In the pre-Civil War South, a sadistic plantation-owner brutalizes his slaves to the point of them heaving no other choice but to rebel. Always obedient, peaceful and honest old slave Tom plays a central role in this tragedy.
Géza von Radványi
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The role of "Uncle Tom" was originally given to Charles Gilpin, but when Universal executives saw the first few days' dailies, they objected to Gilpin's "aggressive" performance and demanded that he be replaced. Character actor James B. Lowe auditioned for the part, gave a more "acceptable" reading and was awarded the role. See more »
While this movie certainly suffers from the prevailing prejudices of the times it still carries great emotional weight and manages to humanize slaves and rightfully demonize the institution of slavery itself. Turkish actor Arthur Edmund Carewe is a little more believable as a light skinned black person than is Marguerite Fischer in her role as Eliza but Fischer's performance is pretty effective. I was a little surprised to find that she was once promoted as the "American Beauty". She seemed particularly unattractive to me and even though she had quite a successful film career prior to this film (her last) I can't help but think that being married to the film's director, co-screenwriter and co-producer helped get her cast. Still, standards of beauty are mutable and she is not the only actress from early twentieth cinema whose physical appeal is a mystery to modern eyes.
The oddly and somewhat eerily talented Lassie Lou Ahern plays her son Harry.Even though cross gender casting was not uncommon for child roles(nor for "Lassie's" either come to think of it) she is not very believable as a little boy. The fairly common habit in the years before and the early years of the 20th century of dressing up boys in girlish clothing doesn't help either. Still it is an amazing performance, for a 7 year old. Her acrobatic dancing being particularly notable.
James B. Lowe, the only actual African-American actor in one of the lead roles is outstanding as Uncle Tom. What is even more outstanding is the dignity and lack of minstrelsy in the way he is allowed to play him. Not at all typical of even the few films with sympathies toward the plight of black Americans and slaves from the start of American cinema to the late 1950's, this treatment and characterization of Uncle Tom goes a long way toward negating the ridiculous portrayal of the slaves of the kindly Shelby's as happy and content, even thankful (Tom and his wife proclaim how the Lord has blessed them with their life on the plantation)to be in bondage. For a slave, happiness was relative. I wish I could remember who said it but I have heard it said that 'the slave with a cruel master wishes for a kind one-the slave with a kind master wishes for freedom'. The myth of the contented slave grew out of the necessity for self-preservation and the fact that protests fell on deaf ears anyway. Certainly some slave owners were otherwise decent people who were also victims of the pseudo-science that proclaimed blacks as simple naive and in need of white guidance at one end of the philosophical spectrum and as sub-human and even evil at the other. The prevailing attitude was probably somewhere in-between. Certainly contact with slaves served to humanize them for some whites and their value as property and investment and laborers called for some humane treatment if only to protect them as such. The saintly Eva is a bit unrealistic but there certainly were many Southern whites who were rightly disgusted with slavery and the treatment of black people in general. Eva's declaration of love (and Aunt Ophelia's declaration of same after Eva's death) for Topsy is a major statement socially and cinematically. Affection on a non-patronizing level between blacks and whites on screen was almost never displayed and even more rarely stated outright. The physical contact between Uncle Tom and Eliza's mother Cassie was also exceptional. Even though the characters are both "black" the actress playing Cassie was not and the hand holding with and affectionate nursing of Lowe's Uncle Tom was the kind of action that would normally raise howls of protest from certain audiences. This avoidance of physical contact between especially a white female and a black male was still occurring even into the 1970's when some TV stations banned a special featuring a prominent white British female singer and a famous black actor/singer holding hands during a duet.
One of the first multi-million dollar productions, this film is not quite faithful to the book but still catches the viewer up in the plight of George and Eliza in particular and manages to indict the evil institution of slavery despite its concession to certain "sensibilities". A scene showing Uncle Tom rescuing Eva from the river was cut-probably so as not to give a black character too much heroic prominence but Eliza's escape over the ice floes is as realistic (even though it was done, or rather re-done on a studio backlot after having some footage shot on location originally) as anything of the times or even later. Actors and stunt people blend seamlessly and there is a real sense of danger conveyed.
Cinematically and dramatically the film more than justifies its huge budget and if a modern viewer can stomach some of the cliché portrayal of blacks and slaves and the cartoon-ish portrayal of some of the white characters they might find themselves understanding why Abraham Lincoln upon meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe was supposed to have remarked "So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war!" Only a true Simon Legree could look at even this stylized portrayal of slavery and still support the "peculiar institution".
Added December 12 2005:
Wanted to mention to Joseph Ulibas that while he is right that this film marks an innovative use of a racially mixed cast thecharacters of the slaves George, Eliza and Topsy were all played by white actors.
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