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Tom Sawyer (1917)

6.5
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Tom Sawyer, a young Missouri lad, finds fun and adventure with his pals Joe Harper and Huckleberry Finn, running away to hide out on Jackson's Island and pretending to be Mississippi River ... See full summary »

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Title: Tom Sawyer (1917)

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Runaway Huck Finn rafts down the Mississippi with his friends.

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Cast

Complete credited cast:
Jack Pickford ...
George Hackathorne ...
Alice Marvin ...
Edythe Chapman ...
Robert Gordon ...
Antrim Short ...
Clara Horton ...
Helen Gilmore ...
Rest of cast listed alphabetically:
Carl Goetz ...
Alfred Temple
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Storyline

Tom Sawyer, a young Missouri lad, finds fun and adventure with his pals Joe Harper and Huckleberry Finn, running away to hide out on Jackson's Island and pretending to be Mississippi River pirates. When Tom is believed dead by his grieving Aunt Polly, he sneaks back to town to attend his own funeral. Written by Jim Beaver <jumblejim@prodigy.net>

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Unrated
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10 December 1917 (USA)  »

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| (2000 alternate)

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1.33 : 1
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Version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1955) See more »

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Come back to the raft ag'in, Tom honey
30 May 2004 | by (Central California) – See all my reviews

The literary critic Leslie Fiedler made a name for himself writing the essay, "Come Back to the Raft Ag'in, Huck Honey," in which he asserted Jim and Huck were in some way sexually or romantically attached in the book, "Huckleberry Finn." While the methodology by which he arrived at this conclusion was questionable, his inspiration, likely unconscious, was the interpretations some film directors have given to Twain's work, such as William Desmond Taylor's in this film.

It's not been uncommon to cast actors a lot older than Tom and Huck to play these characters. Finding actors between the ages of 12 and 14 to play these parts competently, at least in the past, wasn't easy. Romeo and Juliet have rarely been played in film by teenagers for this reason.

So we have Jack Pickford at the age of 21 playing Tom, and Robert Gordon at 22 playing Huck! Both are too tall, physically mature and attractive to be viewed as early adolescent boys. Gordon, dressed in a ragged shirt missing one sleeve, displays a muscular arm no 14 year old boy could have.

So the film becomes one about boys in their late teens, making scenes that are supposed to be evocations of innocence into something quite different. The scene where Pickford, Gordon, and 17 year-old Antrim Short as Joe Harper run naked (they're actually wearing undershorts, but the duration of the shots are so brief the impression is of nudity) through a glen, dive into the Mississippi, then wrestle each other in the water is a prime example. Indeed, when this film was shown on Turner Classic Movies, it was given a "TV PG" rating, undoubtedly for this scene.

It isn't, however, just about the actors being "too old" to play the characters. A scene early on in the film has Pickford come over to Gordon who is sitting by a water pump. Gordon then scratches the ground with his big toe in a way that seems to mirror Pickford's awkward exchanges with Clara Horton as Becky Thatcher later in the film. Gordon then points out he has brought a watermelon for he and Pickford to share. Pickford is elated, Gordon tears apart the watermelon, and they both eat from it, exchanging beaming glances at each other as they do.

Whereas people might argue as to whether Huck is flirting with Tom or not, one has to acknowledge Gordon's Huck does not fit the film stereotype of the Huck we've come to expect--he is not a cute, clean and orderly, freckled, red-haired kid. This Huck is a raggedy, dirty, "helter-skelter" (to quote a 1917 film review) "juvenile pariah" (to quote the subtitle introducing him in the film). Indeed, it doesn't seem far off to say this Huck seems like a very young, attractive, good-hearted, nice-natured version of the backwoodsmen in "Deliverance," a product of an isolated, impoverished, neglected and highly abusive childhood (which in this case is very much from Twain). This particular Huck _could_ flirt with Tom, and it seems more acceptable because both boys seem more like adults.

Undoubtedly, these things have to have had an impact on people like Leslie Fiedler indirectly through their influence on subsequent Twain films.

This is not to say these things in any way distract from the story. Taylor prevents this by keeping them as subcontext (in 1917 it's doubtful he could have done otherwise) and produces a film which could be argued as the one truest to the spirit of Twain's original, with Pickford, despite his age, as the most rambunctious Tom ever on film, and Gordon as a more realistic Huck than we'd see in later films.

Finally, for an 87 year old film, it holds up quite well, and its unusual subcontext gives it a daringness that makes it feel more like a film of today than of the time seven years after Mark Twain's death.

Addendum 5/8/06:

One thing I noticed about Gordon's Huck that struck me strangely is that with his wig of red wild curls and goofy expression, he seems curiously like Harpo Marx. Since Harpo developed the character around the time of this film, I wondered if it hadn't influenced the creation of the film Harpo.

The fact is, it did not. At the time of the First World War, there were many people who imitated an Irish stage comedian named Patsy Brannigan, who also had a wild head of red curls and just as wild a demeanor.

One critic of our time looked at the film and said Gordon's Huck was "a burlesque," not a legitimate attempt to portray Twain's character. The discovery of the Patsy Brannigan connection reveals that this wasn't a burlesque of Huck Finn, at all, but rather the playing of him as a totally different character, a (to then audiences) recognizable comic stereotype. Perhaps this was because of Gordon's age--Huck had to be modeled on an older character.

It is bizarre, however, to look at the Cocoanuts, where Harpo's red wig is as dark as Gordon's is, and compare the two wild characters to each other. It's strange (or maybe not so strange) to note 80 or 90 years after a film, the source of a character can become completely unknown, and a kind of fast forward anthropology has to be done.


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