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Laughs may come and laughs may go, but the "Topsy and Eva" laughs go on forever. A tremendous laughing success on the stage, the Duncan Sisters arrive on the screen in a cyclone of mirth in the greatest rib-rocking travesty. See more »
There was nothing purely fortuitous about the assault that was made on Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel. There was an entirely deliberate, though out campaign to subvert it on the part of certain white Southern revisionists who found its message unacceptable disputed the premise on which it was based.
For Thomas Dixon Jr seeing one of the many popular stage versions of UTCA was almost in the nature of a religious experience and he would devote the rest of his life (when he wasn't attacking the evils of socialism) to "correcting" the Stowe heresy. The first novel in his infamous Ku Klux Klan trilogy, The Leopard's Spots (the title itself announces the ideological difference)appeared in 1902 and deliberately recycles Stowe's characters - Shelby, Legree, George Harris - but of course to very different effect. The second of the three novels, The Clansman (novel and play) followed in 1905. D. W. Griffith's film version, The Birth of the Nation, followed in 1915 and was very directly responsible for the dramatic rise in the refounded KKK.
How effective the Dixon/Griffith campaign was both in establishing their revisionist view and in reframing Stowe's novel (as far as possible given the nature of the story) can very clearly be seen in Universal's million-dollar 1927 film-version of UCTA (see my review) especially when one compares it to the very different tone of the 1914 version. Here we have the Dixon/Griffith picture of the South - complete with pickaninnies and watermelons and happy, banjo-playing, dancing negroes living under that "gentle" system of slavery typical (as a titlecard from the film assures us)of the South and from which the rest of the story is therefore presumably an almost inexplicable aberration.
I was prepared to view Topsy and Eva in this context (especially given the involvement of Griffith) and dismiss it as racist nonsense and this resolve remained at first unmoved as I watched the rather shocking prologue of the two storks (described in other reviews) and winced at the burnt-cork blackface of Rosetta Duncan as Topsy. However the film steadily gained ground with me and I began to realise that, in its own quirky way, it actually avoids falling into the trap of "revisionism" in a way the exactly contemporary, more successful and more famous film of UTCA itself does not.
It does of course contain some outrageous caricature but, unlike the equivalent in UTCA, it is too bizarre to take seriously and is sometimes clearly ironically intended. The storks of the prologue are in fact a case in point (no one after all is going to take a "segregated" heaven at face value) and the difference between the wealth and plenty to which the white stork sails and the squalor to which the black stork staggers is in fact a satirical condemnation of the very different life-expectations of the two communities, based not on any natural difference between the white and black but quite clearly between their different social situations. One can I think safely assume that D. W. Griffith had nothing to do with this prologue because it expresses a view quite different from his own. Remember, for the revisionists, at this point in history, the blacks were not at all disadvantaged but were living under the gentle and benevolent patronage of their white protectors...
We cannot know exactly how the films differed from the stage show. Another reviewer is wrong in believing that the reprieve from death for Eva was a change. This was already the case with the stage show (all accounts agree) as the Duncans from the outset wanted to have no "sad or tear-inspiring situation" (so no whipping of Uncle Tom, no death of Eva).
Lois Weber walked out because she felt that film was racist and one cannot blame her. The Duncans themselves disliked the film because they thought the director (Del Lord) had turned their comic drama into slapstick nonsense. The most racist scene in the film is that set in a cemetery where two runaway slaves (who have appeared from nowhere) behave with all the typical superstition and stupidity commonly attributed to African Americans in comic shorts. This would seem exactly the sort of farce to which the Duncans objected.
Whatever is of value in this film owes, one suspects. nothing to either Griffith or Lord but is entirely due to the Duncan Sisters themselves. Say perhaps that the burnt-cork had in some way got under the skin of Rosetta Duncan; she talked often about it and dreamed of producing a dramatised history of the development of black music. Consider for instance the degree of intimacy between Topsy and Uncle Tom (a black man in a superior position, and what is in fact, a white girl, permissible here because Rosetta is in "blackface" but none the less noteworthy. Consider most of all the fact that Topsy represents a real feisty defiance in the face of oppression ("Yeah, you and who?") that one finds little of in either the book or the films of UTCA.
There is also a certain feminist reading, inspired perhaps by the probable homosexuality of the Duncans. Vivian was involved in a "lavender" marriage with homosexual Nils Asther, more, one supposes for the purpose of having a child than of camouflaging her sexual orientation. Rosetta seems never to have married. By this reading, this is the story of a love affair between Topsy and Little Eva, which is indeed very much how it comes over. The picture of that love, amounting to a passion, between black and white would obviously have been more effective and affecting had the actress been an African American but it remains impressive even as it is.
So, whatever its failings, this film does significantly depart from the systematic revisionist programme that began with Dixon, continued with Griffith, is omnipresent in the 1927 UTCA and is still deeply ingrained in that later "epic" Gone with the Wind (book and film).
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