Silent Cinema from Kino
Silent Cinema from Kino

George Siegmann as Simon Legree and James B. Lowe as Uncle Tom in Uncle Tom's Cabin.
(© Kino International. All rights reserved.)

V I D E O   R E V I E W   B Y   G A R Y   J O H N S O N

By some estimates, well over half the movies made during the silent era are now lost, victims of neglect and decomposition. However, film historians such as David Pierce and David Shepard have played a vital role in ensuring that many silent movies will survive for decades to come. Most recently, in cooperation with Kino International, David Pierce has overseen the restoration of two long-neglected silent era relics--Uncle Tom's Cabin and Peter Pan. While neither film ranks among the classics of the silent era, they nonetheless are fascinating documents of their time. Meanwhile David Shepard, best known for his work on Kino's The Art of Buster Keaton series, has produced the restoration of an almost-forgotten epic-scale historical melodrama based upon a novel by Zane Grey, The Vanishing American.

Words such as "hoary" and "wizened" were made for describing movies such as Uncle Tom's Cabin. This venerable document of the American melodramatic theatrical tradition has not aged well. However, it has never exactly been a darling of critics. Since the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel in 1852, critics have delighted in taking pot shots (many well deserved) at the novel and its various stage play incarnations. Despite its critics, readers loved the novel and audiences flocked to the play. For many decades, Uncle Tom's Cabin was second only to the Bible in overall sales. Meanwhile, theatrical versions of the book barnstormed across the country for over 70 years. One of the great virtues of the stage play was its flexibility to interpretation. Productions in the North could focus upon the injustices done the slaves, while productions in the South could embrace plantations as a positive environment for slaves and shift the blame to slave traders, lawyers, and bounty hunters.

By no means was director Harry Pollard the first to adapt Stowe's novel/play for the big screen. Almost since the beginning of cinema, filmmakers strived to film Uncle Tom's Cabin. Edison and Lubin produced a one reel version in 1903. Vitagraph produced a three-part rendition in 1920. IMP and Kalem produced a three-reeler and a two-reeler, respectively, in 1913. World Pictures produced a feature length version in 1914. And these are just the highlights. Among the many directors that looked to Uncle Tom's Cabin for influence can be counted no less than D.W. Griffith. His Way Down East lifts its ice floe chase scene from the stage version of Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Harry Pollard felt particularly close to Uncle Tom's Cabin. It was his dream project. After several consecutive box-office successes, Pollard earned the right to film whatever he chose. And he chose Uncle Tom's Cabin. He also chose his wife, Margarita Fisher, to play the lead role of Eliza.

Unfortunately, the single biggest problem with Uncle Tom's Cabin is the casting. Absolutely nothing about Margarita Fisher suggests that she has any African American blood in her veins. (And the child who plays her son is dressed like Little Lord Fauntleroy.) In Stowe's original novel, Eliza disappears from the story near the midway point; however, in Pollard's rewrite, Eliza is now around as a central character for the duration. Every time she's on screen, though, her lack of credibility completely distracts from the story being told. At times, the story is so forceful that the on-screen action overcomes this credibility gap--as when director Pollard recreates the novel's famous scene where Eliza flees from slave traders by running across an ice floe. This is a stunning sequence that, while not quite on the same level as D.W. Griffith's similar sequence for Way Down East, still packs a strong punch.

Pollard also showed strong instincts by drastically reducing the screen time for angelic Little Eva and troublesome Topsy. Whenever they're on screen, the movie comes to a complete standstill. Their only relationship to the rest of the story is the presence of Uncle Tom himself. After Uncle Tom rescues Eva after she falls off a riverboat, Eva begs her father to buy Uncle Tom. However, it's the plight of Eliza that the movie revolves around, and the sequences with Little Eva and Topsy have nothing to do with Eliza's fate. As an example of how African Americans were frequently depicted in patronizingly cute fashion by well-meaning (but insensitive) writers and actors, Topsy is fascinating to watch ... for about 30 seconds, and then she becomes as grating as any character ever put on a movie screen. She bats her eyes like an imbecile and constantly gets into trouble. "Topsy, what makes you so bad?" asks Eva. "Specs it's cause I is so wicked," says Topsy.

While Topsy is difficult to watch, the character of Uncle Tom (played by James B. Lowe) is a revelation. While over the past several decades, the words "Uncle Tom" have become synonymous with "kowtow," "cowardly," and "submissive," Uncle Tom isn't any of these things. He's not exactly a forceful character, but he also refuses to submit to orders that he can't morally abide. After he is purchased by the sinister Simon Legree (played by George Siegmann, who had played the evil Silas Lynch in D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation), he is ordered to whip another slave, but he refuses--even as Legree's whip rips into his own flesh. "No, Massa!" cries Uncle Tom. "My body may belong to you, but my soul belongs to God." The scenes with Simon Legree are the movie's high point (after the ice floe sequence, that is). Legree lives in a decrepit Southern mansion, tobacco juice staining his beard as he leers at the slave women.

If you can get past Margarita Fisher's unconvincing presence as Eliza, you'll have fun with this movie. But getting past her isn't easy. At the very least, Director Harry Pollard's Uncle Tom's Cabin serves a great role in preserving the 19th Century theatrical barnstorming tradition on film.

This DVD contains a wonderful set of extras, including two deleted sequences, an extensive gallery of stills, promotional materials, and an excellent account of the film's production, written by David Pierce. Among the several fascinating backstage stories, Pierce describes how the ice floe sequence was filmed in California: because of the surplus of sunshine, Pollard ordered the construction of 40 foot smokestacks to be used to burn car tires and create a thick fog in the air. However, the stench from the smokestacks made much of the cast and crew nauseous.

While Uncle Tom's Cabin's appeal is severely limited by its casting, Peter Pan's appeal is limited by the staginess of the production. This filmization of James M. Barrie's famous play is little more than a record of the play. The sets--while frequently impressive--are static and stagebound. And director Herbert Brenon's camera placements always break spaces in half, making room for the proscenium arch. Ironically, when asked to adapt his play for film, Barrie responded by writing new, elaborate sequences that opened up the play. However, when it came time to turn on the camera, director Brenon chucked Barrie's new ideas and focused on the play itself. The results, while certainly not lacking interest in themselves, aren't particularly cinematic. Certainly other filmmakers recognized the difficulty of bringing the fantasy world of Never Never Land to film and the difficulty of making an audience believe that children can fly, as evidenced by the fact that no other live-action versions of Peter Pan were attempted for over 60 years -- until Steven Spielberg helmed Hook in 1991.

Betty Bronson stars as Peter Pan. She's one of the most beautiful actresses to ever play this role and her long sleek legs make it difficult to ever think of her as a boy, but she's so energetic and enjoyable to watch that she doesn't become a major liability. Bronson was chosen by James Barrie himself. After Paramount filmed dozens of auditions, they sent the film canisters to Barrie in London and he selected Bronson. Her career didn't exactly take off after Peter Pan. Paramount wasn't sure what to do with her. Eventually she married millionaire Ludwig Lauerhous and retired from screen acting.

This production of Peter Pan contains an occasional camera shot that brings the story away from the stage. For example, the camera shows us a delightful group of mermaids who recline on the beach. However, most of the scenes are stagebound. The underground home of the Lost Boys consists of a wonderful collection of toadstool chairs, giant apple seats, and a built in slide, but the camera is frequently nailed in place. Surprisingly, the great James Wong Howe photographed Peter Pan. It was one of this earliest assignements. He would go on to win Academy Awards for The Rose Tattoo and Hud; however, Peter Pan contains few moments of pictorial inspiration. Nonetheless, Peter Pan has proven to be one of the most popular of all silent era movies. The movie was effectively lost until the mid '50s, but once 35mm prints were discovered, Peter Pan became one of the most frequently rented silent films.

In spite of its staginess, Peter Pan survives to today as a charming adaptation of James M. Barrie's stage play. The scenes in the Make-Believe Forest are the movie's highlights. A pack of wolves (all children actors in wolf costumes) roams the glade. Indians hunt lions (with Anna May Wong as Tiger Lily). And pirates mercilessly wage war (with Ernest Torrence as Captain Hook). In these scenes, director Brenon creates a wonderfully magical atmosphere and Howe's camera gives this world a gentle, mythical glow.

This DVD release contains several extras, including a photo gallery, promotional material, reminiscences by Esther Ralston (who plays Mrs. Darling), and an essay by film historian Frederick C. Szebin that's packed with fascinating information about the movie's production.

A side note: While recently watching Samuel Fuller's The Naked Kiss, I was shocked to see both Betty Bronson (Peter Pan) and Virginia Grey (Eva from Uncle Tom's Cabin) in supporting roles. Bronson plays a boarding house proprietor and Grey runs a house of prostitution!

Of these three silent era releases from Kino, The Vanishing American is definitely the least known. However, it has weathered the past 70+ years better than either Uncle Tom's Cabin or Peter Pan. Like Uncle Tom's Cabin, it's handicapped by the casting, which places a white man in an Indian role; however, in many other respects The Vanishing American is a remarkably forward thinking view of how Indians have been mistreated by the white man. The drama even casts many authentic Indians in supporting roles. (This was actually a relatively common practice in the silent era.) While '50s movies such Broken Arrow and The Devil's Doorway have received credit as depicting Indian characters with sensitivity, The Vanishing American served the same function over a quarter century previously.

The movie begins as an broad-scale panorama of American Indian history, taking us back to the first very first Indians in North America and then supplying brief vignettes of each major historical era. We see the Basket-Makers, the Slab-House People, the Cliff Dwellers, the arrival of Spanish explorers, and the onslaught of U.S. cavalry soldiers. After 30 minutes of historical background, the movie begins to tell the story of an Indian named Nophaie (Richard Dix), who lives on a reservation along with the Indians of his tribe. On the reservation, the white men take advantage of them. In one scene, a crooked government agent (Noah Beery) insists the Indians bring their horses into town as contributions to the American war effort in WWI. However, the agent has no intention of handing the horses over to the military. He sells the horses and pockets the money.

The movie rather coyly works out a romantic attraction between Nophaie and a schoolteacher (Lois Wilson). This is one of the movie's weakest developments. Famous critic John Grierson railed against The Vanishing American when it was released in 1926, saying the movie failed because the director hadn't "the courage to let the love story run its course." And to a certain extent, he is right. The schoolmistress becomes a generic Western heroine--"just another of these Hollywood smilers," Grierson writes. And Dix is not permitted to "make love to the lady at all except by innuendo, by bringing along flowers and calling the lady 'little white rose,' etc. etc."

Grierson is right. The Vanishing American does fail at becoming an epic historical tale, for it dissolves into small-scale B-movie dramatics. But it's a wonderfully entertaining movie nonetheless. It might fail to reach its lofty goals as a portrait of the passing of the Indian, but director George B. Seitz and screenwriter Ethel Doherty have fashioned a story that firmly places its allegiances with the American Indian and dares to show how government agents took advantage of the people they were supposedly protecting. But most successfully, it shows Indians joining the American military and fighting for a country that hardly recognizes them as citizens. When they return, they meet complete indifference and discover their lands have been stolen.

For anyone who thinks John Ford discovered Monument Valley, look no further than The Vanishing American for evidence otherwise. Seitz makes extensive use of the buttes and open spaces of Monument Valley, particularly in the movie's opening half hour as he chronicles the history of Indians in North America.

The Vanishing American is currently only available on VHS; however, Kino promises to release it on DVD in the near future.

Peter Pan and Uncle Tom's Cabin are now available on DVD and VHS. The Vanishing American is available on VHS only. Suggested retail price: $29.95 each for DVD; $24.95 for VHS. For additional information, check out the Kino Web site.