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)


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


Motion Picture Original Story Final Scene Early Film Movie Studio 
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  1. 2.
    Robert Sklar, Movie Made America: A Cultural History of American Movies (New York: Vintage Books, 1994), p. 27.Google Scholar
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    Brian McFarlane, Novelto Film: An Introduction to the Theory of Adaptation (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1996), pp. 6–7.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., p.7.Google Scholar
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    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
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© John W. Frick 2012

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