Cast & Crew
Mulattoes George and Eliza, the "beloved slaves" of neighboring Kentucky plantation owners, are about to be married when their plans are scotched by Edward Harris, George's master. Over the next years, the Shelbys, Eliza's kindly masters, incur a deepening debt to a blackguard named Haley, forcing them to surrender their slaves Tom and Harry, Eliza's young son. Eliza, overhearing the plans, escapes with Harry across the border. She is pursued by Lawyer Marks and his companion, Loker, and, although harbored by Quaker Phineas Fletcher, is extradited by dint of the new Dred Scott Decision. Returning home, they find themselves on a riverboat with Haley, Tom, and George, who had escaped from Harris' clutches and obtained work as a stoker. Haley's presence forces George into a watery escape and Marks and Loker into stealthy evasion until they can sell Harry to yet another slave owner; meanwhile, Eliza's grief drives her to near self-destruction. White northerner Augustus St. Claire and his young daughter, Eva, intervene on Tom's behalf and buy him, leaving Eliza to be sold downriver at a New Orleans slave auction. A deep friendship develops between Eva and Topsy, a scurvy black imp who becomes her servant, but the little white girl dies, soon followed by her father. Tom is then sold to Simon Legree, a villainous northerner who also buys Eliza. He brings her into his home, usurping the place of Cassie, an older mulatto slave, who jealously confides to Tom her bitter and tortuous history at the hands of Legree. The story reveals Cassie to be Eliza's mother; reunited, they try to escape, ending up in Legree's attic. Though Tom is beaten to death, their whereabouts are concealed until Legree happens upon them. A fight ensues, in which Legree, drunk, hysterical, and tormented by visions of the goodly Tom, falls from the attic to his death. George, who has found and claimed little Harry, emerges from a passing band of refugees, and the long-sought reunion takes place.
Arthur Edmund Carew
J. Gordon Russell
Lassie Lou Ahern
C. E. Anderson
Col. George L. Bryam
Edward J. Montagne
Uncle Tom's Cabin (1927)
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
Uncle Tom's Cabin (1927)
Virginia Grey (1917-2004)
She was was born in Los Angeles on March 22, 1917, and was exposed to the film industry at a very young age. Her father, Ray Grey, was a Keystone Cop and acted in several other of Mack Sennett's comedies with the likes of Mabel Normand, Dorothy Gish and Ben Turpin. When her father died when she was still a child, Virginia's mother encouraged her to join the acting game and audition for the role of Eva for Uncle Tom's Cabin, a big budget picture for Universal Studios in the day. She won the role, and acted in a few more pictures at the studio: The Michigan Kid and Heart to Heart (both 1928), before she decided to temporarily leave acting to finish her schooling.
She returned to films after graduating from high school, and after bouncing around Hollywood doing bits for various studios, she hooked up with MGM in 1938. Her roles in her first few films were fairly non-descript: In Test Pilot and Ladies in Distress (both 1938), she did little more than look pretty, but in the following year she had scene-stealing parts in The Women (upstaging Joan Crawford in a delicious scene as a wisecracking perfume counter girl) and as the suffering heroine in Another Thin Man (both 1939).
Despite her versatility (she could handle comedy or drama with equal effectiveness), MGM would cast her in some above-average, but hardly starmaking movies: Whistling in the Dark, The Big Store (both 1941), and Tarzan's New York Adventure (1942). She left MGM in 1943 and became a freelance actress for several studios, but her material as a leading lady throughout the '40s were mediocre: Swamp Fire, House of Horrors (both 1946), and Mexican Hayride (1948) were sadly the more interesting films in her post-MGM period. But by the '50s she was a well-established character actress, appearing in fairly big-budget pictures: All That Heaven Allows, The Rose Tattoo (both 1955), Jeanne Eagels (1957).
In the '60s, Grey turned to television and found work on a variety of hit shows: Wagon Train, Peter Gunn, Bonanza, My Three Sons, I Spy, and several others; plus she also captured a a couple of notable supporting parts in these films: Madame X (1966), and Airport (1970), before retiring completely from acting in the early '70s. She is survived by her sister, Lorraine Grey Heindorf, two nieces and two nephews.
by Michael T. Toole
Virginia Grey (1917-2004)
According to a Variety news story in September 1952, this film was released in 1950 illegally in a sound version in which a narrator read the original titles. The perpetrator, Howard G. Underwood of Pine Grove, KY, removed the original Universal credits and substituted credits which read, "Howard G. Underwood presents Uncle Tom's Cabin. Produced by Howard G. Underwood, Copyrighted 1950." Universal sued for damages, an injunction against exhibition, seizure of prints and destruction of prints and negatives. In September 1952, a U.S. Marshal in Lexington, KY seized and impounded three prints of the film from Underwood's garage, in accordance with a court order.
Variety noted, "Strange aspect of the case is that the film has been showning in hundreds of theatres and drive-ins and has been doing tremendous biz, often outgrossing many present-day pictures." According to an audio transcription at NYSA, the 1950 version opened with the following statement: "Please do not form an opinion of this great motion picture from the opening scenes. Remain here in this theatre during its complete showing. We assure you you will be rewarded by its greatness."
In 1958, Universal rereleased this version of Uncle Tom's Cabin with a musical score composed by Erno Rapee and an introductory sequence starring Raymond Massey as Abraham Lincoln. According to the Variety review of the released film, Massey is seen visiting Litchfield, CT, Harriet Beecher Stowe's birthplace, where he speaks about "the 100-year-old propaganda novel and prepares the audience to accept the 'overemphatic' screen acting of the silent era." Massey also provided a voice-over narration throughout the film.
For information on other adaptations of Stowe's novel, please consult the entry for the World Film Corp.'s 1914 Uncle Tom's Cabin, directed by William Robert Daly and starring Sam Lucas (see AFI catalog of Feature Films, 1911-20).
Released in United States 1927
Released in United States 1927