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,Huckleberry Finn

Huckleberry Finn (1920)

William Desmond Taylor's Huckleberry Finn (1920) was the first film version of Mark Twain's classic novel about a backwoods boy's adventures along the Mississippi. It is also one of the few complete films directed by Taylor known to survive.

Since Taylor had directed the Jack Pickford film, Tom Sawyer (1917), and the sequel, Huck and Tom (1918), Famous Players-Lasky (later Paramount) decided that he was the obvious choice to direct Huckleberry Finn. For the title role, Taylor chose sixteen-year-old Lewis Sargent, who had been in pictures for three years, having made his debut in Fox Film's Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp (1917) and had appeared as Ben Gunn in a 1918 version of Treasure Island. Other cast members included Gordon Griffith as Tom Sawyer, a young Esther Ralston as Mary Jane Wilks, Katherine Griffith as the Widow Douglas, George Reed as Jim, and Martha Mattox as Miss Watson.

Several sources state that Huckleberry Finn was shot along the Mississippi River, although Esther Ralston remembered it being shot in Northern California near Pleasanton. According to The Herald-Journal, an accident occurred during filming, "When it came to making the screen version of Huck's adventures, [...] Director William Taylor called a halt at the point where the 'King' was called upon to fall off the balcony. 'You might get hurt,' said Mr. Taylor to the actor who impersonates the 'King.' 'It would spoil the rest of the picture, and we can't take a chance. I'll get a 'double' for you.' But no 'double' could be found resembling the actor. Finally, Mr. Taylor assigned himself to the part. But just as he was about to make the fall, the balcony crashed down and it was a bit more realistic than he bargained for. 'Never again,' says Mr. Taylor".

Huckleberry Finn opens and closes with an actor portraying Mark Twain, and Famous Players-Lasky used an illustration of Twain in its advertisements for the film to give it an air of legitimacy. Twain, who had died in 1910, is shown lying in bed with a portable writing desk (as he was known to do), surrounded by the characters from the book. The ad reads, "Jesse L. Lasky presents: A New Mark Twain-Paramount Artcraft Picture Huckleberry Finn Screenplay by Julia Crawford Ivers. Directed by William D. Taylor. By arrangement with Mark Twain Co. Huckleberry Finn comes to life on the screen. The boy who wouldn't rather see this picture than eat ought to wear curls. Here's where Huckleberry Finn comes to life for you."

E.W. Kemble, the illustrator for the first edition of Huckleberry Finn, wrote in 1929 that in seeing the film, he realized that Taylor "took a copy of the original edition and made his characters fit my drawings. I had not seen the book in years, and as my characters appeared on the screen, resembling my types so faithfully, even as to pose, my mind ran back to the lanky boy who posed for me and the pride I had felt in doing my first book." A 1923 edition of the book published by Harper & Co. used stills from the film as illustrations.

Huckleberry Finn was released on February 20, 1920 to critical acclaim. The Southeast Missourian stated that "As far as possible, the inimitable flavor of Mark Twain has been retained and it is said to be a production of which the great humorist, were he living, would approve." The Herald-Journal singled out Sargent and Gordon Griffith for praise, "Young Lewis Sargent, who plays the leading role of Huck, is more than 'all-boy'; he is a natural-born actor. The same goes for Gordon Griffith, inimitable in his interpretation of Tom Sawyer. William D. Taylor, who directed the previous Paramount Artcraft pictures, Huck and Tom and Tom Sawyer, shows himself an excellent Twain specialist. Julia Crawford Ivers has provided a fine scenario." Twain's daughter Clara Clemens, who was married to famed pianist Ossip Gabrilowitsch, was later given a private screening of the film in Detroit.

Today, director William Desmond Taylor is best remembered for his murder rather than his body of work. When Taylor was found shot to death in his Los Angeles bungalow in February 1922, it ignited a media storm never before seen in Hollywood. It seemed that practically everyone he associated with - including Julia Crawford Ivers - was under scrutiny by the police. Supposed tales of womanizing, false identities, blackmailing chauffeurs, and possible feuds with drug cartels also added fuel to the anti-Hollywood sentiment by religious and civic groups who were already concerned with the morals of Hollywood and for a time, the industry itself was in danger. This helped the push for a self-governing censorship board called "The Hays Office," named after its head, former Postmaster General Will Hays, who promised to 'clean up Hollywood'. Unfortunately, the Los Angeles Police Department was never able to close the case and ninety years later, the murder of William Desmond Taylor remains unsolved.

Lewis Sargent continued in films for another fifteen years, mostly in bit parts, before becoming a parole officer for the State of California. He died in 1970 at the age of 63. Following Huckleberry Finn, Sargent worked again with William Desmond Taylor in The Soul of Youth (1920), but this time he demanded a pay raise, as he remembered in a 1962 interview, "They paid me $35 a week to make Huckleberry Finn. And incidentally, the picture, I was told, grossed three and a half million dollars. So when Paramount offered me this time $40 a week to do the picture [The Soul of Youth], I said no, I wanted more money, a better salary. So I negotiated my own salary and I made them pay me $75 a week, which they did."

Huckleberry Finn was considered a "lost" film for decades until it was restored by the George Eastman House in 2006, using a tinted, 35mm print that had been found in Denmark in the 1960s. An extensive restoration, which involved recreating both tints and lost intertitle cards, was funded by the National Film Preservation Foundation, making it the 1,000th film the NFPF has saved. The print recently made the rounds of film festivals, including the 2011 San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

Producer: William Desmond Taylor
Director: William Desmond Taylor
Screenplay: Julia Crawford Ivers, based on the novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Cinematography: Frank E. Garbutt
Presenter: Jesse L. Lasky
Cast: Lewis Sargent (Huckleberry Finn), Katherine Griffith (Widow Douglas), Martha Mattox (Miss Watson), Frank Lanning (Huck's Father), Orral Humphrey (The Duke), Tom Bates (The King), Gordon Griffith (Tom Sawyer).

by Lorraine LoBianco

"Film Preservation Friday #2: The Restoration of Huckleberry Finn", San Francisco Silent Film Festival Blog June 3, 2011
Gevinson, Alan American Film Institute Catalog
"Huckleberry Finn Makes Fine Picture: Any One Who Cannot Enjoy Picture of Mark Twain's Famous Book to Be Pitied", Herald-Journal 2 Apr 20
"Huck Finn at Park Theater", The Southeast Missourian 14 Jul 20
"Huck Finn on Film"
The Internet Movie Database
Kemble, E.W., "Illustrating Huckleberry Finn" The Colophon December, 1929.
Labbatte, Anthony, Huckleberry Finn to be Seen for the First Time in Nearly 90 Years at the 360/365 George Eastman House Film Festival May 6, 2010
"National Film Preservation Foundation Preserves 1,000th Film, Silent Era Classic Huckleberry Finn" The National Film Preservation Foundation , October 11, 2006
Rasmussen, R. Kent A Critical Companion to Mark Twain: a Literary Reference to His Life, Volume 1