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There's a decent print of this movie in the Library of Congress. Despite reports elsewhere, there is no cartoon cat in this film. Four months before this movie's premiere, an animated cartoon was released with the same title, starring George Herriman's character Krazy Kat.
The sisters Rosetta and Vivian Duncan toured in vaudeville for years with a "tab" production of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" in which they depicted Topsy and Eva. When the Duncan Sisters (as they were usually billed) became popular, they increasingly revised their act so that it moved farther away from the source novel ... enlarging Topsy's and Eva's roles, and reducing Uncle Tom to a genial patriarch. In burnt-cork body paint and a nappy wig, Rosetta Duncan sang, danced and literally climbed the scenery as Topsy. In crinolines, ringlets and a deathly pallor, Vivian Duncan emoted as Little Eva St Clare and staged an elaborate death scene.
Not only does this film version of "Topsy and Eva" radically depart from the original "Uncle Tom's Cabin", it even deviates from the text of the Duncan Sisters' stage productions. We realise early on that this will not be Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel unfolding, as we see the births of Little Eva and Topsy, depicted as follows: a white stork delivering a white baby to the luxurious St Clare mansion ... and then a black stork dropping a black baby into a dustbin(!) outside a slave shanty. In this prologue, we also see brief shots of Heaven depicted here as racially segregated.
Topsy is the main character in this movie. When the black girl who "jes' growed" is auctioned as a slave but nobody will bid on her, Little Eva purchases Topsy for a nickel. That's the one part of this movie that I found plausible: slaveholders often refused to buy children, since their upkeep in food usually exceeded any labour they performed. There's a gooey romantic subplot between Mariette (the niece of Simon Legree) and George Shelby, son of a prominent slaveholder.
As Topsy, Rosetta Duncan never stops moving. She wears an unfortunate blackface make-up, leaving her eyelids apparently their natural colour, as well as her lips. (It's difficult to be certain in this monochrome film.) Rosetta Duncan performs some ridiculous set-pieces, as when she dresses up as Santa Claus and comes down the chimney to give the St Clare family "Christmas presents" ... namely, their own possessions which Topsy previously stole from them.
Uncle Tom is portrayed in this film by Noble Johnson, an African-American actor of light complexion who was often cast in white roles. (For his most famous role as the Skull Island chieftain in 'King Kong', Johnson wore dark body make-up.) Johnson was a talented actor who typically gave dignified and restrained performances. In this movie, Noble Johnson portrays Uncle Tom as an illiterate patriarch who goes along to get along, and who doesn't seem to resent being another man's property. The youthful Johnson's hair is dusted with powder here, to make him seem the elderly patriarch.
Vivan Duncan was 30 when she played Little Eva in this movie: although under 5 feet tall, she's clearly an adult woman playing a pre-teen girl. Duncan tricks herself out in golden ringlets, crinolines and petticoats: the result is quite pretty but unconvincing.
SPOILERS COMING. In the sisters' stage performances, Eva's death scene was always an elaborate set-piece: here, Eva has a long languid deathbed scene but she ultimately recovers. The dialogue implies that she was saved by the prayers of Uncle Tom and Topsy.
I was pleasantly surprised by the effective performance of Henry Victor as Eva's father in this silent film; talking pictures would soon reveal Victor's bizarre accent (he spent his childhood shuttling between England and Germany), and would also reveal that he wasn't usually a very good actor. Gibson Gowland is also excellent here as slimy Simon Legree.
The Duncan Sisters were hugely popular stage performers in their day, so this movie is useful as a visual record of their act. Since much of the act's appeal lay in the minstrel-show jokes and songs performed by Rosetta, it's a shame that this silent film does not record the sisters' voices.
I'm trying to appraise "Topsy and Eva" on its own merits rather than as a (very loose) adaptation of "Uncle Tom's Cabin", but the sad truth is that "Topsy and Eva" just isn't a very good movie. Despite its historical importance, I'll rate this minstrel show just 4 out of 10.
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