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Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Favorites List --- The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer --- Part One

Just back from Myrtle Beach, SC, where I was reminded of an earlier trip to the shore with a church youth group back when I was sixteen. At a time when all the other kids were busy cruising the arcades, or worse, trying to score illicit beer and/or cigarettes, I spent our entire first afternoon closeted in the Rivoli Theatre watching (twice) David O. Selznick’s The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer. This being the summer of 1970, we were still a few years short of the dreadful Reader’s Digest remake that would star Family Affair’s Johnny Whitaker as Tom. I remember sitting there and marveling at the fact I was watching a 1938 Technicolor feature on the big screen. How could those other kids waste their time playing miniature golf when they could be in here watching this? The cave sequence had always packed a wallop for me on television. This time I sat and cried when Tom climbed those rocks to a sunlit opening, then returned to rescue Becky Thatcher. I still consider it one of the most dynamic scenes in movies. So why has the 1938 Tom Sawyer become such a bastard stepchild? He seemed to be everywhere during the sixties. In addition to re-issues, we had frequent syndicated runs on television. Sometimes Channel 8 would alternate the Selznick with Paramount’s early talking 1930 version featuring Jackie Coogan as Tom. It was one of the few vintage titles we had dependable access to. I wouldn’t realize until later what a troubled production this was, and how misused it's been since 1938 release.

There were several false starts on The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer. Selznick had to begin with black-and-white in March of 1937 when Technicolor units proved unavailable. The process was gaining ground with the studios, and its limited equipment and resources were booked far ahead. Tom Sawyer’s initial director was H.C. Potter, who remained through one production shutdown (during April and May), but eventually quit as a result of Selznick’s ceaseless interference (a fact of life for all helmsmen at this company). Filming in B/W had resumed in June, but was again interrupted when Technicolor suddenly became available in July. Several cast members were replaced (including Beulah Bondi as Aunt Polly), but Selznick’s selection for the title role remained. Tommy Kelly was the non-professional son of an unemployed Bronx fireman (what … so they weren’t having fires anymore in the Bronx?). The twelve-year-old was paid a hundred dollars a week, and his father got a studio policeman job on the Selznick-International lot. The producer had hoped to draft his young players from orphan asylums (!), so as to arouse such a warm public feeling that it would add enormously to the gross of the picture (his memo), but eventually resorted to a cast of pro moppets, Tommy Kelly excepted. Everyone who had a contract with Selznick was expected to pitch in. Seasoned scribe Ben Hecht contributed draft revisions as he was completing Nothing Sacred, while George Cukor supposedly directed portions of the schoolhouse and pirate island segments. By now, Norman Taurog had been brought on as principal director, having had experience with kids on previous assignments. Previews of the completed Tom Sawyer brought screams from the kiddies and complaints from mothers. Seems those cave sequences were too intense, particularly the swarm of bats and Becky’s fits of hysteria. Selznick snipped an unusually horrible close-up of Becky laughing hysterically and in which her mind is obviously completely gone. He went on to observe that she looks like a little witch instead of a little girl. Though the bat attack was among his favorite scenes in the picture, the producer also had it shortened. Two days of retakes were ordered under William Wellman’s direction in December for a planned February 1938 opening.

As is so often the case, favorite movies show up on DVD in other countries long before they reach us. Such is the case with The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer. There’s a Region 2 disc that’s been available for several years, and it’s the complete version all too rarely seen in this country (available HERE). Does anyone else share my longstanding affection for this show? To start with, I love the grim countenance shared by virtually all the adult authority figures surrounding Tom. They come across like authentic nineteenth-century figures --- quick with a hickory rod or a thimble thump to the head, cold and humorless otherwise. All seem rigid and repressed. Are these small-town denizens out of Mark Twain, or are they more reflective of the grown-up culture Selznick encountered in his boyhood days? Tom is routinely beaten, and none of it’s sugarcoated or played for laughs. Selznick never sidesteps the cruelties these adults visit upon children. Injun Joe is perhaps the most frightening villain in all 30’s film --- a nightmarish visage tempered not a whit by conscience or humanity. His pursuit of Tom and Becky in the cave is the equal of any horror sequence I’ve come across. Many of the settings (designed by William Cameron Menzies) are creepy in the extreme. His graveyard, caverns, austere schoolroom --- all cast a baleful shadow and go a long way toward maintaining tension. Humor in The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer is all the more effective as a counterbalance to the suspense. So many of the best comedies score with that combination (one that comes to mind is Some Like It Hot, similar in several respects to The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer). Tomorrow’s Part Two takes up the reception and rentals on T.A.O.T.S., as well as the extensive restoration that rescued the complete version after sixty plus years.

Part Two on The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer is HERE.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

John, you jogged my memory....back in the 1980s, I had a 35mm IB Technicolor Safety Film print of that picture....too bad I didn't hold on to it.....


9:42 AM  
Anonymous Griff said...

Perhaps MGM (current homevid licensor of the Selznick and ABC libraries) will soon finally release this; the company is stepping up its release sked because of its new distribution deal with Fox.

While I concur with your observation re the mostly wretched 1973 Readers' Digest musical adaptation of SAWYER, I would respectfully point out that Warren Oates is pretty good as Muff Potter in the picture.

10:14 AM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

"Does anyone else share my longstanding affection for this show?" you ask. Good heavens, doesn't everyone share it? If not, it's only because they haven't seen it.

I first saw this one on its 1958 reissue (on the bottom half of a double bill with The Lady Takes a Flyer with Lana Turner and Jeff Chandler; go figure). My dad, with fond memories of seeing it twenty years earlier in his own childhood, took our whole family to see it. My four-year-old brother insisted on a bag of M&Ms from the snack bar, and my dad bought him one just to keep him quiet during the movie. As the lights went down, my brother opened the bag and took out one M&M, pausing to glance at the screen before popping it in his mouth. He sat transfixed for the entire length of the movie, and as the lights came up at the end he sat there, that first M&M still poised in his left hand. (Needless to say, it hadn't melted.)

And yes indeed, how about that Victor Jory -- one of the great movie villains of all time. I'll never forget the look on his face as he climbs the cave wall toward Tom. That night, in my top bunkbed at home, I couldn't sleep -- I was certain I could see Injun Joe's face in the moonlit shadow from our backyard walnut tree across the wall beside me.

You've also jogged my memory, John, by publishing what I believe is the first picture on your site that I've ever seen before. The poster display at the Vogue Theatre in Pittsburg (CA) included that still of Aunt Polly catching Tom (literally) red-handed in the jam closet. It's Tom's first appearance in the book, and I wondered even then why they would have a picture of a scene that wasn't in the movie. My dad pointed at the poster for The Lady Takes a Flyer with Lana and Jeff in a clinch: "You didn't see that in the movie, did you?"

I've shown my own print of TAOTS to kids, as has my uncle Conrad to generations of my aunt's grade-school students, and the movie hasn't dated one bit, thanks largely to that 19th-century authenticity you so aptly cite (why, the San Fernando Valley set even looks like Hannibal, MO). Much credit goes, too, to Tommy Kelly. He later showed himself to be not much of an actor, but he simply is Tom Sawyer. Period.

12:15 PM  

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