UNCLE TOM'S CABIN (1927)




This film is a wondrous curiosity.


It was made 12 years after The Birth Of A Nation
and is on many levels a far more sophisticated piece of filmmaking —
and yet it also seems far more old-fashioned than Griffith's
problematic
masterpiece.

In the 1927 film, proscenium staging and histrionic
acting clash with elegant studio lighting and bold camera movement,
throwing the antiquated methods into stark contrast with the modern. 
Every frame of Griffith's film is tense and alive with the impulse of
innovation,
while Harry Pollard's film shifts back and forth deliriously between
styles, as though trying to improvise something respectable out
of a grab-bag of conventions learned by rote.

The most emblematic shot in the film occurs at the
death of little Eva.  From a close shot on the child the camera hurtles
backwards on a track and then holds on a theatrical tableau in which
angels appear by the magic of double-exposure to waft the soul of Eva
to heaven.  A bold and expressive camera movement takes us into a shot that
harks back to the stodgiest effects of an early Edison potboiler.

The whole film reels maddeningly between such
extremes.  It's filled with some of the boldest and most beautiful
images of the silent era, such as the lyrical passages on the riverboat
and the banks of the Mississippi, and yet is drawn back relentlessly
into visual
mediocrity by a director who clearly had no vision of the medium as a
coherent form.  His wife Margarita Fischer, who plays Eliza in the
film (pictured in the still above,) said that Pollard, a product of the stage, always looked down on
movies, even as he was cranking out hit after hit for Universal in the
Twenties.  This movie was not one of them, though it did eventually
make its money back in a series of re-releases — one of them as late
as 1958 (!) in a narrated sound version that eliminated the intertitles.

The fact that a film this disjointed could break even,
and still be in theaters 30 years after its initial release, is a kind
of confirmation of the old theatrical saw that Uncle
Tom's Cabin
is actor-proof and production-proof.  It's such an
effective piece of melodrama that audiences are inclined to go with it
no matter what.  I certainly found that to be true with this version,
discombobulated as it is.  I could be gritting my teeth one moment over
the black-face mugging of the actress playing Topsy, and fighting back
a tear the next as stony Aunt Ophelia clasps her to her breast and says she'll love her.

Melodrama is a highly abstracted form whose stark
dynamics work as a catalyst for emotions we may not have ready access
to on a conscious level.  Harriet Beecher Stowe, by contstructing a
finely calculated conduit for the often unconscious racial tensions of
American society
— ferocious in her time and still potent in ours — created a
masterpice of the genre.

[The Kino DVD of this title has a superb piece on the
film by David Pierce, included as a textual supplement.  It's a model
of clear, informative writing and meticulous research.]

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