Tom Sawyer (1917)
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But Muff Potter, Injun Joe and the scenes in the caves would have to wait for the appearance of 'Huck and Tom' (1918), in which the amiable tone that has so far prevailed presumably darkens considerably. Robert Gordon doesn't actually have that much screen time as Huck Finn in this first film and presumably comes into his own in the sequel (especially with his name coming first in the title).
The film stars Jack Pickford in a first rate performance as the rambunctious title character. The lesser known younger brother of the Queen of Hollywood and brother-in-law of its King Douglas Fairbanks, the great success enjoyed by his relatives eluded him but he nevertheless had a pretty decent career. As was the case with many actors of later generations, it was curtailed by his drug and alcohol abuse and he died of multiple neuritis in 1933 at the age of only 37. The people who worked on this film were clearly not the luckiest bunch. At 21, Pickford is perhaps the oldest actor to ever play Tom Sawyer on screen but I understand that it was a fairly common practice in the silent era for adults to play children. A particularly egregious example occurred when his elder sister, then 27, played the 12-year- old title character in "Pollyanna" (1920). In any event, Pickford is very effective in communicating the young scamp's mischievousness, which is nicely contrasted with his basic goodness and innocence, through his facial expressions. His devilish grin when it occurs to him that he can fool others into whitewashing Aunt Polly's fence is a joy to behold. After a few minutes, I was able to accept him as being a young boy due to the body language that he adopts and the way in which he treats every minor task that Aunt Polly and other adults expect him to perform as a major affront to his pursuit of happiness. The Canadian Pickford was very well cast as the iconic all-American boy.
Two of my favourite scenes in the film involve Becky Thatcher. When Tom meets her for the first time outside her house, it is clear - again from Pickford's expressions - that he is smitten with her but that he has to work up the courage to have a proper conversation with her. It is a lovely little moment. When he sits beside her in school the following Monday and he tells her that he loves her, there is a real sense of the awkwardness and shyness that typically accompanies such early adolescent encounters. Thankfully, Clara Horton is just as capable as Pickford in portraying this or the scene would not have been nearly as sweet as it was. Robert Gordon does not have much screen time as the "juvenile pariah" Huckleberry Finn with whom Tom is "under strict orders not to play" but he is very funny in the role. It certainly comes across that Huck is even more of a troublemaker than Tom but just as well-meaning in his own way. Edythe Chapman is pretty over the top as Aunt Polly but it mostly works to the film's benefit and Antrim Short offers good support as Joe Harper. It's a terrible shame that "Huck and Tom" is lost as I'd have liked to have seen more of Pickford and Gordon as the two boys. Almost the entire cast from this film returned for the sequel, as did Taylor and Crawford Ivers.
Overall, this is a great adaptation of one of the great American novels.