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According to Hollywood Reporter news items, producer David O. Selznick made two unsuccessful attempts to film this picture before production commenced for the third and final time on July 18, 1937. The first round of filming, which began on March 27, 1937, was suspended and then begun again on 24 Jun, only to be halted for a second time shortly thereafter. H. C. Potter directed the first two production attempts, and although it is not clear why the first two rounds of filming did not succeed, a modern source claims that Potter walked off the picture because of "Selznickian interference." Hollywood Reporter also notes that when Norman Taurog, who directed Paramount's 1931 Huckleberry Finn, took over the direction of the film, he discarded the footage that had already been shot (in black and white), and began production on the film in Technicolor. John Weaver was assigned to refurbish the script to "meet color demands."
Following Taurog's assignment as director of the picture, Ted Limes was replaced by Jackie Moran as "Huckleberry Finn," and Beulah Bondi supplanted Elizabeth Patterson as "Aunt Polly." Bondi was later replaced by May Robson. A June 28, 1937 Hollywood Reporter production chart lists A. W. Sweatt, Hugh Chapman, Jimmie Swisher, and Hollis Jewell in the cast, but their appearance in the released film is doubtful. The same production chart included Tommy Bupp in the cast but, according to an interview with Bupp, he was originally cast in the role of Tom, but when the role of Huck was given to Jackie Moran, Bupp was replaced by Tommy Kelly because Bupp was considered too tall. Hollywood Reporter news items also note that William Wellman, who was originally announced as the director of the picture, but who could not take the assignment at the time due to a schedule conflict with his work on A Star Is Born, directed two days of retakes in December 1937 while Taurog was busy with Mad About Music. George Cukor also directed some retakes and added scenes. Hundreds of boys were reportedly tested for the title role, which Selznick (according to a modern source printing of a memo he wrote on the subject) wanted to cast with an orphan who was unknown to film audiences. Selznick was unable to find a qualified orphan, but settled instead for the inexperienced Tommy Kelly, the son of an East Bronx fireman. The film marked Kelly's screen debut.
Contemporary sources note that an exhibit called "The Making of a Contemporary Film," sponsored by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, featured material that attested to the exhaustive research efforts that went into making the picture. For example, the studio's research department was said to have consulted over one hundred sources in order to insure the authenticity of the setting and the characters in the film. Among the many experts who were consulted were Bernard De Voto, H. L. Mencken and Albert Bigelow Paine. Late 19th century American school books and Missouri newspapers were also used for research purposes, as was Mark Twain's book, Life on the Mississippi. According to a February 1938 Photoplay study guide, some filming took place at Malibu Lake, CA, where a school for the twelve children who were featured in the film was run by Fletcher Clark. A Hollywood Reporter news item notes that Culver City proclaimed a "Tom Sawyer Day" in honor of this picture.
As noted in a biography of photographer James Wong Howe, many disputes arose between Howe and Technicolor cameraman Wilfred Cline over which colors should be used in the wardrobe and sets. Cline suggested brilliant primary colors, while Howe insisted that the film maintain its true Southern and rural flavor by using only subdued earth tones. Howe prevailed, but by the end of the first week of production, the two were reportedly no longer on speaking terms. The biography also notes that while shooting the cave sequences, Howe overcame lighting difficulties by strapping Kelly to a harness that carried a 10,000 watt globe of light with an electrical cord running down the actor's leg. The device created the desired effect of Kelly lighting his path with a giant candle. In addition, Howe's biography notes that the Technicolor company, which had a virtual monopoly on color production, banned Howe from shooting subsequent pictures in color due to his poor rapport with their company. (Howe did not film another color production until 1949).
According to a Hollywood Reporter news item, Selznick International made a separate print of the film for release in Great Britain. William Hamilton Burnside, an English sales consultant, helped the studio eliminate "American colloquialisms, dialogue and situations in the Missouri boy story that might not be understood by a British audience." The New York Times review of the film ends with the reviewer stating: "...get busy [Mr. Selznick] on Gone With the Wind, will you, before we begin throwing tomatoes." Lyle Wheeler was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Art Decoration for his work on the film.
Other films based on Twain's novel include: the 1917 Paramount film Tom Sawyer, directed by William D. Taylor and starring Jack Pickford and George Hackathorne (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1911-20; F1.4513); the 1930 Paramount-Publix film of the same title, directed by John Cromwell and starring Jackie Coogan and Junior Durkin (see below); the 1938 Paramount film Tom Sawyer, Detective (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1931-40; F3.4677); the 1973 Universal TV-Hal Roach Productions telefilm, directed by James Neilson and starring Jane Wyatt and Buddy Ebsen, which aired on the CBS television network on March 23, 1973; the 1973 United Artists musical film Tom Sawyer, directed by Don Taylor; and, the 1995 Walt Disney Company film entitled Tom and Huck, directed by Peter Hewitt and starring Jonathan Taylor Thomas and Brad Renfro.