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Mark Twain's novel of a boy in the pre-Civil War South taking to the Mississippi River to escape both his brutal, criminal father and any attempts to "civilize" him has been controversial since its publication in 1885; it was released a year earlier in England, at first because of its perceived "crudeness," but later owing largely to its frequent use of the word "nigger." Regardless of the controversy, and the banning of the book in libraries and schools throughout the years, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has remained popular for well over a century and is generally regarded as one of the great works of American literature.
The story has proved enduring enough to be the basis for several film versions, beginning with a 1920 silent by famed director William Desmond Taylor. Paramount filmed it again in 1930, departing from the novel by having Huck's friend Tom Sawyer, played by child star Jackie Coogan, accompany Huck and Jim, an escaped slave, down the Mississippi on a raft. MGM gave it A-picture treatment in 1939 as a vehicle for one of its top stars of the time, Mickey Rooney, with venerated actor Rex Ingram, who had great success playing "De Lawd" in The Green Pastures (1936), as Jim.
Among the recent film versions was a 1993 Walt Disney picture with Elijah Wood, Courtney B. Vance, Robbie Coltrane, and Jason Robards. The character has also appeared many times, either animated or live action, often in screen versions of the Tom Sawyer story, played by Donald O'Connor and Anthony Michael Hall, among others. Huck has been adapted for television several times, including one made in France featuring such talents as Lillian Gish, Butterfly McQueen, Geraldine Page, Jack Elam, Merle Haggard, and future director Ron Howard and his Happy Days co-star Donny Most as Huck and Tom. There was also a 1974 musical version with Paul Winfield as Jim, Gary Merrill as Pap, and Harvey Korman and David Wayne as the con men The King and The Duke.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1960) was the first color version, and once again MGM lavished great care and money on it, bringing on board noted director Michael Curtiz and a cast of many of Hollywood's best character actors and supporting players, including Tony Randall, Neville Brand, Andy Devine, Judy Canova, Josephine Hutchinson, John Carradine, and light-heavyweight world boxing champion Archie Moore as Jim. Buster Keaton, whose once illustrious silent career had died at MGM after a string of lackluster movies in the early days of sound, returned to work at the studio for the first time since In the Good Old Summertime (1949). In his first feature film role since a brief bit in Around the World in Eighty Days (1956), Keaton played a lion tamer, a character not in Twain's original novel, although the circus where he works was one of the book's settings. In later years, the actor surmised his role was written in order to create the scene of The King and The Duke falling into the lion's cage.
Eddie Hodges, the child actor who played Huck, remembers Keaton with fondness. "I had had my fill of I-hate-kids types and could smell 'em a mile away," Hodges is quoted in Marion Meade's biography Buster Keaton: Cut to the Chase (HarperCollins, 1995). "Mr. Keaton treated me as an equal. He was kind and very gentle with this young and thirsty skill of mine."
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was Michael Curtiz's first film for MGM after a highly successful career of about 30 years directing some of the biggest hits at Warner Brothers. The Oscar®-winning director of Casablanca (1942) only released two more pictures after this. The first was the religious bio-pic Francis of Assisi (1961). During production of his final film, The Comancheros (1961), Curtiz was gravely ill with cancer and unable to work much of the time. The picture's star, John Wayne, did most of the directing himself, although he insisted Curtiz retain the sole credit. Curtiz died about six months after the film's release. Although not usually included in the pantheon of great cinema auteurs, Curtiz made dozens of movies that are now considered classics, including 12 with Errol Flynn during that star's glory days of the late 1930s and early 40s, and eight with Humphrey Bogart. In spite of his often contentious relationships with his casts, he guided a number of the studio's biggest stars to Oscar®-nominated performances and two of them to wins: James Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) and Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce (1945). Perhaps he had mellowed by the time he made The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because there were no reports of his typically volatile and dictatorial behavior during this production.
Huck wasn't the only role Eddie Hodges shared with fellow carrot-topped child star Ron Howard. In 1957, at the age of 10, Hodges split the grand prize on the TV game show Name That Tune with his teammate John Glenn (the future astronaut and senator). Broadway composer Meredith Willson's wife saw him on that show and suggested to her husband that the boy be cast in his new stage musical The Music Man. When the play was made into a film in 1962, Hodges was too old for the part of Winthrop, so it was given to eight-year-old Howard.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was shot on location in the Sacramento River Valley and the Stockton Deepwater Channel in northern California, standing in for the Mississippi. Buster Keaton's silent classic Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) had also been filmed there, as well as the 1920 version of Twain's story. Mickey Rooney's 1939 version had been shot nearby in the San Joaquin River Delta.
A life story to rival any of the artists involved in this picture belongs to the Delta King, a riverboat that worked the route between San Francisco and Sacramento from 1927 to 1940. The ship was sold in 1947 to serve as a fish cannery near Seattle and five years later was set to be shipped to British Columbia as a home for workers of Canada's Alcan company. For several reasons, the ship never actually left the Sacramento area, and the near derelict vessel was commissioned for use in this production's 1959 location shoot. Fake smokestacks were added and a tugboat was used to move the boat along, since it could no longer operate on its own power. Clever camera angles kept audiences from suspecting the Delta King was not as it appears on screen. After a number of other sales and moves put the vessel in jeopardy of complete destruction and years of neglect, it was restored in 1985 and is now a famous hotel and restaurant on the Sacramento River, highly sought after for weddings and special events.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn includes four songs by Burton Lane and Alan Jay Lerner that were originally commissioned for a musical version MGM planned to make in 1952. It was meant to star Dean Stockwell as Huck, William Warfield, fresh off his success in Show Boat (1951), as Jim, and Gene Kelly and Danny Kaye as The King and The Duke. The film was never made.
Other notable trivia: As The King in this movie, Tony Randall was nominated for a supporting actor Laurel Award presented by Motion Picture Exhibitor magazine.
Director: Michael Curtiz
Producer: Samuel Goldwyn, Jr.
Screenplay: James Lee, from the novel by Mark Twain
Cinematography: Ted McCord
Editing: Fredric Steinkamp
Art Direction: McClure Capps, George W. Davis
Original Music: Jerome Moross, songs by Burton Lane and Alan Jay Lerner
Cast: Eddie Hodges (Huck Finn), Archie Moore (Jim), Tony Randall (The King of France), Mickey Shaughnessy (The Duke), Patty McCormack (Joanna Wilkes), Neville Brand (Pap Finn).
C-107m. Letterboxed. Closed Captioning. Descriptive Video.
by Rob Nixon