Twain’s Boyhood World, Selznick-Produced



The title card and poster, which also serve as cover image for Kino Lorber’s recent Blu-ray, read “David O. Selznick’s Production of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”, so right away we the viewer know who’s responsible. Twain’s boyhood world evokes a mythic past of white-washed fences, slate-sketched teacher caricatures, colorful Bible prizes, nighttime graveyards, pirate islands, the low company of a parentless wild boy, and most of all the great river, the mighty Mississippi, running through it; David O.Selznick’s 1938 Technicolor production attempts to give each their most vivid screen realization and largely succeeds.

In its 91-minute original version and 77-minute 1954 re-issue, both dutifully presented by Kino Lorber in high definition, the curly-headed mischief, overabundant glee, and good intentions hidden away beneath it all of Twain’s title hero are evident in young discovery Tommy Kelly’s frequent breaks into face- and closeup-length grins. Tom Sawyer, both as character and story, is best described as irrepressible, and producer Selznick, frequent children’s director Norman Taurog (who earlier led young Jackie Cooper to stardom in 1931’s Skippy and later in 1938 made Boys Town) and their faithful interpretation of the straw-hatted, thread-torn, treasure-seeking, steadfast companion to Huckleberry Finn – the hogshead barrel-residing, corncob pipe-smoking son of the town drunk – is in his best screen translation exactly the sort of kid one couldn’t long stay mad at even after he blithely shows up to his own funeral.

“Y-o-u-u Tom!” The backporch screechings of Tom’s Aunt Polly (May Robson) across the town center and out towards the swimming hole open the nostalgic reveries of 1840’s St. Petersburg, Missouri to follow, as they do in the 1876 novel, and the episodic cameos into the life of an unremarkable remarkable American boy take shape with both the rigorously-produced ease of familiarity and the screen-immediate vitality of its presentation. In Aunt Polly’s strict but loving home, odious half-brother Sid (David Holt) is there to impugn our hero, saintly cousin Mary (Marcia May Jones) is there to rush to his constant defense; while in town and out to the river beyond, the draw of the civilizing agent of youth, Becky Thatcher (Ann Gillis), offers dreams of nobility even as its rambunctious spirit of adventure, Huckleberry Finn (Jackie Moran), tempts with continuous opportunities for escape.

One need but mention fence-painting, creek-swimming, the graveyard horrors of poor Muff Potter (Walter Brennan) and evil Injun Joe (Victor Jory), pirate-adventuring and one’s own funeral-witnessing, and finally a halcyon Sunday school picnic turned into a terrifying ordeal through depths of a deep cave’s bottomless chasms, for scenes from the sole assigned reading in eighth grade English one actually enjoyed to cast vivid color images against one’s retinal imagination and memory. The best compliment one can pay the 1938 The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in its textually accurate plot of painstaking plotlessness is that viewing the film for the first time is not very unlike having those indelible mental pictures, created by a long-ago read, visually confirmed and reinforced by Hollywood, Technicolor, and David O. Selznick.

And it is undoubtedly the last to which we owe much of the success, among countless adaptations starting from 1917 (which starred Mary Pickford’s brother, Jack), for the faultless-to-a-fault screen aesthetic of taste, sensibility, and obsession to detail that would find its apotheosis of expression in the concurrent Big “O.” production, released the following year, of Gone With The Wind (1939). Among the 1938 Tom Sawyer’s many memorable set-pieces – including the gut-wrenchingly hilarious demonstration, courtesy of aptly-named character actor Donald Meek, of Tom’s Biblical ignorance at Sunday School; the carefree “pirate’s island” escapades of Tom, Huck, and Ben Rogers and its river-dragging, funeral-convening fallout; the true terrors of the perspective-distorting, William Cameron Menzies-designed cave sequence – the actual broadstrokes of Mark Twain’s curling scrawl not only “signs” the film’s credit sequence but also appears onscreen (as it has in every edition of the book since its publication) in Tom’s heartfelt, handwritten letter of apology to his long-suffering Aunt Polly. David O. Selznick meticulously recreates each scene to justify his above-the-author-and-title credit.

Sam Clemens at fifteen…

…Mark Twain posing at his writing desk.

“To a fault”, I add, as the objective camera view of Missouri, slave-era boyhood too perfectly replicates the wittily-detached, third-person narrator composing pellucid prose in his Hartford, Connecticut mansion. At thirty years’ distance and at least four or five steps up the social ladder, Samuel Langhorne Clemens as an American literary establishment, its greatest humorist, was then a literal far cry from the tender wooly-headed steamboat apprentice sounding “Mark Twain!” down the Mississippi at two fathoms of river depth. In that latter spirit, breaking some similarly “established” film criticism directives against including personal anecdotes in a review, while simultaneously breaking its supposed “fourth wall” of “objective” narration, my own childhood visit to Twain’s actual, museum-preserved boyhood home in Hannibal, Missouri demonstrated, as a latterday tourist trap, the inevitable nostalgic “cheat” (in Ernest Hemingway’s word) of a rich writer applying a thin veneer of gilding over the starker realities and harsher inequities of his upbringing.

It would take a solid decade of struggle with the untamable voice of that story-world’s unvarnished, intractably truth-telling outcast to expose the central lie of those glowing years of Tom Sawyer’s boyhood, and I mention it here to show where precisely Mark Twain’s and David O. Selznick’s visions diverge: at the 1885 publication of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. One may say, reverting to the unobjectionably objective form of home video reviewing – and thus the Sam Clemens style of acceptably “removed” narration – that 1930s cinema, its spoon-fed audience, and “O.”-style production values were not prepared for the complexity of vision unleashed by a thirteen-year-old river rat damning himself to hell to save a friend and fellow being from the injustice of slavery.

Aunt Polly’s slave-boy Little Jim (Philip Hurlic)

In the words of that later first-person narrator, speaking of his companion volume’s narrator, “Mr. Mark Twain”: “…he told the truth, mainly.” And it is that significant adverb that simultaneously marks 1938’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer as both an unimpeachable literary adaptation and a feature-length sham. Always beyond reproach in terms of pure filmmaking, the whiz of a knife past his young star’s cheek a keenly-felt moment among many, there is in the final analysis an inescapable abundance of Samuel Langhorne Clemens and an attending paucity of Mark Twain in every production bearing the mark of David O. Selznick quality. With that last word, finally, one may enjoy the former only until the latter is kicked out the back door and thrown out into the gutter of lavishly-produced, studio-recreated St. Petersburg: the humble hogshead being the sole refuge of the truly honest boy.

The images of the film used in this review are credited to DVD Beaver and are taken directly from Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray.