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Thursday, August 10, 2017

Lost and Gone Stage Tradition

The Girl In The Show (1929) Celebrates "Tom" Troupes

So what's a "Tommer"? I found out after watching this early Metro talker and perusing 19th-early 20th century record. Seems there were dozens of troupes, most itinerant, performing Uncle Tom's Cabin for rural America. We can't know impact of Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1852 novel for being a hundred and fifty years late to the party. It was huge, as in, many say, all-time best seller next to the Bible. Hard for a splintered culture to grasp such mass embrace. Anyone who could read, read it. Lincoln credited Uncle Tom's Cabin with starting the Civil War. For all the book's sentiment and homespun prose, it lit abolition's fuse and pushed slavery to forefront of North-South debate. Stowe's story had bumps that cried to be dramatized. To stage-adapt her novel was commonest sense, occurring to multiple impresarios around a same time, none with consent of author Stowe as there was no copyright protection for her work. Troupes could number few as seven players and still put on a Tom show, membership swapping parts where needed, sometimes doing two roles, cork-on or cork-off.

Many actors made lifetime work of Tom shows, never performing in anything else. It wasn't necessary to travel with props, for most of what Tom companies needed was on hand in small towns they played. Audiences expected the chase with bloodhounds, but that breed being sluggish at best of times made Great Danes a better pick to pursue Eliza over the ice. At least one stage entrance on a mule or pony was expected, so animals had to be coaxed not only into local Music Halls or opera houses, but often up multiple flights of stairs. Ambitious troupes arriving would put on a parade to engage locals, this essential to launch a week, or less, stay. Tom shows traveled for a remarkable seventy-eight years, last performance allegedly in summer 1931. Over that time, there would arrive movies to re-tell Uncle Tom's Cabin, from Edison to a lavish Universal production in 1927, latter available on DVD. The play, and those who staged it, were spoofed in variation from The Duncan Sisters to Our Gang. The only full-out telling of Tommer life I've seen, however, is MGM's The Girl In The Show, released in 1929, and a precious souvenir of life among the barnstormers. There's not a DVD so far, and TCM shows it seldom, but this one is a keeper for anyone fascinated by a very long gone theatrical tradition.

Initial title, announced by Metro in their 1929-30 product annual, was Eva The Fifth, a reference to Bessie Love being fifth member of her family to play that character in Uncle Tom's Cabin. The Girl In The Show was part of a first season for Metro all-talkers, all fresh and novel on arrival, but stale within months as improved models came fast off studio floors. Initial tries at talk would soon be as obsolete as Tom shows headed for extinction. "Wired Guys" were on-beam showmen who spent for conversion to sound, but they were still in overall minority as small towns, who would have appreciated The Girl In The Show best, continued silent policy. MGM offered mute versions for these outliers, but some product, fallen into cracks of transition, didn't get as wide play as they would have in all-silent or later all-sound marketplace. My town, for instance, never ran The Girl In The Show either way.

The Girl In The Show ribs Tommers, but never ridicules them. Many of creative personnel, I suspect, had their start doing Tom shows, or at the least forming sentimental attachment to Uncle Tom's Cabin as depicted on hometown stages. No telling how many were lured into show business by a Tom troupe. We can assume the circus caused more youth to leave home, but Tom shows crooked a finger to would-be actors as well, as did vaudeville, medicine shows, etc., with all their siren sights and sounds. Arrival of talk to movies was opportunity to show how progress had swept off old modes of performing. Radio led a wrecking crew of newcomer formats, it making home and hearth a preferred site for entertainment. Clash of discarded old and insistent new is put forth by the ad at top for Chicago's Majestic Theatre, where The Girl In The Show is supported on stage by "World's Famous Radio Stars In Person" from the WLS Showboat, a weekly broadcast mélange of music and patter. WLS was a station established in 1924 by Sears and Roebuck for outreach to Midwestern farmers, who relied on weather and crop info as delivered by wireless. Here, then, is radio tuned to extreme primitive --- convenience and saving of admission an only inducement to listen --- but surprise, we can hear an episode of WLS Showboat today, a rare instance of so early a broadcast being still extant. Peruse of this, plus screening of The Girl In The Show, can take us back to something like what the Majestic's audience experienced in 1929.


Blogger Dave K said...

'The Girl In The Show ribs Tommers, but never ridicules them.'

There were, of course, all kinds of movies that did ridicule old time Uncle Tom stage shows. Disney did it with 'Mickey's Mellerdrammer'. Abbott and Costello did it with 'The Naughty Nineties'. My favorite was the Vitaphone musical short 'Soft Drinks and Sweet Music' that featured, if memory serves me, a chorus line of tap dancing multiples of Eva, Liza, Uncle Tom and Simon Legree.

Remember vividly seeing the repackaged 1927 'Uncle Tom's Cabin', now with soundtrack on 'The Million Dollar Movie' sometime in the late fifties. Alas, I have to admit my siblings and I, wisenheimer baby boomers, took it as a comedy and laughed hysterically all the way through! Hey! We were kids! And Hey! We had never seen a silent movie that wasn't supposed to be funny!

9:51 AM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

Fortunately, we can now see movies like these:

11:05 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

I was interested in that MGM ad with the sound pics for '29-'30 -- including three synchronized Lon Chaney releases that never made it, including "The Bugle Sounds".

2:06 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

I've come across a number of trade ads and references over the years for "The Bugle Sounds." A pity it didn't get made. One can only imagine the career Lon Chaney might have had beyond his talkie debut in "The Unholy Three."

2:24 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

As Dave K notes, "Uncle Tom" was referenced in numerous cartoons and movies. Tex Avery's "Uncle Tom's Cabana" cast "Red" as hot singer Eliza while a Fats Waller-like Uncle Tom tangled with Simon Legree. Bob Clampett's "Book Revue" has a shot of Daffy as Eliza being chased by the wolf across the ice (the Golden Collection DVD zooms in and crops the picture to slightly obscure Daffy's Eliza drag). I faintly remember an old Loony Tune where Eliza has to get her ice blocks from a vending machine conveniently place at the river's edge. Shortly thereafter the bloodhounds pursued her on a peddle-boat.

Maybe the last major pop culture reference was in "The King and I", which includes the mock-Siamese "Little House of Uncle Thomas". "Funny Lady" has a snippet of an "Uncle Tom" comedy sketch. In the stage musical "Company", a frantic bride compares herself to "Eliza on the ice".

Don Marquis's venerable "archy and mehitabel" includes a chapter about "the old trouper", a theater cat whose implausible boasts include standing in for a bloodhound in "Uncle Tom's Cabin". The chapter became a song on an album dramatizing "archy and mehitabel" (Eddie Bracken and pre-Dolly Carol Channing -- good stuff). The record became a short-lived Broadway musical (with Eartha Kitt instead of Channing) and, much later, an oddball animated movie titled "Shinbone Alley" (with Bracken and Channing again).

4:01 PM  
Blogger b piper said...

ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE KEYSTONE KOPS opens with a sobbing Lou watching "Eliza and The Bloodhounds", actually footage from Universal's 1927 UNCLE TOM'S CABIN (in a movie set in 1910!). I watched this again a few nights ago and the silent UNCLE TOM footage is still impressive as hell. Audiences of the day must have been thrilled.

7:39 PM  
Blogger lmshah said...

No one's mentioned my favorite, Our Gang's UNCLE TOM'S UNCLE (1926).

Or the jaw-dropping TOPSY AND EVA (1927) with the Duncan Sisters.


5:00 AM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

I'm wondering if the unfilmed Chaney property was dusted off for Wallace Beery's THE BUGLE SOUNDS. One of the writers credited, Cyril Hume, was working at Metro while Chaney was there.

8:34 AM  
Blogger rnigma said...

The MGM ad had a riff on the Lucky Strike slogan "Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet," to appeal to weight-conscious women.

Our Gang more or less remade "Uncle Tom's Uncle" as "Spanky."

I recall an episode of the short-lived 1975 series "Beacon Hill," an attempt to Americanize "Upstairs, Downstairs." One of its characters decided she wanted to act in the movies and went to D.W. Griffith's studio to audition. Billy Bitzer asked her to re-enact Eliza's flight across the ice with tabletops standing in for the ice floes. Griffith (played by Roberts Blossom) decided not to use her and gave her a little speech about acting.

12:06 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Topsy And Eva

1:13 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Uncle Tom's Uncle

1:15 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

On a role here. Uncle Tom’s Cabin

1:19 PM  

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