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Uncle Tom in Middle Age: From a Stage Tradition to the Silver Screen

  • John W. Frick
Part of the Palgrave Studies in Theatre and Performance History book series (PSTPH)

Abstract

In December of 1903, American movie audience members, many who previously had been exposed to moving pictures solely through “penny dreadfuls” shown on Mutoscopes or Kinetoscopes in nickelodeons, stared in amazement at a film that, unbeknownst to them at the time, was destined to make film history. As anyone who has taken an introductory film history course well knows, the film that these astonished audiences witnessed was The Great Train Robbery. Produced by movie pioneer Thomas Edison and directed by a young film director named Edwin S. Porter, The Great Train Robbery, which was once described as “a textbook on how to rob a train,” was constructed of 20 separate shots and incorporated techniques (e.g., construction through the use of shots; cutting between shots rather than complete scenes; rear projection; panning shots) that audiences had never before seen. The action of the film was shot at over a dozen different locations, both indoors and outdoors, and included such innovations as a close-up of a character’s shooting directly at the camera (and the audience). In the opinion of film historian Robert Sklar, “no movie before it contained such a variety of scene or swift movement from place to place. For the first time, a motion picture demonstrated the speed and spaciousness required of a storytelling medium.”2

Keywords

Motion Picture Original Story Final Scene Early Film Movie Studio 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 2.
    Robert Sklar, Movie Made America: A Cultural History of American Movies (New York: Vintage Books, 1994), p. 27.Google Scholar
  2. 5.
    Brian McFarlane, Novelto Film: An Introduction to the Theory of Adaptation (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1996), pp. 6–7.Google Scholar
  3. 6.
    Ibid., p.7.Google Scholar
  4. 9.
    Stephen Railton, “Readapting Uncle Tom’s CabinNineteenth-Century America Fiction on Screen, ed. E. Barton Palmer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), p. 64. Noel Burch believed that the Edison/Porter film was not designed to tell an original story; rather it served to simply “jog” the audience’s memory. Even without a narrator, “the sequence of [shots] formed an easily recognizable narrative progression where everyone knew what had gone before and what was coming.” Any gaps in the cinematic narrative were filled in by the audience members (Burch, “Porter, or Ambivalence,” Screen 19, no. 4 (Winter 1978): 98–99).Google Scholar
  5. 10.
    Robert Stam, “Beyond Fidelity: The Dialogics of Adaptation” in James Naremore, ed. Film Adaptation (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2000), p. 54.Google Scholar
  6. 11.
    E. Barton Palmer, ed. Nineteenth-Century America Fiction on Screen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), p. 2.Google Scholar
  7. 12.
    Stephen Johnson, “Translating the Tom Show: The Legacy of Popular Tradition in Edwin S. Porter’s 1903 Film of Uncle Tom’s Cabin” in Celebrating 1895: The Centenary of Cinema, ed., John Fullerton (London: John Libbey & Company Ltd., 1998), p. 131; Charles Musser, History of the American Cinema. 10 vols., Volume I: The Emergence of Cinema. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1990): 349; Railton in Palmer, Nineteenth-Century America Fiction on Screen, p. 64. The 1903 Lubin film likewise employed an existing Tom troupe.Google Scholar
  8. 14.
    Ben Brewster and Lea Jacobs, Theatre to Cinema (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 55–56; Unidentified Clipping, Harry Birdoff Collection, Harriet Beecher Stowe Center.Google Scholar
  9. 22.
    David A. Cook, A History of Narrative Film (New York: A. A. Norton & Company, 1981), p. 19fn; Gerald Mast, A Short History of the Movies (New York: Macmillan, 1986), p. 35.Google Scholar
  10. 39.
    Stephen Johnson, “Time and Uncle Tom: Familiarity and Shorthand in the Performance Traditions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” in Performing Adaptations, ed., Michelle MacArthur, Lydia Wilkinson, and Keren Zaiontz. (Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Press, Fall 2009), p. 87.Google Scholar
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    Joseph P. Eckhardt, The King of the Movies: Film Pioneer Siegmund Lubin (Madison, NJ: Fairleigh-Dickenson University Press, 1998), p. 47.Google Scholar
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    Unidentified Clipping, Harry Birdoff Collection, Harriet Beecher Stowe Center; William L. Slout,. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin in American Film History,” Journal of Popular Film 2 (Spring 1973): 145; “Harry Pollard and Uncle Tom: Act I: The Imp Film,” Uncle Tom’s Cabin & American Culture Website. {*} Later in his film career, Robert Leonard, like Pollard, became a movie director.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. 103.
    David Pierce, “Carl Laemmle’s Outstanding Achievement: Harry Pollard and the Struggle to Film Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” Film History 10 (1998): 463–64.Google Scholar
  14. 117.
    Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Film, Universal Pictures, 1927. Intriguingly, Stowe alludes to a similar scene, stating that “the wedding of Eliza and George had taken place in the Shelby’s parlor and that there was no lack… of admiring guests to praise the bride’s beauty” (Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Norton Critical Edition). ed. Elizabeth Ammons (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1994), p. 11). According to the Souvenir Program for the film, the movie was originally slated to begin with an auction scene depicting the brutality of the slave system with children being wrenched from their mothers’ arms, but this was deemed to be too graphic and disturbing.Google Scholar
  15. 133.
    Errol G. Hill and James V. Hatch. A History of African American Theatre. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 1.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© John W. Frick 2012

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  • John W. Frick

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