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The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer(1938)


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Tommy Kelly was chosen from a nation-wide campaign to find the essentialTom Sawyer in David O. Selznick's colorful production of The Adventuresof Tom Sawyer (1938) and the gamble paid off. An East Bronx fireman's son and a newcomer to acting, Kelly miraculously transformed himself into the Missouri boy made immortal by Mark Twain's classic 1876 novel. As Tom, he's punished, runs away, is presumed dead,testifies in a murder trial and finally saves his girlfriend. This must have been quite a challenge for an unknown and his performance has to be considered one of the best of the many "Tom Sawyer" portrayals in film, stage and television. But surprisingly enough, TheAdventures of Tom Sawyer did only fair business at the box office despite the enduring popularity of Twain's novel and Selznick's prestige treatment. According to Bob Thomas in Selznick, "Tommy Kelly failed to develop the appeal of a previous Selznick discovery, Freddie Bartholomew, and after a middling career as a juvenile actor he retired and later became a school teacher."

One of the greatest adventures for boys ever written, and Mark Twain's firstfull-length novel, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was once theaccepted standard of an American boyhood. Selznick's lavish adaptationwas the third of at least six film versions, which included a musical featuring Jodie Foster as Becky Thatcher! Screenwriter John V. A. Weaver maintained a subtle balance between the episodic structure of the novel and the numerous characters and subplots, taking care to incorporate the most famous incidents from the book - the whitewashing of the fence, Tom's courting of Becky, the graveyard murder, and the flight through the caves. Typical of Hollywood though, Twain's original storyline was sometimes altered for dramatic reasons. For example, in the film Tom kicks Injun Joe off a precipice and he falls to his death. In the novel, InjunJoe gets lost in the cave and dies from starvation.

But The Adventures of Tom Sawyer stands as a genuine attempt to capture the true spirit of Twain's writing. The author was a creative thinker who questioned the established order of things and he used his rapier wit to attack the hypocrisy and dull conformity of his era. Unfortunately, some of the insightful humor found in the novel, such as Huck Finn introducing Tom to pipe smoking, was not used in the film for fear of outright censorship. Instead, the filmmakers placed a stronger emphasis on slapstick comedy in an effort to broaden its commercial appeal. For example, there is a running gag in the film where Sid Sawyer (David Holt) is continually pelted with a variety of slop, including whitewash, tomatoes and cake. Nevertheless, director Norman Taurog fashions a handsome entertainment from Twain's novel and the period setting is perfectly captured by William Cameron Menzies' production designs and the luminous cinematography of James Wong Howe. The art direction by Lyle Wheeler was nominated for an Oscar and equally outstanding is the veteran supporting cast that includes May Robson, Walter Brennan and Victor Jory who makes an unforgettably sinister Injun Joe.

Easily one of the dramatic highlights in the film is the cave sequence which takes on the look and feel of a claustrophobic nightmare, aided considerably by Max Steiner's evocative score. The sequence was so effective that Selznick asked Taurog to trim some of it after studying the reactions of a sneak preview audience. In Memo From David O. Selznick, the producer wrote, "he cave sequence was somehow too horrible for children. This worried me, because we certainly want the picture to be for a family audience....My conclusion was that this horror was not based upon the melodrama of this sequence but upon two things: the bat sequence, because of the feeling of horror of weird and flying animals; and upon what I had thought was your brilliant execution of my hysteria idea for Becky." Selznick decided the close-up of Becky laughing hysterically, her mind obviously gone, was simply too much for the kiddies. In his words, "she looks like a little witch rather than a little girl" so the horrific reaction shot was cut.

Since the death of Mark Twain, his life and his work have become a cottage industry. Documentaries, biographies, plays, and movies about him as well as the availability of previously unpublished work by the author attest to his enduring popularity. Of course, he certainly would have found all of this interesting and possibly even distasteful. Money, and its influence on people and society, was certainly one of his main concerns and the concept of great wealth stood at the center of his fictions. He had always cultivated dreams of easy riches, and then studied, through his work, the nightmare of sudden failure. Early in life, his family was cheated out of moneyfor worthless land and this seemed to haunt him for the rest of his life. The mid-1800's was the time of the Gold Rush and the boom years that followed. Fortunes were made and lost as unpredictably as the treasure found by Tom and Huck in the cave at the end of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Twain himself accumulated and lost large sums of money. To Twain, money corrupted things. Indeed, the treasure found at the end of "Tom Sawyer" terrorizes Huck Finn as it did Twain.

But there is something else that resonates through Twain's novels and is also reflected in the film version of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer - laughter as an antidote against thegreed, corruption and deceit he saw in the world. Laughter was his escape, his weapon. As he said in The Mysterious Stranger published posthumously in 1922, "Power, money, persuasion, supplication, persecution - these can lift at a colossal humbug - push it a little - weaken it a little, century by century, but only laughter can blow it to rags and atoms at a blast. Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand."

Producer: David O. Selznick, William H. Wright
Director: Norman Taurog
Screenplay: John V.A. Weaver, based on the novel by Mark Twain
Art Direction: William Cameron Menzies, Casey Roberts
Cinematography: Wilfred M. Cline, James Wong Howe
Editing: Margaret C. Clancey, Hal Kern
Music: Max Steiner
Cast: Tommy Kelly (Tom Sawyer), Jackie Moran (Huckleberry Finn), Ann Gillis (Becky Thatcher), May Robson (Aunt Polly), Walter Brennan (Muff Potter), Victor Jory (Injun Joe), Olin Howlin (Mr. Dobbins), David Holt (Sid Sawyer), Margaret Hamilton (Mrs. Harper), Nana Bryant (Mrs. Thatcher).

by Joseph D'Onofrio

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