Home Video Reviews
Twain's 1884 novel was a sequel to his equally popular first novel, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876). Creating a story around the independent-minded Huckleberry, Twain concocted another children's classic about a journey far from home and a friendship developing between two unlikely traveling companions. However, this was the story only at first glance. Below the surface, it was an examination and satire of the pre-Civil War South. Huck and the escaped slave Jim ride a raft down the Mississippi, encountering the sordidness and chicanery of the adult world and the hypocrisy of a moralistic society that tolerates slavery.
Few movie versions tried to deal with the book's double level. Usually all the attention was thrown on Huck and Jim's adventures, their encounter with the two rascally conmen, the "King" and the "Duke," and perhaps a teenage love interest. When Variety reviewed this 1960 movie version, they accused of it of the same simplification: "James Lee's screenplay simplifies Twain's episodic tale, erasing some of the more complex developments and relationships, presumably for the benefit of the young audience." Actually, this is not true. Lee's script carries over a lot of Twain's satiric bite but other problems in the film dull the story's teeth.
One of those problems is the direction of Michael Curtiz. By 1960, Curtiz had been one of the most prolific directors in motion picture history with a string of classics in his resume. Under his original name Mihaly Kertesz, he made his first film in Hungary in 1912. After Harry Warner brought him to America in 1926, the newly dubbed Curtiz became the leading house director for Warner Brothers well into the 1940's, helming such classics as Captain Blood (1935), Casablanca (1942) and Mildred Pierce (1945). However, by 1960, he was near the end of his long career and, with this film, Curtiz had to work in color and Cinemascope, a style alien to those of his best films. He did not seem at home and this may have caused him to choose bland camera set-ups and unimaginative stagings that make the film drag in places.
Another problem a more engaged director might have corrected is the acting of the two leads. Archie Moore, light heavyweight champion of the world, took a break from racking up his 141 knockouts to make his acting debut as Jim. Unfortunately he is unable to connect to the role here and seems amateurish and unsteady for most of the film although he does manage a touch of pathos by the end. Eddie Hodges, who played the lisping Winthrop Paroo in the original Broadway production of The Music Man, stars as Huckleberry Finn. His acting style probably worked well at the forty feet distance between the stage and a theater seat, but on screen Hodges plays the role too broadly. He also gives off a well-scrubbed wholesomeness that ill-suits the barefoot Huck Finn.
That said, there are several pluses in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Tony Randall gives a marvelous performance as the "King," adding subtle touches of craftiness and menace beneath his flamboyant character. There are also a number of great character actors in cameos. Buster Keaton plays a down-and-out lion tamer, Sterling Holloway is a barber and John Carradine adds menace as a slave catcher. Carradine's partner is played by future cult actor Harry Dean Stanton in one of his first roles. Another plus, and one of the strongest, is the cinematography of Ted McCord. The exteriors feature beautifully photographed scenes of rural Southern life.
These vistas are the main highlight of this new DVD, showing off a sparkling print of the film letterboxed and 16 by 9 enhanced for widescreen televisions. Accompanying it are trailers, not only for this film, but for the 1939 Mickey Rooney version and other Mark Twain related films. Although the 1960 version cannot be considered a definitive version of Twain's story, it does provide beautiful sights on this well-produced DVD.
For more information about The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, visit Warner Video. To order The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, go to TCM Shopping.
by Brian Cady