Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1903)
This early version of the famous novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe is a little hard to accept in the modern world, because of the associations we have with the title and the way it portrays the African American experience. Nonetheless, at the time of its release it was an important attempt to recreate an important work of literature on the screen, and compared to other movies of the time, it demonstrates high production values and a seriousness of tone.
The movie begins with the Intertitle “Eliza pleads with Tom to run away.” We then see some actors in blackface on a proscenium-style set that depicts a cabin in the snow. They talk with each other and pantomime their conversation. “Eliza” is accompanied by a small child, and “Tom” seems to have a wife or other woman living in his cabin. The next scene is “Phinias outwits the slave traders.” Here, on a set built to resemble a tavern or store, Eliza speaks to a white character, who shows her out the back door, then distracts a well-dressed white man with liquor. Other men come in and “Phinias” keeps them in a huddle while Eliza re-enters the stage, then sneaks her child and herself out through the window. When the men turn around, Phinias holds them at bay with pistols. “The Escape of Eliza” involves an elaborate outdoor set that re-creates a river with ice floes floating along it. Eliza and the child run upriver, pursued by dogs and a group of men, then float past the other direction on one of the ice floes. Some men who try to catch them fall into the river and have to be rescued. Next is the “Reunion of Eliza and George Harris,” which takes place in a large room with a spinning wheel. George tries to hide Eliza, and when the pursuers show up he shoots one of them in the foot from a high vantage point, then shoots another one dead when they don’t leave.
The narrative now shifts away from Eliza with “Race between the Rob’t E. Lee and Natchez.” This river-boat race is shown with very obvious miniatures, and the losing boat explodes and catches fire at the end. I was expecting “Rescue of Eva” to be rescuing someone from the burning boat, but rather it shows a group of slaves dancing in front of the disembarkation of the winner. Eva, a small white child, trips and falls off the gangplank into the river, and Tom leaps in to save her. The next scene is “The Welcome home to St. Clair Eva Aunt Ophelia and Uncle Tom” [sic]. This shows what seems to be the entryway to a plantation home and more slaves dancing. Eva rides in on a pony. Tom is now dressed in a very fine butler’s uniform. “Tom and Eva in the Garden” is an extension of this happy home life sequence, with a cakewalk-style dance. This is then broken by “Death of Eva” in which a double-exposed image of an angel floats down and takes Eva’s soul from her body on the sickbed. Tom pantomimes his profound sorrow at the child’s death. In “St. Clair Defends Uncle Tom,” we see Tom and his owner enter a fancy saloon. Tom stands deferentially to one side while St. Clair drinks and reads the paper, but some white men start trouble with him and St. Clair gets up and fights them. He is killed in the fight.
The next scene, “Auction Sale of St. Clair’s Slaves” is often criticized because it shows the slaves dancing (again) before the auction begins. Even more stereotypically, two of them are playing craps as well (as if they would have anything to gamble). I think what was more significant to audiences at the time is that Tom is no longer in his servant’s finery, he now is clothed as a field hand. In the next scene, “Tom Refuses to Flog Ema’line” and is flogged himself. This takes place before a backdrop of the plantation field. Then, back at the plantation home of Tom’s new owner, “Marks Avenges Death’s of St. Clair and Uncle Tom” [sic] by coming on stage and unceremoniously shooting the white man. The movie concludes with “Tableau: Death of Tom,” which includes superimposed shots from a magic lantern of the eventual emancipation of the slaves over the broken figure of Tom, chained to a wall and dying.
The movie assumes either a live narrator or an intimate familiarity with the story, despite the forward-facing Intertitles that precede each screen, which was itself an innovation in 1903. I was able to follow some of it. It helps to know that Stowe was an abolitionist, and created the character of Tom as a good Christian whose basic decency and humanity was contrasted with the white slave drivers, whose Christianity was often hypocritical. We don’t think of “Uncle Tom” today as a term relating to showing African Americans as human beings, but that was the original intent of the novel. This version undercuts that somewhat by using blackface and portraying stereotypes, but the basic message is still there: Tom rescues a little girl and refuses to whip another slave and dies for it. It doesn’t really seem like the Eliza sub-plot adds much to this in this version, but presumably audiences familiar with the book would have expected to see it, and I was reasonably impressed with the special effects on the ice floe sequence.
Michelle Wallace, who gave the introduction to “Scrap in Black and White,” also introduces this movie on the “Invention of the Movies” DVD, pointing out the popularity of Uncle Tom’s Cabin during the period (the same year, there was a version released by Lubin, a studio dedicated mainly to filmed versions of the classics), and to some degree defending it against its reputation as an agent of racism. I have some problems with the way she expresses this, saying that it is perhaps not “100% racist-fascist” and that it does not support the idea of “extermination” of black people in its interest in showing them at play or dancing. The problem is that these concepts do not apply in 1903. Fascism was still almost twenty years away in Italy and had no roots in American racism, which was never based on a need to exterminate black people. American racism did devalue black lives, and supported killing individual blacks, but the idea was to “keep them in their place,” as second class citizens, not to wipe them out. Of course, Stowe’s novel challenged this by arguing that a black man might be a better Christian than his white owners, but this version of the story preserves only part of that message, which is undercut by the stereotypical portrayals of African Americans on the screen.
Director:Edwin S. Porter
Camera: Edwin S. Porter
Run Time: 19 Min