THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN (MGM 1939) Warner Archive
1939: that banner year in movie-making, still unchallenged for its proliferation of movie-land iconography, long outlasting the rank cynicism of our ever-changing times and tastes. In a year saturated to its core in so much memory, merriment and magic, not to mentioned being capped off by two of the most treasured works of all-time (Selznick’s Gone with the Wind, and MGM’s The Wizard of Oz) it is perhaps permissible, if not entirely, to dismiss Metro’s adaptation of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, as Harrison Reports’ once called it, “perfunctory (and) commonplace.” In such distinguished company as this, ‘commonplace’ is very high praise indeed. Director Richard Thorpe is, of course, working from Mark Twain’s quintessential coming-of-age novel. That he ‘falls short’ for those seeking a purist’s adaptation is almost pardonable, as is the picture’s star, Mickey Rooney for delivering a performance as ebullient and heartfelt as it remains utterly void of the Rooney-isms in his formidable grab bag of ‘Andy Hardy’-inducing mannerisms. Herein, Rooney cannot help but rise above a script authored by Hugo Butler (with an uncredited assist from Waldo Salt); the pair, brazen enough to jettison Huck’s beloved cohort, Tom Sawyer from these proceedings and take other artistic liberties along the way to condense (some might argue, distill) Twain’s one-off marque of wit into precisely the sort of conspicuous ‘family entertainment’ MGM’s Louis B. Mayer could champion.
And yes, despite the poo-pooing of literary purists ever since, this version of Twain’s celebrated tale still remains the most referenced as the ‘definitive version’ – at least, by movie standards. Mickey Rooney will likely forever be footnoted in the annals of film lore as Andy Hardy – and quite possibly referenced as ‘the other half’ in that memorable string of ‘barn yard’ musicals to co-star Metro’s legendary all-around entertainer, Judy Garland. And yet, Rooney’s talent goes well beyond this. His staggering ability to offer up impressions of the studio’s other famous players (his Gable and Lionel Barrymore are a hoot, to say nothing of the wickedly on-point manifestation of Carmen Miranda Rooney incarnated – banana headdress and all - for 1940’s Babes on Broadway), his apparent ease to sing, dance, deftly handle comedy, and, with as much straightforwardness, unexpectedly segue into melodrama that could – and recurrently did – tear the heart out, should have made Mickey Rooney an eternal legend since his time. Most irrefutably, he reigned as one in his own.
In 1939, Rooney was numero uno hot stuff – the #1 box office draw in the land with a decade’s worth of impeccably crafted performances. These ran the gamut from his ‘Peck’s bad boy’ knock-off - Mickey McGuire, in a string of highly profitable short subjects, to appearing as Robin Goodfellow (a.k.a. Puck) in Max Reinhart’s costly incantation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935). And lest we forget 1937’s A Family Affair (the picture to have inaugurated Judge Hardy’s all-American clan), Victor Fleming’s Captains Courageous (1937) – still one of the greatest ‘coming of age’ pictures ever put on film – and, 1938’s Boy’s Town, where Rooney went toe-to-toe with the preeminent actor’s/actor of his generation – Spencer Tracy, and superbly held his own, playing a wayward teen ruffian brought to heel under the yolk of celebrated Catholic educator, Father Flanagan. Rooney’s streak of uninterrupted successes would continue well beyond 1939 – the year he appeared in 6 movies, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn arguably, this year’s most distinguished. Despite a well-known mid-50’s creative rift, almost to cost him his career, Rooney would endure as one of the hardest working, tireless talents in the biz; conquering the stage before returning to the screen in the mid-1970’s.
Rooney’s interpretation of Huck Finn may not be exactly Twain’s titular hero. But it rings true nonetheless as the embodiment of youth and vitality, and, with a stubbornness as rich in spirit as Huck (or Rooney for that matter), destined to become a man of qualities and substance in spite of himself, and, given half the encouragement with a modicum of kindness to reshape and polish his pluck. Butler’s screenplay treads lightly on the more probative episodes involving Twain’s contemplative deliberations on slavery, with Rex Ingrim’s superb avatar allowed several moments to shine; genuine and humanistic, without being moralized all out of proportion. Considering the racial climate of America circa 1939, the picture does gently address the proverbial ‘elephant’ in the room, insofar as it can be counted upon to augment Mayer’s notions of family-friendly film fare. Mayer had acquired the rights to Twain’s novel in 1933 with VP Irving Thalberg placing it on his short list to produce the following year. For one reason or another, this never happened; Thalberg, distractedly invested in more lavishly produced spectacles, and more frequently still, caught in the undertow of his perpetual squabbles with L.B. over the ‘quality vs. quantity’ of Metro’s yearly output. Thalberg wanted to make fewer pictures per annum, but of an artistic level loftier than his competition so the public would naturally flock to see them. Mayer, on the other hand, thought of his studio in terms of dollars. If cheaper pictures sold just as well, why gamble on more costly ventures? Ultimately, Thalberg lost this battle and the war; his untimely death at the age of 37 in 1936 affording Mayer the opportunity to proceed full-steam ahead with a decade’s worth of more economically budgeted product.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn might have been a very different movie had Thalberg survived to produce it. Indeed, it likely would have remained more faithfully aligned to Twain’s authorship. Despite the cost-cutting, the picture never looks cheap (as nothing Metro produced during this tenure ever did). But lest we forget its producer, Joseph L. Mankiewicz – who positively worshipped the source material – never regarded the final product as anything better than an artistic misfire (if, in fact, he acknowledged it at all). And it is as telling that Mayer assigned the picture to Richard Thorpe – a workaday alumni of Metro’s dream factory, arguably competent though otherwise unremarkable, and, most recently kicked off the set of The Wizard of Oz. Ironically, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn benefits greatly from Thorpe’s pedestrian direction. There is enough sparkle and pizzazz in Mickey Rooney’s central performance to buoy the action, and more than enough of Metro’s glamour a la Edwin Willis and Cedric Gibbon’s art direction to give it class.
In various critical discourse written since, there has been an invested perversity by scholars to find, extol, and, deconstruct as inferior, the parallels between Mickey Rooney’s Andy Hardy and the performance he delivers in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Permit us to lay these comparisons to rest. While Andy Hardy’s then contemporary flights into folly are precisely of the ilk and nature a young man of Huck’s age might have discovered for himself, had he lived in these times, this is decidedly where the similarities between Mickey Rooney as Andy Hardy and as Huck Finn end. If, as Twain portrayed so eloquently in print, Huck Finn typified a precise brand of rambunctious adolescence, foreordained for the wide-open spaces of adventure, then Mayer’s impressions of Andy Hardy, recessed against a picture postcard of white picket fences and old jalopies, with all those memorable ‘man-to-man’ talks featuring an oft bewildered Rooney affectionately assuaged, both in his curiosities and guilt by a doting Lewis Stone, are the antithesis of Huck’s self-reliant friendship with Jim. Andy needs Judge Hardy for guidance. Huck merely honors Jim as his sounding board.
“MGM was this vast factory,” Mickey Rooney would reason years later, “…the General Motors of the movie business, dedicated to Mr. Mayer's views of morality and to mass entertainment.” That Metro’s output became increasingly formulaic after Thalberg’s death is perhaps both a testament to, and a curse of Mayer’s judgement calls and prosaic and glamour-drenched storytelling. Undeniably, the treacle in Mayer’s reoccurring ‘no place like home’ message could be laid on thick at times, and occasionally to the detriment of telling – or re-telling – a good yarn. But not The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Twain's darling adventure is amply served in as good-enough fodder for as long as the art of film has been around…and for very good reason. There is a vivacious quality to Twain’s prose that translates exceedingly well to the movies – even the ones that stubbornly refuse to take his cue verbatim. The ’39 version may not be vintage Twain, but it sparks as much on frank honesty as a sense of the times. MGM’s interpretation possesses Twain’s ‘lived in’ quality in spades. Hence, even as it deviates considerably in plot – if never in tone – the picture ultimately emerges as its own timeless slice of Americana. That Mayer sought to evoke one of the most-beloved fictional characters in all of literature was, in fact, closely aligned to Irving Thalberg’s unwavering passion for literary classics. That Mickey Rooney should be the very embodiment of Twain’s wily urchin was perhaps less clear at the time. Yet, there is no denying Rooney his inimitable eminence in the part, as well as Rooney’s box office cache, similarly from playing Andy Hardy. This, he mostly leaves on the front stoop. Far from merely dressing the part, barefoot, straw hat and all, Rooney becomes Huck Finn.
At 96 minutes, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn plays rather fast and loose with its source material. Nevertheless, it bottles the essence of Twain’s original characters. Whether this is more a testament to the source material (Teflon-coated and impervious to even crass commercial exploitation) or Mayer’s uncanny ability to re-write even the very best stories for the screen and somehow still manage to make a lot of them ‘better’ – from a purely cinematic standpoint – remains open for discussion. But Mickey Rooney is remarkable and un-Rooney-esque here; thoroughly empathetic as Twain’s teenage reprobate. Huck (Rooney) is first seen, lazily passing the time at the water's edge. He has been delinquent from school yet again and will not be graduating with his classmates. Huck’s benefactors, the widow Douglas (Elisabeth Risdon) and Miss Watson (Clara Blandick) do not know this yet. Douglas is particularly kind to Huck. She sees the goodness in him despite his paternal roots: Pap Finn (Victor Kilian), a notorious drunkard.
Huck is close to these dowagers’ man servant, Jim (Rex Ingram); a noble slave with dreams to raise enough money to buy his bond so he can return to his wife and child, up north and living free. In the middle of the night, Pap Finn kidnaps Huck to a secluded cabin near the river. Huck escapes and Pap is later murdered by an unknown assailant. Jim, having chosen to run away without paying his bond, is immediately suspected of the crime. However, Huck knows better. Together, he and Jim travel the Mississippi in search of adventure. They find a pair of con artists, The King (Walter Connelly) and The Duke (William Frawley). These wily cons convince Huck to help them swindle two unsuspecting young women, Mary Jane (Lynn Carver) and Susan (Jo Ann Sawyers) out of their inheritance. A close personal friend, Captain Brandy (Minor Watson) encourages prudence on the girls’ part. Alas, his advice goes unheeded as Susan and Mary Jane giving all their money away. After unearthing the truth, Huck steals back these ill-gotten gains to return to their rightful owners. The King and The Duke are tarred and feathered by the locals and forcibly evicted from the town. Regrettably, the law catches up to Jim. Huck, who has been injured in the mob and is presently convalescing, does not know about Jim until it is too late. Now, Huck implores Captain Brandy to help Jim across state lines by riverboat after it is revealed at a trial Jim did not kill Pap Finn. With Brandy’s help, Jim goes free and home to his wife and child. The widow Douglas makes Huck promise to stop smoking, start wearing shoes and go back to school. Huck sadly agrees. However, we see his pipe sticking out the back pocket of his trousers moments before the screen fades to black. Dear Huckleberry Finn. Surely – blessedly - he will never change his ways.
Mark Twain’s novel is still one of the very best books about ‘growing into maturity’. It should be on every young person’s recommended reading list. By contrast, MGM’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is lyrical storytelling in other unexpected, and equally as fine ways. Franz Waxman's score is understated and perfect, as is John Seitz' cinematography. In an era of affectation, Mayer’s curtailing of necessary funds to bloat the production values instead results in an exaltation of precisely the rural landscape where Mark Twain and his fictional cohorts would feel right at home. The Americana on display here is full of youthful promise; its more rigid hardships properly kept at bay. Mickey Rooney is a flawless and iconic Huck, as is Rex Ingram’s Jim. The rest of the cast offer understated and effective performances. In the final analysis, and, placed within the proper context of 1939 – Hollywood’s irrefutable ‘golden year’, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a minor masterpiece from the studio once hailed as the Tiffany and/or Cartier of the industry; though, a masterpiece nonetheless. There have been other adaptations of Twain’s immortal classic; more faithful, perhaps, though none to adhere more tenderly to Twain’s bright-spirited vigor.
Were that someone at Warner Home Video thought as much. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a Warner Archive (WAC) release. Even on DVD, WAC usually does far better work than this. What we have here is an utterly flawed transfer with an abysmal amount of aliasing and edge enhancement. Altogether, the image is unwatchable – grotesquely so. The gray scale is softly focused with blown out whites and virtually no solid blacks. There is no grain here either, and some woeful chroma bleeding. This is an awful, muddy, grain-free mess, further plagued by age-related artifacts, painfully to illustrate the ravages of time. The audio is mono but represented at an adequate listening level. Like most titles from WAC, this one comes with NO extras.
Truly folks, there is nothing to recommend this disc. Here is where WAC should be investing their time and energies, for a remastered Blu-ray release. Here is a movie worthy of such time and investment. Here is a reason as good as any for film preservationists - and film lovers, for that matter - to collectively unite in their grief and protest, to champion the studio to get off its collective lump and rescue another priceless artifact as part of our cultural heritage; not only for this generation, but the next…and the next. What exactly are we waiting for? The original elements (if, in fact, they exist) to deteriorate to a point where nothing better than this misfire will ever be available for future generations to discover. Ugh! I want to throw up! The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn deserves far better. Bottom line: Emphatically, not recommended. Be outraged. I know I am.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)