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It's common knowledge among movie buffs that 1939 was a banner year for the film industry, with such classics as Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Wuthering Heights, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Stagecoach, among others, hitting the screen within a miraculous twelve month period. Considering the competition, it's not all that surprising that MGM's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn got lost in the shuffle. But this unassuming film is still fun to watch, if for no other reason than to see how far studio heads used to go to make a picture more marketable. If you're a die-hard Mark Twain enthusiast, you might want to avert your eyes.
Screenwriter Hugo Butler adapted Twain's masterpiece so freely that Tom Sawyer is actually written out of the storyline. This can probably be chalked up to the fact that Mickey Rooney plays Huck Finn, and that Louis B. Mayer was fully committed to producing films that capitalized on his image as MGM's Andy Hardy (Rooney was also the reigning king of the film exhibitors' top ten list of stars for 1939). Still, Mayer was wise enough to keep the central concept that lies at the core of Twain's story. The unfortunate lot of Huck's slave friend, Jim (Rex Ingram), isn't given a complete soft sell, and there are many warm, humanistic moments involving him. In fact, the film deserves credit for making the relationship between Huck and Jim the moral core of the film, considering the racial climate in American in the late thirties.
The plot is so iconic, there's no need to get into much detail here. Suffice it to say that Huck, who has problems with societal constraints, flees his surroundings by hopping on a raft with Jim, who's about to be sold. The two mismatched friends then take a metaphorical trip down the Mississippi River. From the moment they board the raft, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn becomes a "road picture," with Huck and Jim periodically going ashore to deal with the very sort of dishonesty and manipulation that they're boldly trying to escape.
MGM originally acquired the property from Paramount in 1933. Had it been made during Irving Thalberg's tenure as MGM's head of production, the film, in all likelihood, would have been far more loyal to the source material. Mayer took over the studio after Thalberg's untimely death in 1936, and proceeded to turn MGM's calling card into something resembling glitz over substance.
It says a lot that producer Joseph Mankiewicz once listed his favorites among the great pieces of literature that he brought to the screen, and failed to mention The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; some sources claim he completely disowned the film. Even with a top-rank star in the title role, the picture was given less consideration than other bigger, more complex releases on MGM's schedule that year. Richard Thorpe, who had just been fired off the set of The Wizard of Oz was assigned to direct it but two of his crew members, art director Cedric Gibbons and set designer Edwin Willis, continued to work simultaneously on both Oz and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Despite the slapdash production schedule, the picture was generally well received by the public. Critical reviews were mixed, however, though Newsweek voiced the most popular opinion: "If The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn fails to capture the real flavor of Mark Twain's time on the Mississippi, it does succeed in blending reliable screen ingredients into colorful and palatable entertainment."
As Rooney would say years later, "MGM was this vast factory, the General Motors of the movie business, dedicated to Mr. Mayer's views of morality, and to mass entertainment." That worked better for some pictures than for others, but Mayer, whether he was aware of it or not, played a large role in helping America define itself during the Thirties and Forties. In that sense, his interpretation of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn isn't all that surprising. To Mayer, and to many in his audience, the ultimate embodiment of young American chutzpah was Andy Hardy. And as Clyde V. Haupt wrote in his essay on Huckleberry Finn on Film, Rooney's "Huck is of exactly the same temperament and in exactly the kind of situation that Andy Hardy would have gotten into, had he lived in a pre-Civil War Mississippi river town."
Still, regardless of what English teachers and Mark Twain scholars think about the 1939 version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, it remains the most popular and well known film version of the novel.
Director: Richard Thorpe
Producer: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Writer: Hugo Butler (based on the novel by Mark Twain)
Cinematography: John Seitz
Editor: Frank E. Hull
Music: Franz Waxman
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Set Decoration: Edwin B. Willis
Costume Design: Valles
Makeup: Jack Dawn
Principal Cast: Mickey Rooney (Huckleberry Finn), Walter Connolly (The King), William Frawley (The Duke), Rex Ingram (Jim), Lynne Carver (Mary Jane Wilkes), Jo Ann Sayers (Susan Wilkes), Minor Watson (Capt. Brady), Elizabeth Risdon (Widow Douglass), Victor Kilian ("Pap" Finn), Clara Blandick (Miss Watson).
B&W-91m. Closed captioning.
by Paul Tatara