TOPSY AND EVA (1927)
Article 5357 by Dave Sindelar
Directed by Del Lord, D.W. Griffith and Lois Weber
Featuring Rosetta Duncan, Vivian Duncan, Gibson Gowland
What it is: Famed drama recast as slapstick comedy
The St. Claire family buys two slaves who have been auctioned off when the original owners went broke. However, when a fire destroys his cotton crop and he can’t pay for them, the evil and vicious slave seller Simon Legree seeks to recover the slaves.
For the record, I’ve already covered one version of UNCLE TOM’S CABIN for this series; the ending of the story involves a miracle of sorts. The story was so familiar that I can’t really say I’m surprised that a slapstick comic version of the tale exists; though in some ways the story here is told straight, it’s primarily a vehicle for slapstick mayhem courtesy of Rosetta Duncan (a white woman) in the role of the young slave Topsy (a black character). It’s based on a Broadway version of the show that was a musical, much of which must have been lost in a silent movie. IMDB lists Lois Weber as one of the directors, though the trivia section says she refused to direct this one because it was “racially insensitive”. And in some ways it is; stereotypes abound, and Topsy herself comes across at times as a somewhat subhuman character. Still, I can’t help but be impressed at a few things; it’s one of the rare cases where we see Three Stooges-style slapstick taken on by a female (I can’t help but notice Del Lord listed as the director), and Topsy is openly insolent to so many of the white characters in the story that I’m sure some audience members of the time were taken aback; I’m sure the only way they got away with it is because she was being played by a white person in blackface rather than a black person. Oddly enough, the usual fantastic content in the story is soft-pedaled this time; all we see is Topsy praying and Eva reviving, which makes the miracle one that is only implied. Still, there are a few other touches of the fantastic. The opening scene has storks delivering babies, and there is a quick scene in heaven with black angels shooting dice. Still, the most interesting moment in this regard is a scene in a graveyard which plays like a horror comedy; Topsy passes through unaware that several slaves have buried themselves in the snow there, and when they dig themselves out, she thinks the dead are rising from their graves.