THE ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER: Blu-ray (Selznick International, 1938) Kino Lorber
Sandwiched somewhere into David O. Selznick’s heady schedule of contemporary product to be distributed via RKO (his original slate of 12 productions pared to 6, due to Selznick’s overweening ambition to make perfect entertainments) is director, Norman Taurog’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1938). With this release, Selznick had hoped to create an everlasting testament to one of his fondest childhood memories. A genuine pity then, that Mark Twain’s iconic masterwork proved too great a challenge for this inspired ole-time mogul. For MGM, Selznick had resurrected Dickens' beloved David Copperfield (1935); still, the definitive movie version of that immortal piece of great literature. Alas, for his own company Selznick could barely muster anything more than a reverence for Twain – mired by a slight turgidity, made more acceptable and, at times, even ravishing in Technicolor, though dulled to the point of no return by John V.A. Weaver’s lumbering screenplay. In truth, Weaver’s construction was not the issue. He is largely successful at streamlining Twain’s book, smoothing over its episodic nature and providing a cohesive, linear timeline. But the real problem with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is none of its characters, however finely wrought, ever come across as anything more than wooden interpretations, rather than the vibrant and truly alive creations who populated Twain’s novel, forever to live on in the hearts of millions.
Delayed multiple times during its gestation, while Selznick pursued a Scarlett O’Hara-sized search for just the right moppet to embody Twain’s beloved urchin, after some consternation – and the producer’s insistence on plucking an ‘untrained’ child from one of the orphanages and/or reformatories, Selznick instead settled on Tommy Kelly, the 12-year-old son of a Bronx fireman, as his incorrigible free spirit. Kelly had virtually no acting experience and was precisely what Selznick was looking for in the moment. In support of Kelly, Selznick’s resolve weakened some, turning to seasoned alumni, Ann Gillis and Jackie Moran as Becky Thatcher and Huck Finn respectively, with other parts going to May Robson (Aunt Polly), Walter Brennan (Muff Potter), Margaret Hamilton (one year removed from Oz’s wicked witch of the west, herein as Mrs. Harper), and, in one of the most grotesquely laughable miscalculations in acting history, Victor Jory (as blood-thirsty, Injun Joe). Selznick longed to shoot The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in Technicolor. Alas, owing to the process’ infancy and availability of cameras, Selznick was informed by Technicolor’s President, Herbert Kalmus this was quite out of the question as all available units had already been assigned.
Eager to meet his Feb. 11th deadline, Selznick begrudgingly green-lit the production, shooting exteriors designed by Lyle Wheeler on the Paramount ranch, under Henry C. Potter’s direction, with imminent cameraman, James Wong Howe photographing everything in B&W. Happy circumstance – at least for Selznick – only one week into the shoot a Technicolor camera became available; Selznick, scrapping everything to begin anew after three additional days of screen tests. Potter was replaced by Taurog – who specialized in working with children. The real problem was virtually all of the sets had been designed for B&W – not color. As time was of the essence, Selznick elected to repaint them in drab neutrals, concentrating on accessories – like flowers – and Walter Plunkett’s vibrant costuming to provide the appropriate splashes of color. As this was Howe’s first color production he concentrated on achieving subtler hues almost exclusively devoting the splashier moments to performers in close-up. After production wrapped, Selznick took one look at the footage and decided two weeks of retakes were needed to improve upon the action. He hired George Cukor to oversee these new scenes, including more footage in the schoolhouse, plus a re-imagining of Sawyer’s respite with Huck on Jackson Island, and finally, the penultimate ‘tag’ where Robson’s Aunt Polly gives a whiny Cousin Sidney (David Holt) his just desserts.
Despite delays, Selznick’s tinkering on The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was unusually minimal. Perhaps in an effort to meet his agreed upon premiere date; also, his commitment to RKO, the picture debuted without much fanfare at Radio City just two months after wrapping up, and, at a formidable outlay of $1.5 million, practically guaranteeing it would not turn a profit. In spite of Selznick’s devotion to Twain, his beautiful craftsmanship aside, the look of the picture seemed at odds with Twain’s visceral charm; the sumptuousness in its values, somehow stifling whatever vitality is to be gleaned from this tableau of waxworks. In retrospect, one can certainly see the error of Selznick’s lavishness. Under the eye-popping brilliant hues of Technicolor, only briefly do the machinations of our Tom, Huck and Little Jim (Philip Hurlic) go beyond the perfunctory tribute to Twain’s un-scholarly charm. While the performances throughout are solid, what Selznick has instead achieved is basically another creaky period costume drama, intermittently peppered with light – if crudely rendered – comedy.
Selznick fidelity to the novel, at least in hindsight, ensured most of its highlighted vignettes found their way from the reader’s heart to the big screen. Tom lives with his Aunt Polly and cousin, Sidney. Perceived as a ne’er-do-well, simply because he prefers exotic adventures to the book-learned stagnation of a formal education, Tom frequently skips school to go skinny-dipping. Exposed in his delinquency by Sid, Tom is ordered as punishment by his ear-pulling Aunt Polly to whitewash the fence. Instead, he cleverly barters with pal, Joe Harper (Mickey Rentschler), who gets other neighborhood children to partake of the exercise in his stead. As the fence is painted in record time, Aunt Polly allows Tom his opportunity for idleness. Almost immediately, Tom becomes smitten with Becky Thatcher, newly arrived in this small town with her father, the Judge (Charles Richman) and forthright mother (Nana Bryant). Becky’s heart, alas, is not so easily won. Even Tom’s barefoot balancing act atop her picket fence, while perching a bird’s feather on his nose, fails to impress her. What does finally win the girl over is Tom’s willingness to accept unnecessary punishment from schoolmaster, Mr. Dobbins (Olin Howland) after Becky’s crude chalk-rendered caricature of the curmudgeonly scholar is found out by this stuffy old goat. Caned before the class, Tom later engages Becky at his favorite watering hole. Regrettably, his imposition of a kiss is met with resistance; his peace offering of a frog, terrorizing the girl to no end.
Spurned and now, more than ever, bored with school, Tom agrees to accompany Huck to the cemetery late at night to bury a dead cat. Instead, the boys witness Dr. Robinson (Roland Drew), Muff and Injun Joe robbing a grave. An altercation ensues between the men. Muff is knocked unconscious and Joe murders Robinson, using Muff’s knife. Reviving Muff, Injun Joe infers he has killed Robinson before losing consciousness. Unable to recall the event, Muff is nevertheless terrified the town will find out he is a murderer and agrees to remain obscure for the next little while. Meanwhile, Tom and Huck swear a blood oath never to speak of the events witnessed, as Joe will likely come after them in retribution. Instead, Tom, Joe Harper and Huck decide to run away to a nearby island and begin their ‘new’ lives as pirates. However, during their absence the townsfolk assume the worst; the boys have drowned in the Mississippi River. Dredging the banks in search of bodies, the posse becomes more frantic. Tom sneaks back into town under the cover of night and learns what all the fuss is about. And although he is torn in his devotion to Aunt Polly, Tom nevertheless elects to sneak away again without informing anyone he, Joe and Huck are still very much alive.
A funeral is held for the boys. Tom, Huck and Joe Harper sneak into the choir loft to hear their own eulogies. Struck by the outpouring of empathy from their community, they sheepishly make their presence known and are promptly admonished for their despicable behavior. By now, the townsfolk have discovered Dr. Robinson’s body and wrongfully assumed Muff is his killer. Marched through the streets to be made an example, Muff desperately implores his fellow citizens to reconsider their accusation. It is of no consequence. Muff is tried for murder. Tom and Huck concur. One of them must come forward and admit to what they saw that night in the cemetery. Thus, Tom elects to become a witness for the defense. As he takes the stand, Tom is repeatedly threatened by Injun Joe. Yet, despite his mounting fear, and a near fatal attempt by Injun Joe to stab him, Tom confesses the truth to the Judge. Injun Joe makes his daring escape through a window and Muff, exonerated at last, is set free.
At this juncture, Selznick’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer omits several vignettes from Twain’s novel, jumping ahead to the town picnic near McDougal Cave. Tom and Becky elect to go off and become disoriented inside the caves, losing their way. In the meantime, darkness falls and the gathering return home without them; alerted to their absence when Aunt Polly arrives to collect her young charge but cannot find him. Amassing a posse to go in search of Tom and Becky, a cave-in prevents any further exploration. Meanwhile, Tom discovers Injun Joe’s hidden treasure. He is elated until Joe surfaces to reclaim his fortunes. Tom flees along a narrow precipice as Becky looks on in horror. At the last possible moment, Tom causes Injun Joe to lose his footing. He tumbles to his death into a darkened abyss, leaving Becky shell-shocked. Tom follows a faint ray of light penetrating through the rocks and discovers another way to safety. For his valor against Injun Joe and loyalty toward Becky, Tom is well rewarded by a grateful Judge Thatcher. Better still, he and Huck have returned with Joe’s formidable stash of gold doubloons. As the townsfolk rejoice at Tom’s good fortune, Tom uses the opportunity to gleefully smash a whole strawberry shortcake in Cousin Sidney’s face. “Tom may even be President someday,” Aunt Polly nervously assesses with pride, “…if they don’t hang ‘em first.”
The penultimate showdown between Injun Joe and Tom inside McDougal’s cave was a complete fabrication on Selznick’s part; the producer firmly believing Tom needed at least one redemptive act of heroism to legitimize his otherwise mischievous good nature. In Twain’s novel no such encounter occurs. Tom and Becky find their way to safety after being trapped in the cave and Tom, having alerted Judge Thatcher of its perils, is unaware a great iron door has been placed before its entrance to prevent other children from similarly suffering. Alas, Injun Joe is already inside the cave, where his loot is stashed. Unable to escape, he dies from starvation before Tom can alert the townsfolk; his body, later discovered inside. Also, for time constraints, the picture omits the entire last act of Twain’s novel in which the Widow Douglas decides to adopt Huck. He grows restless in her care and attempts a return to his former life as a vagrant. Instead, Tom tricks Huck into a new scheme, but only if he remains in the widow’s care. Very reluctantly, Huck agrees. While not entirely faithful to the plot of Twain’s masterpiece, Selznick’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer bears an uncanny resemblance to the author’s high-minded altruism. While several critics of their day poo-pooed the inclusion of such moments as the aforementioned ‘cake-in-the-face-smash’ as pure slapstick unworthy of Twain’s prose, pictorially, at least, these bits provide what few bright spots of comedy emerge from this otherwise slavishly devoted ‘picturization’ (a Selznick euphemism for bringing great literature to the screen).
I am not entirely sure what Kino Lorber considers a ‘meticulous restoration’, but to my eyes, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer still suffers from intermittent mis-registration of the original 3-strip Technicolor elements. It is mostly the yellow record that is out of whack, creating disturbing halos and a decidedly blurry image. The main titles are horrendously marred by this anomaly, as are several key sequences later on. Some effort has been spent to re-balance the color and achieve somewhat brilliant hues as original Technicolor, with its metal-based dyes, was capable of reproducing. So too, age-related artifacts have been eradicated…almost. Contrast is excellent, with one or two minor exceptions. But it is the mis-alignment of these color records that persists and becomes a real downer. Honestly, I have stated this before, though it bears repeating herein yet again. There is NO POINT releasing vintage Technicolor masterpieces in anything less than perfectly minted Blu-rays, comprised of properly aligned Technicolor records. Either put in the time and effort required to achieve such results or do not release these movies at all in hi-def. They otherwise look atrocious! The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is hardly the worst transgressor of such slapdash treatment. For this, we turn to the latest hapless Blu-ray travesty, known in Universal’s For Whom The Bell Tolls. But I digress. The audio herein is 2.0 DTS mono and adequate for this presentation. Kino Lorber has included both the 91 min. original theatrical cut and its slightly pruned 77 min. reincarnation, created for a 1954 reissue. Ironically, the picture plays better in this shorter version – the action ‘tighter’ and the wordiness a little less grating on the ear. Bottom line: while Selznick had hoped for a cinematic masterpiece to rival Twain’s literary art, the results here are far from perfect, if still worthy of a second glance.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)