“‘Slaves’ owes debt of Uncle Tom” and other various “Slaves” reviews (good and bad!)

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‘Slaves’ owes debt of Uncle Tom

by Marjory Adams, The Boston Globe, July 17 1969

“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was a 19th century novel which has been said to be one of the great reasons for the Civil War and the fight in the North against slavery.

“Slaves,” the Theater Guild Film production at the Orpheum and numerous other New England theaters, borrows a lot from the Harriet Beecher Stowe work although the obvious intent seems to be that Negroes still have a long way to go even if they managed to achieve freedom from their chains.

None of the action takes place in the present, but there are numerous bits of dialogue which are placed there for irony – – the hope that in the North all children get equal education, for instance, and the belief that escaped slaves will get a chance at meeting economic competition on equal terms.

Some of the old “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” features are necessarily missing. There are no Topsy and Eva combination. Eliza doesn’t cross the ice with her baby. The wide-eyed kid brought over to freedom in “Slaves” is carried in a friendly white woman’s carriage, and helped by her brother from the North.

But (Luke Stillwell) has many of the Uncle Tom characteristics–he reads the Bible, he believes in honesty and truth, and he possesses an honor which causes his tragic death when he refuses to betray his fellow slaves for his freedom.

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Stephen Boyd plays the cruel master but this has its updated side. Capt Nathan Mackay, a nouveau-rich ex-slaves dealer who wants to prove his superiority to the aristocratic Southern plantation owners with whom he now associates, collects primitive African art and buys royal jewels from France for his black mistress. Dionne Warwick portrays Cassie, who lives in sin with Mackay, and hates him bitterly to the point of trying to kill him.

I am not sure why Director Herbert J Biberman, who also wrote the script, wanted to have Cassie dress so much like an actress in one of today’s African musicals or a model depicting the African trend in Harper’s Bazaar. The effect is weird.

But Miss Warwick as an actress and a singer makes up for some of the artificiality in her part. She does stand out no matter what silly dialogue is given to her.

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Davis plays his role efficiently, with no extraneous touches. Kya-Hill offers some comedy relief, but primarily his role is there to point out the suffering of Luke, a sacrifice to his people.

In deference to the 1969 desire for uninhibited sex, there is a scene in which Cassie contemptuously lures her master on to raping her, and she spits scornfully in his face as proof that she is stronger than he is. Nothing is proved however, by this interracial love-making. It has little to do with the plot which centers on the evils of slavery and the cruelty of dividing black families and selling slaves into torture and death.

Much of the film was made near Shreveport, La., and as films of this type go, was brought in at moderate expense of just less than $1,000,0000. However, the picture has no make-shift scenery, nor visible short-cut photography.

There are excellent people playing subordinate roles in the picture. Gale Sondergaard takes a small role as a Southern woman who loathes the slave system; Shepperd Strudwick is the weak but basically kind master who sells Luke down river and Barbara Ann Teer has a pathetic scene as the wife whose husband is taken from her.

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More Reviews of “Slaves”

Note: There seems to be a distinct difference between reviews of “Slaves” written in the North or the South, as you can see below. Just another example of just how polarizing this movie was at the time!

“…uppity, sexy member of his household (Dionne Warwick), popularly known as “the master’s wench.” When Boyd isn’t busy with her in some ludicrous bedroom scenes, he is out tying his blacks to trees or setting them on fire, or pitting them against each other as gladiatorial entertainment, or just plain whupping them.” (Clifford Terry, Chicago Tribune July 1, 1969)

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“To begin with Dionne Warwick is a great disappointment. She strolls around the cotton fields and plantation house like she’s just been told Diana Ross replaced her on the album charts.”

“Stephen Boyd’s wooden performance suffers so from a lack of acting that you suffer along with it. He has the Clark Gable look, dress and walk in the world of moonlight and magnolias, but he’s nowhere near as good as the worst Gable role.” (Dale Perry, Greenville News, South Carolina)

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Yes indeed, Stephen Boyd has the Clark Gable look. Here is an ad showing them side by side, ironically, from August 23, 1969, Terre Haute, Indiana.

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“SLAVES is a powerful, sincere, and angry indictment of the sale and bondage of black people in this country during the nineteenth century. It is a reworking of the story of Uncle Tom’s Cabin with somewhat modern insights into psychology, inter-racial conflict, and the ambiguities of character. The dialogue and violence and the passions are raw and searing.”

“The performances throughout are excellent, surprisingly so in the case of Stephen Boyd…” (Daily Mail, Hagerstown, Maryland, August 22, 1969)

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“Not a single performance in the film can be called even adequate. Stephen Boyd turns in a totally wooden, unfeeling characterization of McKay, the cruel master. His facial expression (unchanging throughout the film) is a simpering sneer. Is he trying to portray disgust? Cruelty? Or only mindless idiocy, like the rest of the actors (sic) in this waste? In his scenes of violent anger and sadistic passion, you’d expect to find at least some hint of his madness, but all he ever shows is that silly, meaningless grin.”

“Prior to “Slaves,”, Dionne Warwick has never acted in a film. Her record is still clean. She’s gorgeous to look at. A fashion parade of virtually every conception of African style is afforded the singer, and she wears them well, but as for acting–not a scratch. One of Boy’d line’s in reference to Miss Warwick “You won’t believe this, but that handsome masque in the corner is alive,” is an adequate description of her whole performance. She is a masque, a manikin who matches her leading man in emotional void.”

“A tell-it-all-like-it-was documentary account would have been far preferable to this romanticized, inane, cliché-ridden melodrama.”

(Filmed here: “Slaves Called Inane, Cliché-Ridden”, October 17, 1969, The Shreveport Times)

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Mr. Biberman (Slaves Director) : ” I was after something much more complex than nostalgic realism – I hope that’s made clear in the character of Nathan McKay (Stephen Boyd), who is a genuine admirer of the history and the art of the black man and who is capable of deep love for a black woman. But this admiration- and compassion – makes him in no sense any less a slave master: Even as he’s praising black people and all their accomplishments, he’s destroying them by virtue of his position. (Baltimore Sun, May 4, 1969)

“The slave master, one critic says, is a one-dimensional and shallow character. I assert that because of the portrayal, it is an accurate capsule of the corrupting influence of the unjust system. The slave master played by Stephen Boyd is unique in that he does not justify himself or slavery based on two great myths: (1) The black man is inherently childish and happily irresponsible; (2) White ascendancy is due to black innate superiority. The slave master knows some of the superior past culture of the blacks. (Black studies are as imperative for white as blacks.) He, therefore, acknowledges that he is master due to power to own and use blacks for his purpose. ” (Sidney Daniels, Letter to the Editor, “The Slaves”, The Evening Sun, Baltimore, June 2, 1969)

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The Major of Baltimore after the premiere of “Slaves” in May 1969 (attended by none other than Miss Warwick and Mr. Boyd) : “…wondering aloud about how the city’s “young warriors” would react to some of the film’s sensational scenes. These included scenes in which a white plantation owner rapes a black woman doubling as his slave and his mistress, threatens the emasculation by flame of a slave refusing to disclose escape plans, fatally flogs a slave whose willpower and strength of character obviously exceed is own.” (The Evening Sun, Baltimore, May 8, 1969)

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” “The Slaves”, a lurid movie now showing at a local theater, purports to depict ‘the slavery system as you have never seen it, the Story of Master and Slave – a man who played God and a woman who became mistress of his plantation.”

It was filmed last year in Louisiana with distinct lack of enthusiasm among many folks of our sister state who considered is a cheap quickie defaming the South.

The so- called “world premiere” drew about 1,000 persona, mostly colored, according to the news story in the Baltimore Sun which said the movie was ‘a decided disappointment, specifically in the obviousness, artificiality and lack of depth”.

Ossie Davis, colored male star of “The Slaves” has had at least twelve connections with Communist front organizations, according to informations from the files of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Un-American Activities sent to Congressman John R. Rarick of Louisiana.

Herbert Biberman, director of “The Slaves” movie, reportedly has been identified as a member of the Communist Party by 15 different witnesses in various public hearings before the Committee on Un-American Activities, red-front and revolutionist causes, the records indicate.

“The Slaves”, as advertised, is an “epic” of sex and violence centered around a lusty white master (Stephen Boyd) and his black slave mistress (Dionne Warwick). This is a favorite theme in the central vogue glamorizing mixed sex.

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Black and White in 1969. Raquel Welch and Jim Brown in ‘100 Rifles’, and Dionne Warwick and Stephen Boyd in ‘Slaves.’

One Louisiana editor has written ” Let us guess two reasons why this motion picture was filmed. (1) To increase black hatred for Whitey and (2) To increase the white ‘guilt’ complex’ ”

(Aren’t those the Red Party objectives in America?) (Mississippi Notebook, by Tom Ethridge, Oct 28, 1969, Clarion- Ledger Mississippi)

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“…I never dreamed that Ossie Davis –whose very presence ordinarily fills a screen with the undeniable reality of a warm, flesh-and-blood man–would be capable of a stilted performance. Yet, except for a moment near the end, he seems self-conscious and wooden. On the other hand, Mr. Boyd, conditioned perhaps by a long career of playing stinkers, manages to make the most of his role –which, partly because of the conception, partly because of the elan he manages to give it, is the most interesting one of the film.”

“And now, having enumerated all of the reasons why you should not see the film, I’m going to do a switch and recommend that you do. I make this recommendation because :

  1. As a work purporting to present an accurate picture of slavery, it automatically becomes part of the social fabric of our time and, as such, should be evaluated by each person individually.
  2. Despite its failure to achieve reality as art, the suffering it describes is real. It happened. People were humiliated, hanged and beaten to death. And, in Mr. Davis’s final scene, the weight of all this suffering bursts the film’s artificial framework and descends upon us with irresistible force.” (‘ Slaves’ – Admirable in Purpose, Disappointing As Work of Art’, The Baltimore Sun, May 7, 1969)

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Stephen Boyd and Clark Gable

At the start of Stephen Boyd’s Hollywood career, he was quickly compared to the legendary Clark Gable as a handsome, tough heart-breaker on the big screen. Gable himself had started out in villain roles then proceeded to become the King of Hollywood,  starring as the witty, masculine and charismatic Rhett Butler in 1939’s “Gone with the Wind”. Advertiser’s for both “The Night Heaven Fell” in 1958 and “Woman Obsessed” and 1959 tag-lined Stephen as “The Young New Clark Gable” or simply just “the New Gable”. Even Hedda Hopper liked to compare Boyd to Gable, and Boyd himself agreed modestly that some of the Gable type roles would have suited him as well. These comparisons faded, obviously, after Boyd’s career took a different path. He did not become the next Clark Gable in Hollywood. But the comparison is still intriguing. In fact, in one of Stephen’s later movies “Slaves” in 1969, Boyd resembles Gable’s Rhett Butler more than ever in his looks with his debonair mustache and 19th century Southern gentleman’s wardrobe!

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QUOTES ABOUT BOYD AND GABLE

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When I told him I thought of him as the new Clark Gable of this era, although a far more vital type than Gable, he (Boyd)  shook his head, puzzled: “It’s difficult to associate myself along those lines,” he said. “But I daresay the roles Gable has played are roles I’m suited for. I prefer a two line part with genuine character to an innocuous one such as I had in ‘Woman Obsessed’…after I read a story I ask myself whom do I remember. That is the part that will be remembered on screen. I’d like to try some kinds of roles Arthur Kennedy plays- something with guts and vitality. (Pittsburgh Press, Hedda Hopper Interview, Jan 31, 1960)

Charlton Heston as “Ben-Hur” gives a performance of  utmost convection and sincerity, while Stephen Boyd as “Messala” brings to the screen one of the most vital portrayals since Gable’s Rhett Butler. (Pittsburgh Press,  Jan 20, 1960)

Clark Gable couldn’t love the billing Stephen Boyd gets in the Brigitte Bardot picture, “The Night Heaven Fell.” The advertising refers to Steve as “The Young New Clark Gable…”  (Anderson Daily Bulletin, Aug 12, 1958)

He (Boyd) thinks they’re nuts when they call him “another Gable.” (Modern Screen, June 1960)

Asked once how it felt to be labeled Hollywood’s biggest sexboat since Gable in his prime, Steve replied, with a slightly forlorn look, “I’d rather be known as a good actor. Sexboats recede with their hairlines, but actors get better and better.” (Unknown clipping, 1960)

PROMOTIONAL ADVERTISING ABOUT BOYD AS THE NEW GABLE

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An interesting newspaper clipping from 1969 that happens to shows Boyd’s Nathan McKay from “Slaves” and Clark Gable’s Rhett Butler from “Gone with the Wind” on the same page. It is striking how similar they look in these two movies. (Terre Haute Tribune, Aug 24, 1969)

Stephen Boyd Interview, July 1964 : “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy”

It’s so interesting to read some of Stephen’s interviews back in the day. Sometimes he could be too honest when speaking to the likes of journalists Hedda Hooper, Erskine Johnson, Sheilah Graham, Joe Hyams and Louella Parsons. Occasionally Stephen would completely knock down one his own current releases, like in the article below. Stephen had already disappointed Paramount executives by failing to appear at the premiere of “The Fall of the Roman Empire.” In the same summer he told Sheilah Graham that the best movie he had ever done up until then was “Ben-Hur.” This was probably an honest statement, but maybe not the safest path to steer in a sensitive town like Hollywood!  Yes, despite his overtly honest comments, Stephen still continued to thrive with a solid career there for several years, even until the early 1970’s when he truly had to seek projects abroad.

Roles Disappoint Stephen Boyd

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 London- July 3, 1964 (Asbury Park Press) by Sheilah Graham

 “The only really good film I’ve made in the past eight years, said Stephen Boyd, complete with heard and ginger mustache, “is Ben Hur.”

 Stephen is in London being fitted for his Genghis Khan costumes for “The Golden Horde” which he will film in Yugoslavia for the next three months.

 “I’m under contact to 20th Century Fox,” continued the likable actor, “but I haven’t made a film for them (in Hollywood) since 1959 – ‘The Best of Everything’ with Joan Crawford and Suzy Parker. The last picture I made in Hollywood was ‘Jumbo’ in 1961, with Doris Day. It was a poor picture.”

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 Boyd has the usual Hollywood problem of the past decade. In 1961, he bought a house in the Valley, a charming place, with the idea of living in it, of course.

 “Ever since, I have made pictures abroad and spent only a few months in the house. Now I am thinking of selling it for something smaller. With being away so much it would be more practical. The day after I moved in, I left for Egypt, to play Mark Anthony in ‘Cleopatra.’ Every time I see Richard Burton I say, ‘There but for the grace of God, go I.” (On a side note, Boyd is exaggerating here – He was actually sent to Egypt in April of 1961 on a publicity tour for ‘Cleopatra’ to attend the Pyramid Light Inauguration, not for filming ‘Cleopatra’, which was already on the skids since late 1960.)

 He sounded somewhat regretful. He likes Elizabeth Taylor.

“I think she’s a dream.”

 Stephen also likes Dolores Hart, with whom he made some films when she was a movie star and under contract to Fox. Dolores is in a convent in Connecticut.

 “She wrote to me very frequently and I wrote to her. But this stopped on June 29, when she went into complete seclusion – no visitors, no phone calls,no letters for a year. After that she will decide if her future is in a convent, or she can return to the world. She seems very happy in her life. But at the beginning it was not easy for her. She was frank in her letters to me. She was climbing the movie ladder and she wrote to me that she missed the applause, and her life as an actress. But now she had made the adjustment. The chief thing, I imagine, is that you must find love within yourself before you can live with yourself.”

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We returned to Stephen’s career, and why he has not cared for most of his films. He’s attractive and a good actor.

 “But they won’t let me be myself. I’m always having to play some character. The secret to Gary Cooper’s and Clark Gable’s success is that they always played themselves.”

“I was terribly disappointed,” he laughed, “when they didn’t let me play ‘Jack the Ripper!’”

 I was surprised to have caught up with the Irish-born actor earlier this year in Europe. He flew over to star in “The Unknown Battle” in Norway with Elke Sommer.

 “But I sat on my rear end in London, waiting for it to start. A major studio was supposed to provide 50 percent of the finance. Two weeks before production, they backed out. Tony Mann, the director, had promised me we will make the picture later this year, then the snows come again to Norway.”

 Stephen is sure that pictures are coming back to Hollywood.

 “There is a definite upturn, but we won’t see the results until next year. Then maybe I can get to live in Hollywood, as I did when I first went here in 1958. But most of my movies have been abroad, as I told you. I made “The Night Heaven Fell” with Brigitte Bardot in Paris. She was very big then because this was her first movie after her hit  in ‘And God Created Woman.’”

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 “Is it true,” I asked, “that you will never make another movie in Rome?”

 “What I said was,” he replied, ”that I would never make a picture in Rome under those circumstances. In the first place this picture will not be shown in America. They can’t get it past the censors.  And more important, they didn’t pay me my full salary. They still owe me money. If I make another picture in Rome, the money will have to be in the bank first. Also, what I did receive was taxed in Italy as well as in America. It just isn’t practical to work there.”

 One picture Stephen would like to make in Hollywood is the Mildred Crem story, “Forever.”  Metro bought it years and years ago with the idea of starring Janet Gaynor.

 “I’d like to do it with Audrey Hepburn,” said Boyd.

 Another film he wants to make is “Clive of India.”

 “Terence Young had written this treatment, and of course this one would have to be made mostly in India.”

 This is a happy weekend for Stephen in London. The actor who became an American citizen last December 23 has a birthday on July 4.

 “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy, and I’m looking forward to the day I can work, as well as live, in America.”

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“Hollywood’s New Gable”- Stephen Boyd by Hedda Hopper, November 1959

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Chicago Tribune, November 29, 1959

IRISH STAR Stephen Boyd has made half a dozen American movies yet he seldom draws a role forceful enough to fit his personality He has terrific screen impact and vitality beyond any actor I know but casting him presents a problem to his bosses, who are in much the same predicament as the fellow who grabbed a tiger by the tail.” I don’t think they know what to do with me,” he told me. ” I can’t play a straight foward milk and water juvenile because I’m not one. I can do anything that has any type of a test, providing the physical appearance of the role. is right. But producers are more inclined to come up with ideas for someone like, say Bob Wagner.”

To add to casting problems Boyd, a supreme individualist, refuses to be type cast. He agreed to the part of the drunken editor in ” The Best of Everything ” because it was off beat and got him away from the costume thing he’d done as Messala in ” Ben-Hur.”

“I won t work in a brass hat to the end of my days,” he said when offers for that type thing poured in after word got around he was superb as the Roman charioteer. The part in ” Best” gave him some tender love scenes, some rebellious moments, and the satisfaction of playing a man who had opinions and spoke them forcefully. But he looked a bit vital, with perhaps too much character, for a lush. When I told him I thought of him as the Clark Gable of this era, altho a far more vital type than Gable, he shook his head, puzzled “It’s difficult to associate myself along those lines,” he said. “But I daresay the roles Gable has played are roles I’m suited for. I prefer a two line part with genuine character to an innocuous one such as I had in ‘ Woman Obsessed.’ So many actors get hold of a script and go thru it counting their lines. Or they’ll read only the scenes in which they play. They get only a general idea of their own character and no idea at all of the over-all story. This, in my opinion, is the trouble with so many young actors.

“How do you go about it? ” I asked.

He thought a moment: “Well, after I read a story I ask myself whom do I remember. That is the part that will be remembered on screen. I’d like to try some of the kinds of roles Arthur Kennedy plays-something with guts and vitality. I’ve no particular desire to get my name on top of the credits, altho I realize you have to get your name there to get the money.”

After digesting this unusual point of view, l asked if he d ever had a frank discussion with Buddy Adler, head of his studio, over the sort of parts he thinks he d like to play. He said he had not. In the four years he’s been under contract to Twentieth Century Fox he has talked with but three producers-Jerry Wald, Sydney Boehm, and Walter Wanger. ” Wanger talked with me about the role of Marc Antony in ‘ Cleopatra,”‘ he said. ” I told him I thought I was too young to play Antony, who was 48 when he got together with Cleopatra. I’ve played it on stage, tho.”

Boyd is disarmingly frank, has a keen sense of humor, and, while claiming to be shy, which he says is why he blushes so easily, has of the British Isles reserve.

He has been in Hollywood a year now and I asked him whether he preferred living in the film capital permanently to living in London, New York, or Ireland.

“I’d really prefer New York, or perhaps San Francisco, if I’m going to live in this country ,” he said. ” But I think Los Angeles best for furthering my career and, in view of that, I believe it wise to remain and do film work.”

Of the legitimate theater, he said: “Theater is something I need like I need clothes to wear on the street-it s like food and drink to me” I inquired if he d ever worked in the theater with Laurence Olivier. He said: “No, I’ve only said hello to him. Michal Redgrave has been my great friend. He helped me get a start but I’ve only worked with him once.”

“Ben-Hur” will take him around America and Canada so he’ll miss the Hollywood premiere, but he told me that he d like to attend the London opening.

Wyler had Stephen use dark contact lenses for the part of Messala and they gave him trouble thruout the entire film. He had to have anesthetic drops in his eyes to wear them, and could only endure them for two hours a day. In the death scene the lenses didn’t glaze properly and the doctor had to use a creamy substance under them. Boyd describes much of this as sheer torture.

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Boyd romances Hope Lange in “The Best of Everything.”

Money means nothing to this man, except for the fun of spending it. He says his business manager allows him $25 a week spending money and restricts his credit charges.

When he was abroad for ” Ben-Hur” he bought his parents a house in Ireland. ” It has three bedrooms, a double garage, two and a half baths, central heating, and half an acre of ground in lawns and flower gardens. It cost 2,000 pounds-far less than it would have in England. I also got them a small English car, and one for my brother. But my parents haven’t used the car yet-not once. They go for walks”

I said: “Haven’t you had any romances in Hollywood?” “Not romances,” he said, “just a couple of flirtations.”

I told him I was once warned never to fall in love with an Irishman because, even when he has his arms around you, he’s thinking of someone else.

He laughed: ” I wouldn’t say that. He means it when he has his arms around you. As Shaw said, ‘The truth of the Irishman is when he’s with you-watch him when he leaves.'”