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THE ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER keep the small town of St.
Petersburg, Missouri in constant turmoil, circa 1850...
This is a splendid family film, one of producer David O. Selznick's very best. Presented in wonderful Technicolor, it is like looking through the pages of an illustrated copy of the classic novel. All the favorite episodes are here. All of the performers are perfect in their roles. It is difficult to imagine a better transition from book to screen.
Elderly May Robson has one of her finest roles as harried, temperamental, lovable Aunt Polly. She easily steals every scene she's in & provides the sentimental heart of the movie. However, breaking out a bit, her last scene at the film's conclusion is hilarious. A small cluster of veteran character actors - Walter Brennan, Victor Jory, Donald Meek & Margaret Hamilton - are also exceptional in their roles.
12-year-old Tommy Kelly IS Tom Sawyer - he will instantly gain the respect & admiration of every prepubescent male in the audience. Beguiling & mischievous, with an infectious grin & sad eyes, he admirably fills the bare feet of America's most famous literary kid. The movie's other child actors - David Holt, Marcia Mae Jones, Ann Gillis & Jackie Moran - give excellent support. (Legend has it that Selznick found young Master Kelly in an orphanage. True or not, this was his best role. Very soon he was playing only bit parts and eventually left films around the age of 25.)
The cave sequence is especially noteworthy, thanks to the art design of William Cameron Menzies, the flickering camera work of James Wong Howe, and the moody music of Max Steiner. Spooky & claustrophobic, these scenes are the embodiment of every viewer's nightmares, and, thus, are tremendously entertaining.
It should be noted that while the character of Jim is correctly depicted as a slave, the film itself is blessedly free of the racism that blights so many Hollywood films of the 1930's.
There have been numerous film adaptations of Mark Twain's beloved
story, "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," but few capture the boyish
wonder and childlike bliss which permeates the classic yarn. Luckily,
1938 rendition is one of the select few that do. The acting is first
class; the directing often innovative, and the whimsical screenplay is
respectful of the novel.
The novel itself is entertainingly superior to Huckleberry Finn in its lack of a political agenda or societal commentary. Its sole objective is to return us once more to the naivety of youth when our life was far simpler and, in many cases, far happier.
For the older generation of film aficionados, child actor Tommy Kelly was the definitive Tom Sawyer. His winning smile, visible freckles and bright eyes encapsulate the literary character to a tee. After watching this film and re-reading Twain's novel, it is impossible to remove the image of Tommy Kelly from one's mind as he or she remembers Sawyer's antics.
It is in the supporting characters, however, that this film truly shines. The grade-A performances of Walter Brennan as the likable Muff Potter, a make-up smeared Victory Jory as the menacing Injun Joe and Olin Howlin as the violent schoolmaster are highlights of the film. Brennan seems to infuse a perpetual helplessness in his inebriated character that epitomizes the small town bum of a forgotten America; Jory makes Injun Joe the personification of evil and a red-faced Howlin is superlative as an authoritarian teacher who makes the audience cringe when he canes Tom. Australian-native May Robeson, who portrays Aunt Polly, is able to make smooth, believable transitions from harsh severity to tender leniency as the script demands.
Remarkably, the numerous child stars in this film were destined for unhappy lives. David Holt (Sid) spent his early life as a child actor in poverty as he, much like Tommy Kelly, waited for star-making film roles which never came. Jackie Moran (Huckleberry Finn) soared briefly higher towards elusive stardom when he was cast as the energetic sidekick of Buster Crabbe in a "Buck Rogers" (1939) serial. Immediately afterwards, Moran's career plummeted into oblivion. Perhaps the only exception to this streak of bad luck was Ann Gillis (Becky Thatcher) who found herself always in demand to portray a screen brat. Upon coming of age and legally capable of making her own decisions, Gillis wisely left the film industry to find happiness elsewhere.
"The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" (1938) is also significant in that its talented screenwriter, John V.A. Weaver, died shortly after its release of tuberculosis. His successful but altogether short career included writing screenplays for such cinematic classics as King Vidor's "The Crowd" (1928) and "The Saturday Night Kid" (1929). In a sense, this film was his last hurrah and it is only fitting that Weaver's last project in his old age should be subtly based upon the universal human longing to be young once again.
It is almost hard to believe that this film was made in 1938. The movie is incredibly faithful to the the book. Even when you know the story it is still suspenseful in the cave with Indian Joe (that is the mark of a good movie). This movie belongs on every family's bookshelf and especially a grandparent's.
Mark Twain's classic characters are brought back to life, by David O.
Selznick, for an updated movie adaptation. For the first time, Tom and
Huck are seen in color (specifically, "Technicolor"), which contributes
to the film's main strength: it looks storybook beautiful. The reliance
on set pieces seems entirely appropriate, giving the film great style;
and, they are very well done. The cinematography, by James Wong Howe,
The story wavers from true triumph, however, in the direction of the characters; the "cuteness quotient" is set far too high. Many tears flow. Tommy Kelly (as Tom Sawyer) suffers the most, of course, being the lead player. It should be emphasized, however, that this is not due to his effort; under the circumstances, Mr. Kelly performs well. Jackie Moran (as Huckleberry Finn) is a cute best friend; but, not much like the "Huck" from Twain's book. Ann Gillis (as Becky Thatcher) is a cute girl friend. The players are all good, but May Robson (as Aunt Polly) seems the truest.
While more cute than mischievous, and far too clean, "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" is good enough to stand on its own. The familiar "lost in the caves" ending is a great climax; and, Victor Jory (as Injun Joe) still startles. The scene of "Tom" emerging, at last, from the caves - his black silhouette shot against the blue sky of freedom - is indelible.
******* The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (2/11/38) Norman Taurog ~ Tommy Kelly, Jackie Moran, May Robson, Victor Jory
I suppose that if The Adventures of Tom Sawyer had been made at MGM we
would have seen Mickey Rooney as Tom with possibly Freddie Bartholomew
as Sid with maybe Judy Garland as Becky Thatcher. But David O. Selznick
was out on his own as an independent at this point so he chose to use
talented child performers who didn't quite have the name clout that
those urchin titans of MGM did.
But this universally loved story by America's greatest author certainly had a built in market that had no need of name players to sell it. Selznick saved on player's salary and put the money into production values and he and the public came away winners.
Tommy Kelly, Ann Gillis, and Jackie Moran as Tom Sawyer, Becky Thatcher, and Huckleberry Finn fill just about everyone's conception of what those kids from Hannibal, Missouri in the 1850s were like. They are given able support from such beloved character players as May Robson as Aunt Polly, Walter Brennan as Muff Potter, Victor Jory as the villainous Indian Joe, Olin Howland as the Sunday school teacher, Margaret Hamilton as Mrs. Harper, and Donald Meek as the school superintendent.
Selznick did a faithful adaption of the novel, the famous fence whitewashing incident is there as well as Tom and Huck getting a glimpse of their own funerals when everyone assumes they've drowned and the climax, the chase with Indian Joe in the cave.
It's a timeless classic, it can be shown to kids of all ages for centuries.
This film is in reality David O. Selznick's 1938 dress rehearsal for 1939's Gone With the Wind. Full length feature films in Technicolor weren't made until 1935 and there hadn't been many made by 1938. some studios didn't start using Technicolor until after 1940. Producer Selznick produced this big production film in Technicolor a year before he would masterfully capture the world's attention with it in Gone With the Wind. Production Designer William Cameron Menzies worked on both this film and GWTW for Selznick as did Art Director Lyle Wheeler, Special Effects Director Jack Cosgrove, Composer Max Steiner and Costume Designer Walter Plunkett. Wheeler was nominated for art direction for the 1938 Academy award for the Adentures of Tom Sawyer. He would received an astounding 26 nominations in his career including five wins including GWTW. Menzies got an Oscar and Cosgrove and Steiner were nominated for GWTW. Cinematographer James Wong Howe didn't join the others on GWTW but he had a cinematography career that spanned photographing Pola Negri movies in 1923 to Barbara Streisand in 1975 in Funny Lady a year before he died. Tom sawyer was directed by Norman Taurog who had a long directorial career from 1920 to almost 1970 and ended his career by directing nine of Elvis Presley's movies. Child actors Tommy Kelly as Tom Sawyer, Jackie Moran as Huckleberry Finn and Ann Gillis as Becky Thatcher. Veteran actors Walter Brennan is Muff Potter, Victory Jory is Injun Joe, Victor Kilian is the Sheriff, May Robson is Aunt Polly and Margaret Hamilton is Mrs. Harper. This film was trimmed from it's 93 minute run-time to 77 minutes when it was reissued in 1959 and that was the version that was shown on television that I saw when I was growing up. I've seen this a few times but haven't seen it in many years. It's one of the more faithful filmed adaptations of the many popular Mark Twain stories. I would give this an 8.5 of 10 but I would like to see the full version and see it on the big screen.
I like the book a lot. It is quite episodic in structure, but the characters, dialogue and the story of Tom's adventures are very memorable. This is a very pleasant film and the best version by some considerable distance, like the book it is episodic but it does maintain its likability and charm with only Ann Gillis's rather coy performance and an underdeveloped Huck being the only real problems. Visually and technically, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is very impressive with gorgeous Technicolour, authentic costumes and lavish sets. (Uncredited) Max Steiner's score helps convey the moods of each scene, the film is faithful to the book(not that it needed to be particularly) with good dialogue and an intense confrontation with Injun Joe and it moves at a good pace. Tommy Kelly is a likable Tom, but it is May Robson and Victor Jory that make the film as memorable as it is. In conclusion, likable and pleasant and definitely something I would watch again willingly. 8/10 Bethany Cox
A glorious piece of Americana and a great film for children, this adaptation of Mark Twain's classic was directed by Norman Taurog, who was a dab hand at this sort of thing, (he had already won the Oscar for Skippy with Jackie Cooper), and is something of a classic itself. The very likable Tommy Kelly is Tom and it's a lovely performance, one of the least ingratiating by a child in all of American movies. He's untrained and innocent and when he cries he's actually very moving. Under Taurog's direction all of the children are first-rate; they all capture the spirit of Mark Twain perfectly. The adults include the great May Robson, magnificent as Aunt Polly, Victor Jory, a suitably frightening Injun Joe, Walter Brennan, Margaret Hamilton and Donald Meek. It's also luminously photographed in early colour by James Wong Howe. David O Selznick produced with all the care and attention to detail you would expect.
Although it leaves important parts of the novel out -for budgetary reasons, I suppose-, what is in the film is all in the book, and to me it depicts the innocence and charm of Twain's children's world better than any other film adaptation has ever done. The Technicolor cinematography is absolutely fantastic, as well as the art direction. And the child actors are natural-born players, they are all perfect. And then we have dear old toothless Walter Brennan, one of my favourite American character actors and the first person ever to win three Academy Awards (1936, 1938 and 1940) as Muff Potter, the town drunk, a role he was born to play. David O'Selznick put the dollars in, and this film surely was a rehearsal for GWTW. And Norman Taurog, a director well experienced on working with children (Skippy, Huckleberry Finn, Boy's Town) at the helm. They made a film that will last forever.
You folks from the Chicago area will remember Frazier Thomas and his 'Family Classic' television program that ran for years on Friday night on WGN. My favorites were 'Robin Hood' and 'Tom Sawyer' from 1938. The movie is moving event that will take you down Memory. First love, raw fear, shame, murder, fun and pure joy is present in this wonderful retelling of Mark Twain's American classic. The story is set on the mighty Mississippi River in Hannibal, Missouri, circa 1850. The young boy playing the lead role is a very pleasant young fellow with plenty of charm and mischief to entertain the entire family. I have seen this film numerous times and I still love it. You will too.
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