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Thursday, December 1, 2011

UNCLE TOM’S CABIN (1927)

Considering the name recognition, historical importance & long-running success as a theatrical property, it’s surprising that this late silent is the only feature-length film of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous novel. No doubt, Universal hoped for grosses comparable to those two other out-of-fashion ‘barnstormers,’ WAY DOWN EAST/’20 and BEN-HUR/’25, and budgeted accordingly. But lightning didn’t strike thrice. Piece by piece, there are some handsomely developed action sequences from director Harry Pollard: ESCAPE OVER THE ICE FLOES!; KIDNAPPED OFF A RIVERBOAT!; FLOGGED SLAVE REFUSES TO GIVE IN! But the much edited final cut largely reduces Stowe’s complex narrative to the marriage of light-skinned slaves Eliza & George, and their forced separation before baby makes three. Moving the time frame up to the Civil War doesn’t help things either. A Union Army ride to the rescue comes off as overkill while the Emancipation Proclamation only undercuts the horrors of unending slavery. The film does earn points by using lots of actual African-Americans actors, especially James Lowe’s Uncle Tom who’s no obsequious dodderer, but an honest man of strength, restraint & purpose. (He never worked in the industry again.) Still, it’s tough to get past the usual lies of a Southern gentry on the plantation with happy ‘darkies’ dancin’‘, singin’ & scarfin’ down watermelon. Even if you do, there’s still Mona Ray’s blackface Topsy. Not done up in the artificial vaudevillian mask of minstrelsy, but as realistic mimicry. So much worse.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: D.W. Griffith stole the famous ice floe sequence off the stage for the climax on his stupendous 1920 version of WAY DOWN EAST, and it’s never been topped. (The one in here is pretty good until they botch the ending.)

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