The Adventures of Tom Sawyer


Kino Lorber;
$24.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Tommy Kelly, Ann Gillis, May Robson, Walter Brennan.

The story’s familiar to you, right? I figured.

Produced by David O. Selznick in the still young three-strip Technicolor process and sparked by a memorable “cave” designed by the immortal William Cameron Menzies, the capable if never really stirring The Adventures of Tom Sawyer gives a good sense of the famed producer’s deep pockets when it came to cosmetics. James Wong Howe shot it (his first color film), and judging from the quality of threads Tom sports when he’s slumming around (nearly all the time), there must have been a Sy Devore outlet store in the fictional town standing in here for Hannibal, Mo. All the better when it comes to getting them muddy, which happens maybe two or three times a reel.

In CliffsNotes fashion but with few substantial changes — for one, “Jim” is now a wide-eyed youthful foil, not an adult — this almost immediate Selznick precursor to Gone With the Wind packs many of Mark Twain’s key events into 91 minutes, though Kino Classics has also included a 77-minute re-issue version from the 1950s that’s purely academic. Huck Finn is kind of a nondescript glorified walk-on, and one can argue that there’s too much time devoted to the hot love triangle between Tom, Amy Lawrence and that new redhead in town, Becky Thatcher. But generally speaking, this classy 1938 production with only a handful-plus of non-cave sets has fairly engaging fun with the episodes and characters most folks remember: whitewashing the fence, dastardly “Injun Joe” committing murder that’s hung on another and young Tom’s daily dustups with Aunt Polly and especially half-brother Sid.

As much as for publicity purposes as anything else, Selznick mounted a publicity campaign for someone to play the lead role, and the more or less one-hit-wonder-Tommy Kelly got the part. He was an attractive kid, but, in general, the child acting is directed here a few beats too broadly for my taste — by Norman Taurog (much later of Jerry Lewis and Elvis pictures), who’d already taken one of those suspect early directing Oscars for doing a good job with Jackie Cooper in Skippy the same year the academy totally skunked Chaplin’s City Lights. Uh-huh.

This said, I do like David Holt’s very broad performance as unctuous Sid, the kind of pie target and worse that one imagines Stephen Miller was when he was of single-digit age — though in Miller’s case, it would have been more satisfying to douse him not with pies or tomatoes but maybe some of those killer red aunts that attacked Chuck Heston in The Naked Jungle. Interestingly, from his bio, Holt was apparently a good kid in real life, and through circumstances, got Max Baer Sr. to teach him how to fight so he could pop a few would-be oppressors on the playground. You never know.

To give the young actors protection, if not exactly sex appeal, Selznick surrounded them with an array of solid character actors: May Robson, Walter Brennan, Victor Jory, Donald Meek and more. And though she only has a very small worried-mom role and maybe one decent close-up, this is somehow a movie that you just know Margaret Hamilton is going to be in, though her hallmark role as the Wicked Witch of the West was still a year away. Say, why do all the authoritarians in these period Hollywood movies, most of whom are parental figures, look as if they last had sex when some social mixer at Plymouth Rock got out of hand after someone broke out the hard cider?

As early Technicolor Selznicks go, I prefer the print here to what I’ve seen in my lifetime of Nothing Sacred and the ’37 A Star Is Born, titles that have always made me wonder just what kind of shape the Selznick archival holdings are in (and one reason, perhaps, why I’ve never been crazy about either movie). There are flashes of bad registration here, but the worst examples only last a few seconds at a time, some early muted pigments give way to some striking colors on some of the costuming. According to the late Ronald Haver’s all-timer oversized volume (David O. Selznick’s Hollywood, a treasured present to me from my ex-wife), the movie was actually designed to be in black-and-white before a Technicolor camera suddenly became available. Per usual, Selznick managed to shuffle personnel with Clive Owen Croupier finesse, which is how Taurog took over from original director H.C. Potter and (per Haver) George Cukor ended up directing a few scenes, including what was likely a crowd-pleasing capper.

The long climactic cave sequence — was Menzies the best, or what? — turns the total rendering into something of a net plus, as Tom (for once) turns fully responsible attempting to finesse his escape with also-trapped Becky from Native American Joe’s (as he’ll someday probably be called) hideout. It’s genuinely gripping and well-staged by a filmmaker who usually had no personality — though, given that it’s at least tangentially on subject — I have to say that I do prefer Taurog’s Nothing Sacred remake, Living It Up, to the original by a healthy margin.

According to Haver, the picture didn’t cover its substantial cost too well; these were not punk artisans Selznick employed. But Tom Sawyer is the kind of endeavor one can milk for a number of years, and sometime in my earliest teens (I’ve read 1959, though I remember it more as ’60), it got a national or nationally syndicated TV showing that the movie’s Becky Thatcher — the by then adult Ann Gillis — emceed. (I’m guessing it was probably the 77-minute version in a 90-minute slot because I remember a lot of commercials for some kind of bread product being included.)

This is interesting because according to her quote section, Gillis didn’t like Taurog and got totally sick of the picture after watching it “hundreds of times” during the original promotional tour. In general, it appears, Gillis wasn’t shy about voicing her opinion, given what she said of her last screen appearance — as Gary Lockwood’s mother in 2001: A Space Odyssey. “Kubrick was a real jerk,” she said. “It shows you what can happen when a director is given a blank check.”

Well, that’s one way of looking at it, though her scene of hysterics in the cave still convinces. Poor thing: If it isn’t those damned stalactites, it’s being in a dark place with Victor Jory.

Mike’s Picks: ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ and ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’