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Uncle Tom's Cabin

Harriet Beecher Stowe's anti-slavery and anti-capitalistic novel Uncle Tom's Cabin (1851) remained immensely popular throughout the North as an affirmation and retrospective justification of the Civil War. Its spectacular story, more than its political content, was kept alive by theatrical adaptations that numerous acting troupes performed in America's opera houses.[27] When the Kinetograph Department returned to production during spring 1903, it arranged for one of these itinerant companies to stage the play's highlights in the Edison studio. This decision may have been influenced by Biograph's May release of Rip Van Winkle , a 200-foot compendium of scenes from the Rip Van Winkle play, showing "the various events beginning with Rip's departure for the mountains and ending with his awakening from his 20 years' sleep."[28] Porter's Uncle Tom's Cabin , which totaled 1,100 feet, was much more ambitious. The play was condensed rather than excerpted. A race between the steamboats Natchez and Robert E. Lee was done in miniature, and a few effects, like the double exposure used to show Eva's ascent to heaven, were reworked to take advantage of the motion picture camera's capabilities.

Porter's Uncle Tom's Cabin has often been criticized for its lack of "cinematic" qualities and viewed as a disappointing regression after Life of an American Fireman .[29] Such criticism feels the absence of a coherent spatial/temporal world as an absolute loss. It valorizes narrowly progressive tendencies in Porter's work, isolating filmic strategies felt to have contributed to the development of Hollywood cinema. While Uncle Tom's Cabin does not fit into a simple linear pattern of development from Life of an American Fireman to The Great Train Robbery , it does represent a sustained exploration of the filmed theater genre that remained an important aspect of Porter's filmmaking career—whether Parsifal (1904), The Devil (1908), or James O'Neill in The Count of Monte Cristo (1912).

A relatively unadulterated record of nineteenth-century theater, Uncle Tom's Cabin displays the presentational elements of this practice that exerted often determining influences on the screen: acting techniques (codified gesture, the playing to an audience), spatial construction (set design, the use of frontal compositions, the maintenance of a proscenium arch), and a nonrealistic, but highly serviceable, temporality. For traveling theater companies, portable sets had to suggest or symbolically represent the locale for a drama. Since changing scenery was difficult, action that moved to a different locale generally had to wait until


Uncle Tom's Cabin. Eliza escapes while Uncle Tom is sold into slavery.

the completion of subsequent actions in the current scene before it could be played out.

The same time frame is shown successively in the last two scenes of Uncle Tom's Cabin . In scene 13, Uncle Tom is beaten on the veranda by Simon Legree's minions and then carried off; George Shelby, Jr., arrives to buy back Tom, then leaves in search of him; and finally Marks—an officer of the law and symbol of the state—kills Legree to revenge the death of Uncle Tom . As the final scene begins, Uncle Tom is still alive in the woodshed and George Shelby, Jr., arrives in time to witness his death. Although Tom's death is shown last, the intertitles and action clearly suggest that it precedes the killing of Legree. Temporality, as in the closing scenes of Life of an American Fireman , is manipulated for emotional and thematic purposes determined in part by a religious interpretation of events. This reordering of events, which violates the linear logic of later narrative cinema, can easily appear naive or inept to modern audiences. For turn-of-the-century audiences, it allowed the emotional highpoint, the death of Uncle Tom, to come last where it belonged.

Viewing the film today, audiences are faced with fundamental problems of comprehension—identifying characters and following narrative development. At the turn of the century, however, the story was part of American folklore and native-born Americans were as familiar with the melodramatic incidents portrayed on the screen as with the mechanics of a fire rescue. As with Jack and the Beanstalk or most news films, the narrative was not presented as if the audience was seeing it for the first time, but existed in reference to a story assumed to be already present in the audience's mind.[30]

Porter's Uncle Tom's Cabin reveals its reliance on audiences' preexisting knowledge in various ways. Following the example of G. A. Smith's Dorothy's Dream , each scene is introduced by a title that does not explain the next scene


but labels it to prime the viewer's preexisting knowledge.[31] General familiarity with the narrative was reflected in most Edison ads and promotional materials, which simply listed the scenes, as if that would adequately define their contents. Even the reprinted description assumed that the reader already knew the various characters. Uncle Tom's Cabin was a ritual reiteration of a common heritage and could trigger deeply felt emotions that audiences already associated with the narrative. But even allowing for this a priori knowledge, the exhibitor could still use a lecture to help audiences follow the on-screen narrative and identify characters whose dress sometimes changed from one scene to the next. For immigrants and those otherwise unfamiliar with the film's frame of reference, additional cues must have been essential.[32]

Uncle Tom's Cabin was heralded by George Kleine as "the most elaborate effort at telling a story in moving pictures yet attempted," and subsequently described as "the largest and most expensive picture yet made in America."[33] By employing an established Uncle Tom's Cabin theatrical company, Porter made a film that looked expensive yet required much less investment than a truly "original" production like Jack and the Beanstalk . Certainly its scale did not intimidate Edison's competitor Sigmund Lubin, who immediately remade it.

Lubin had reacted to Edison's victory in the copyright case with his customary flair: he copyrighted over thirty popular titles without bothering to make the films. These included Three Little Pigs, Old Mother Hubbard , and Jack and Jill .[34] Hearing that Edison intended to film Uncle Tom's Cabin , Lubin copyrighted that title as well, a fact that was shared with customers. As the traveling exhibitor N. Dushane Cloward, informed the Orange laboratory:

While in Lubin's Philada. office yesterday one of his assistants volunteered some information regarding a matter in which I know you people are interested.

It may not be a fact or it may not be news to you or if both it may be of no importance but i [sic ] feel that the statement passed on to you would be of no injustice to Lubin and may be of guidance to you. The conversation was on new film subjects. The party asked me how Edison people were getting along with U/T/Cabin. I having told him that I had been dealing with Edison. I replied that I had heard some talk of the subject being prepared last Spring but knew nothing of it whatever. The representative remarked that Lubin had a copyright for the title of Uncle Tom's Cabin in motion pictures and had it several years.[35]

Cloward's information delayed the film's release from late July to early September while Edison's lawyer investigated. "I learned that Sigmund Lubin has copyrighted a photograph under the title 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' on May 1st 1903," Howard Hayes reported, after consulting the Library of Congress. "That copyright, however, does not give him a monopoly on the title. The copyright applies to the picture itself, regardless of the title, so, unless you copy his picture, he cannot interfere with the use of the title."[36] The following week, Edison


finally advertised its film in the trades. The week after, Lubin announced the imminent release of his Uncle Tom's Cabin .[37]

Edison executives thought Lubin might try to sell their film on the basis of his earlier copyright. Lubin, in fact, simply waited for the picture's release before making his own meticulous imitation. By dropping a cakewalk sequence, increasing the pacing and filming at fewer frames per second, Lubin reduced the length of his version from 1,100 feet to 700 feet. His brochures for the film even lifted entire descriptions from the Edison catalog.[38] With Lubin's pictures underselling Edison's by a penny per foot, his Uncle Tom's Cabin offered substantial savings to exhibitors.

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8 Story Films Become the Dominant Product: 1903-1904
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