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Remind Me

Tom Sawyer (1917)

A slice of literary and cinematic Americana, William Desmond Taylor's Tom Sawyer (1917) is an early adaptation of Mark Twain's 1876 novel, which by 1917 had already grown into a widely-read and cherished classic.

Jack Pickford (brother to silent superstar Mary Pickford) stars as the rambunctious Tom, who devotes his time to the pursuit of country boy pleasures and the evasion of adult responsibility. Tom's exploits -- convincing his gullible chums to whitewash the family fence, clumsily romancing young Becky Thatcher, and piloting a homemade raft among the paddlewheels of the Mississippi -- are already well known to most modern viewers, just as they were to audiences of 1917. Taylor's faithful recreation of these charming episodes was not intended to surprise the viewer with something new, but rather to provide a comfortable sense of the familiar -- to evoke fond memories of Twain's tale and create a warm sense of nostalgia for simpler times past.

In defining the look of the film and its characters, Taylor drew from the illustrations of E.W. Kemble, with whom many Twain readers were certainly familiar. Screenwriter Julia Crawford Ivers told the New York Telegraph, shortly after the film's release, "I wanted simply to make Tom live--so people would say, 'There, that's the Tom Sawyer I learned to love in Twain's pages.'"

Tom Sawyer was made in 1917, in what might be termed the cinema's adolescence. It therefore contains a degree of narrative stiffness and caricature (Huck Finn's straw-like hair and blacked-out teeth, for example) that tends to distract some viewers. This ungainly style, however, nicely complements the story, serving as the visual equivalent of Tom's own boyish awkwardness and enhancing the "aw shucks" essence of the Missouri boys' barefoot adventures.

Shooting on location in Hannibal and St. Petersburg, Missouri in September 1917, the company rented a small side-wheel steamboat and used it as offices and dressing rooms while shooting scenes along the shore. Some of the local residents were disappointed that they were never alerted to the movie stars' presence. One observer saw the crew arrive and suspected nothing, thinking they were "Government Engineer chaps" because of their black equipment cases and nondescript appearance. According to one newspaper account, "The hotel proprietor avers that the party stayed one night at his hostelry, but that they were quiet, peaceful and did not act at all like 'player folk,' so he gave them no special consideration."

In 1917, the feature-length production was a relatively new invention, and few studios would allow films to last more than five reels (approximately one hour). This made it necessary for Taylor and screenwriter Ivers to omit substantial portions of the original narrative. After the success of the film, the studio (Paramount) encouraged the filmmakers to return to Twain's novel. One year after Tom Sawyer's release, Taylor directed a sequel of sorts, Huck and Tom; Or, the Further Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1918), which allowed him to explore some of the subplots which he hadn't the time or resources to include in the first film. The following year, Taylor and screenwriter Ivers adapted Huckleberry Finn to the screen. In the estimation of silent film historian William K. Everson, "Taylor's Huckleberry Finn is possibly still the best screen adaptation of Mark Twain."

Pickford's career is generally overlooked in the shadow of his sister's, but he appeared in numerous films before his premature death at age 37. A lifelong bon vivant, Pickford married not one, not two, but three Ziegfeld showgirls in a span of fifteen years (Olive Thomas, Marilyn Miller and Mary Mulhern) and was reportedly involved with another (Lillian Lorraine) when he was only fifteen. Pickford's health began to fail in 1930 and the actor eventually passed away in 1933. But to paraphrase someone else's epitaph, "While alive, he lived." In the words of writer Anita Loos, "you couldn't help loving Jack. He was the only lush I ever knew who was good company." Pickford's niece Gwynne Pickford attributed his death to "too much of all the right things: women, drink and riotous living."

Director Taylor's life also ended prematurely, in one of the most intriguing mysteries ever to occur within the walls of Hollywood Babylon. Found dead of a gunshot wound in his home on February 2, 1922, Taylor was believed to be romantically linked to actresses Mabel Normand and Mary Miles Minter, though neither was charged with the murder. Theories of the Taylor murder abound and to this day it continues to be a source of debate among film history and true crime aficionados. Because it occurred shortly after the Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle scandal (in which he was charged in the death of actress Virginia Rappe), the Taylor murder was held up by moral reformers as further evidence of Hollywood debauchery and one more reason why the industry should be subjected to tighter censorship. The Hays Office was established that very year.

Director: William Desmond Taylor
Producer: Jesse L. Lasky
Screenplay: Julia Crawford Ivers
Based on the novel by Mark Twain
Cinematography: Homer Scott
Cast: Jack Pickford (Tom Sawyer), Clara Horton (Becky Thatcher), Robert Gordon (Huck Finn), George Hackathorne (Sid Sawyer), Edythe Chapman (Aunt Polly), Alice Marvin (Mary Sawyer).

by Bret Wood