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Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Film Review by Dean Duncan May 28, 2015

This is a wonderful old film. I would like to run through it, in some detail. There are so many things to appreciate and admire!

The first thing that I notice is that I love these title cards. There are great big ellipses between the various scenes that the makers of this film have chosen to include. This is a clear instance of an early film commonplace, where the audience’s familiarity with a source fills in the gaps left by the medium’s infant attempts at rendering that source. But maybe “infant” isn’t quite fair, because this Uncle Tom’s Cabin is not only an historical document, but an expressive film in its own right.

Let’s get this out of the way. The sets are stagey, and everything within the frame is very theatrical. None of the various settings, whether interior or outside, are at all convincing in the way a contemporary viewer would think of that term. The film is completely made up of sequence shots, or scenes played out in their entirety, while the camera sits back in the stalls.

These things need not be seen as problems, for any number of reasons. What’s wrong with theatre? It makes any number of felicitous contributions to this production, and to so many others made around this time. The theatrical ice floes in that theatrical river, for instance, are extremely impressive. And as George Meliés demonstrated almost to infinity, when you proscenium-photograph an effectively designed/directed theatrical scene, you’ve still got cinema.

The miniatures in the race sequence are terrific, as are the fire and storm effects. The ellipses continue, but the episodes that are presented still have considerable shape and substance.

There’s Topsy. He’ll probably register as a terrible stereotype. Is there something more positive that we might derive? To do so might require an innocent eye, which can be such a dangerous proposition, ideologically speaking. Here’s something similar. Now they stage a Cakewalk. Is it a mere ethnic stereotype, or downright racial bigotry? Possibly, then and now. Or, also, how very well and joyously danced! The coda to that sequence, with the children, is sweet. This cakewalk sequence is narratively unnecessary, which makes it even better. Reason not the need! as we’ve said elsewhere on these digital pages. Now we come back to the main plot, but the pleasure of this little interlude lingers on.

I’ve mentioned the ellipses, how parts stand in for wholes. This is how, so suddenly, we find that Little Eva is dying. The actors respond conventionally; it will be good when someone figures out a less semaphoric approach to the communication of emotion. And then an angel descends! This reminds me of a sort of similar, even nervier scene in Mary Pickford’s great 1926 film, Sparrows. This kind of divine intervention is not likely to pass muster with modern viewers, even if they subscribe approximately to the theologies that inform it. But we might take these things on their own terms. Here is a Sunday School image with more than a whiff of mammon to it, and yet it’s also unashamed and straightforward and sincere. I find it to be quite touching.

St. Clair defends Tom, is killed, and his slaves are sold. The tone, taken straight over from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, is condescending. Like with Stowe this is both criticizable and forgivable. One thing at a time!

Condescension aside, this particular, portentous plot development leaves slavery without a moral or ideological leg to stand on. It’s like leaving charitable donation to the private sector, or Supply Side generally. What if you have a bad year, or lose your job? Or here, what if the master is not benevolent? Public institutions, public utilities, public subsidy! Change the system!

I should acknowledge that that last bit was something of an editorial tangent, not necessarily drawing from the film itself. In fact, I am recalling that Stowe advocated faith and patience in the face of affliction and social injustice, that she was leaving it to enlightened whites to intervene. So that would be a problem. Still, again, one thing at a time.

Here comes some more dancing. In a way what we have here is ethnic name checking. And yet, again, these are real people here; this performance also bursts with exuberance. Well, real people, and Uncle Tom in blackface.

“Tableau of the death of Tom.” A second angel appears, and its effect is quite spectacular. Here, at the very end of this elementary and yet so ambitious film, we have a leap of practically Eisensteinian proportions. The angel in that previous scene was, more or less, a religious postcard. This one is a symbol of the impending emancipation! We proceed to the image of a black man kneeling at Abraham Lincoln’s feet. Well! Now the North and the South shake hands—if that’s a bit like the Protestant/Catholic rapprochement in John Ford’s The Quiet Man, well, what’s wrong with a little fairy tale optimism, at the end of your movie? You can always leave the theatre and go out and change things.

This restoration, in this edition, is graced by a superb piano score. Kudos to Donald Sosin, who compiled, arranged and performed it.