; 1910 by Vitagraph and Thanhouser; 1913 by Imp and Kalem; 1914 by World; 1918 by Paramount; and in 1927 by Universal with a Movietone score."
    "Casting a black actor in the title role added a fresh element to the familiar screen subject and a pretense of authenticity to a main character that was traditionally played by a white actor in blackface. Sam Lucas (1840-1916) is believed to have been the first black actor to perform the lead on stage in 1878, and he broke the color barrier again in this film production. As a ballad singer, dancer, and composer, he had appeared with every important minstrel and black theatre troupe in America after the Civil War, toured Europe (1892-1895), and been featured on dozens of sheet music covers following his first hit song in 1875. Born the son of a slave, by the time Lucas took on his roles in the Lime Kiln and Uncle Tom’s Cabin films in 1913-14, he was revered by the black entertainment community as their “Grand Old Man of the Theatre.” Bert Williams put Lucas in a class with respected Shakespearean actor Ira Aldridge (1807-1867) and bi-racial writer Alexandre Dumas père (1802-1870). And a definitive statement of respect from his race came when the film opened in New York in August 1914 accompanied by a score from Will Marion Cook, one of the leading African-American composers in the U.S. "
    "By the 1930s, the name “Uncle Tom” was being used as a derogatory expression to describe persons of color who were so eager to please that they failed to take a stand against mistreatment and disrespect. While the Lucas performance cannot be said to mitigate the inherent racial prejudice of the material, the film stands as an important record of his alent in a dramatic role. Sam Lucas was 73 years of age when he went on location in Louisiana in the early spring of 1914 for Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The stunts he performed during the river rescue of Little Eva contributed to his death from pneumonia in January 1916.
" (Ron Magliozzi)

AA: This film adaptation of Uncle Tom's Cabin was added in the National Film Registry in 2012.

Reportedly this film adaptation is the first American feature film for general release with a black actor in the leading role.

Nobody today reads Uncle Tom's Cabin which belongs to the novels that have changed the world. It remained on Leo Tolstoy's short list of recommended reading after his fundamentalist anti-art conversion. Harriet Beecher-Stowe was "the little lady who caused the great war" according to Abraham Lincoln.

A book contemporary to Uncle Tom's Cabin, Solomon Northrup's memoir Twelve Years a Slave, as told to David Wilson in 1853, corroborates Beecher-Stowe's vision of the conditions of slavery; Beecher-Stowe's novel itself was based on extensive research. As filmed in 2013 by Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave has become the slavery film narrative for our age.

In Finnish Uncle Tom's Cabin was first translated in 1856, and an influential translation was made in 1904 by the great statesman and educator Niilo Liakka.

I have not reread the novel since childhood. It may be melodramatic and sentimental but there are aspects in it that I'll never forget. It hits right into the essence of slavery. It is a true Christian narrative. It is a story of love transcending violence. It is a great plea for freedom.

The fact that in the U.S.A. Uncle Tom might not be "politically correct" since the 1930s I respect but do not understand. Should I regard Shaft as politically correct? I understand that "Uncle Tom" came to mean a black sycophant to whites, a servile flatterer, a collaborator. Those who say so have not read nor understood the story. Uncle Tom is a figure comparable with Jesus, Tolstoy, and Gandhi. And Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King. It is a story of the greatest bravery, the truest grandeur of spirit, defying the rules of an evil game, refusing to participate in it in any way, transcending the confine of oppression, and setting a model for the future.

Uncle Tom's Cabin was apparently the most filmed novel during the silent era. During the sound era there has been no Hollywood film adaptation. I have seen some of those adaptations, but they have left no deep memory traces.

In fact, the most meaningful film association of Uncle Tom's Cabin to me is Walt Disney's Mickey's Mellerdrammer (1933). It also seems to be in the "politically incorrect" category now; in Disney's dvd collections it is hidden in the most hard-to-find reaches of the bonus materials. In the contemporary discussions of the film only superficial aspects are highlighted, and the essence is ignored.

The essence is that Mickey Mouse (who is black), Walt Disney's alter ego, plays Uncle Tom with great enthusiasm, and the voice of Uncle Tom here is literally that of Uncle Walt. Mickey also plays Topsy! Horace Horsecollar plays Simon Legree, and Minnie Mouse is Little Eva. (Mickey plays Uncle Tom in blackface, like the black Bert Williams performed his characters). In this short goofy parody of amateur melodrama the essential scene of Uncle Tom's Cabin is included.

"I own you, body and soul", says Simon Legree, kicking Uncle Tom with his boot. "You may own by body but my soul belongs to the Lord", answers Tom (Mickey). This is one of my favourite scenes in all cinema. (The relevant scene in the novel is in Chapter 33).

The thing in Tom that irks Simon Legree most is his Christian faith. (From Simon Legree's backstory we learn more why that is so). There is an affinity here with Adolf Hitler who swore to free mankind from "the curse of Sinai", the ten commandments. They believe in what they think is the supremacy of the strongest: the rule of force, the rule of violence (not the rule of love and justice).

There is a sense of urgency in the violence in this film, all relevant. The screenplay of this film differs from the novel in that there is also a real alternative of black violent resistance. When the drunken Simon Legree passes out his housekeeper-mistress Cassy takes his gun and contemplates shooting him but leaves the gun on the doorstep. Tom has refused to whip a fellow black slave guy on the cotton field, and as a matter of restoration of discipline, Simon has Tom whipped to death. The guy whom Tom refused to whip finds the gun and kills Simon Legree.

William Robert Daly is not a good director. The storytelling is clumsy. The film has been made in the early cinema mode, usually in long shots and long takes. There are interesting camera angles, though. (The difference is great in comparison to other films made that year, seen in this year's Pordenone fest, particularly Benjamin Christensen's Det hemmelighedsfulde X).

Thanks to the compelling story and the sincerity of the talent this is yet still worth seeing. The ending, with George Shelby, Jr. crying at Tom's grave, is memorable.

I think there was no sequence of Eliza being chased over the icy river in this print but my memory may fail me.

A sensitive and efficient musical interpretation by Donald Sosin at the grand piano.

The visual quality: often soft or low contrast.

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