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In cultural terms, a "chestnut" is a joke or story that is old but frequently repeated. No better definition of a dramatic chestnut exists than Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. It was one of the most oft-filmed stories of the silent era (there were at least ten film versions in the span of 25 years), and prior to that it was a perennially popular stage play, often mounted with enormous production values.
Whenever the story was retold, certain plot elements were sure to be included, because these ingredients had become such pop cultural phenomena. When Edwin S. Porter filmed his version of Stowe's classic in 1903 (for the Thomas Edison studios), he hardly bothered with the story's narrative structure. Instead, he filmed a series of tableaux that were so familiar to audiences of the day that it was unnecessary to link them together with a plot.
The names "Uncle Tom" and "Simon Legree" would transcend reference to specific characters and become bywords for certain personality traits (subservience, sadism). The ice floe sequence of D.W. Griffith's Way Down East (1920) was inspired not by the original play but by a stage production of Uncle Tom's Cabin. It is difficult to imagine a contemporary story that could so capture the American imagination...and hold it for decades.
In 1927, Universal Pictures studio chief Carl Laemmle decided to create the definitive version of Uncle Tom's Cabin and mounted what was by far the most ambitious film adaptation yet. It was the Gone With the Wind (1939) of its era, featuring some of the most majestic photography and production design of the silent years, especially surprising in that it came from Universal Studios, known for modest rather than extravagant productions.
The story begins on the idyllic Kentucky plantation of the Shelby family, where slaves are treated with kindness and dignity. Mrs. Shelby (Vivian Oakland) is overseeing the preparations of a formal wedding for Eliza (Margarita Fischer) and George (Arthur Edmund Carewe). They are light-skinned, well-spoken and hold positions of privilege on the Shelby Estate (where George serves as a white-collar engineer). Shortly after they are wed, George is reclaimed by his true owner, and the two are separated. Eliza raises their son, Harry, alone. When Mr. Shelby (Jack Mower) is forced to sell little Harry as well as the trusted Uncle Tom (James B. Lowe), Eliza flees with child into a raging snowstorm. In order to evade the bloodhounds set upon her, Eliza carries Harry onto an ice floe that is steadily moving toward a treacherous waterfall. Tom is sold into the home of the kindly St. Clare family, where he makes the acquaintance of the master's sickly daughter, Eva (Virginia Grey). Eva is a ray of sunshine in the life of all who surround her, including the mischievous slave Topsy (Mona Ray). Eliza and Tom are later "sold down the river" to the cruel Simon Legree, who torments his slaves with physical and psychological abuses. Legree's reign is ended when invading soldiers sweep through his property, and the fates of Tom, Eliza and little Harry are sealed in the melodramatic climax befitting such an overwrought spectacle.
Universal boasted that the film cost an astounding $2 million, making it the third most expensive film ever made (after Ben-Hur  and Old Ironsides ). But an undertaking that ambitious inevitably faces complications, and Picture-Play Magazine reported, "The production seems to be a second Ben-Hur as regards the halts, delays and misfortunes."
The powerful ice floe sequence was filmed on the Saranac River near Plattsburg, New York. It was so cold on location that photographer Virgil Miller had to lubricate his camera with kerosene. The cast and crew, stuntmen and animals actually floated downriver on thick rafts of ice. At one point a small camera crew filmed from a cake of ice that had been reinforced with wood, and was tethered to the shore by wires. These wires snapped and the panicked crew of four rode the floe for a quarter of a mile before still waters allowed them to leap to shore.
While on location director Harry Pollard fell ill with a cold, then a dental infection. According to film historian David Pierce, Pollard "was rushed to a Manhattan hospital with influenza and blood poisoning, and underwent six jaw operations." Motion Picture Magazine reported these procedures "permanently disfigured the romantic appearance that once made him a popular film hero." After the spring thaw, the winter scenes had not all been shot, so the location crew returned home to shoot on the backlot, with the intention of returning north the following winter. In the end, Universal would choose to employ Hollywood magic rather than be subject to the violent whims of Mother Nature. The ice floe sequence was filmed from scratch with artificial ice, fake snow and trees stripped of their leaves. To permeate the three-acre exterior set with a properly thick fog, Pollard had the crew burn rubber tires to fill the air with smoke. Even the waterfall where the scene has its breath-taking climax was a studio creation, with the river unleashed on cue from a two million-gallon reservoir.
In addition to constructing expensive plantation houses on studio property, another location crew was dispatched to the Southeast to capture scenic footage on the Mississippi. Universal leased the steamboat Kate Adams at a rate of $4,350 per week, and then spent two weeks repairing the craft, which had suffered from years of neglect. Pollard later recalled, "Life was very primitive. There was no running water in the staterooms, and only one shower aboard. I believe nobody on the boat had a bath in anything except a washbowl during the entire eight weeks." The Kate Adams was ravaged by fire shortly after the crew's departure.
Well into the 1950s, Uncle Tom's Cabin was continuing to be exhibited in certain markets. According to Variety, an entrepreneur named Howard G. Underwood obtained several prints, chopped off the Universal titles and re-christened the film a Howard G. Underwood production. In 1952, the illegal prints were confiscated from Underwood's garage. Variety wrote, "Strange aspect of the case is that the film has been shown in hundreds of theaters and drive-ins and has been doing tremendous biz, often outgrossing many present-day pictures."
Perhaps inspired by Underwood's success, Universal re-issued the film in 1958, with a newly-filmed introduction in which Raymond Massey poses as Abraham Lincoln. He also provides running commentary to assist TV-era viewers, who had lost the habit of watching silent movies. Massey (as Lincoln) even warns the viewer of the "'overemphatic' screen acting of the silent era." The edition being shown by TCM features the 1928 Movietone soundtrack, which was supervised by Erno Rapee, comprised of original music and traditional Southern themes.
Director: Harry A. Pollard
Producer: Carl Laemmle
Screenplay: Harvey Thew and Harry Pollard, based on the novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe
Cinematography: Charles Stumar and Jacob Kull
Music: Erno Rapee (1928 Movietone score)
Cast: James B. Lowe (Uncle Tom), Virginia Grey (Eva), George Siegmann (Simon Legree), Margarita Fischer (Eliza), Arthur Edmund Carewe (George Harris), Mona Ray (Topsy), John Roche (St. Clare).
by Bret Wood