M ark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is one of those childhood classics that can enjoyed by children and adults alike, the former identifying with the mischievous Tom and the latter enjoying Twain’s mastery of his craft as well as an idealized version of childhood as viewed through the lens of nostalgia. Norman Taurog’s 1938 version of Twain’s story, the first to be shot in color, will satisfy both audiences as long as they’re willing to make allowances for Hollywood conventions during the studio years.
One thing I love about these old-fashioned movies is their assumption that reading books (or having them read to you) is part of the shared audience experience. While Adventures doesn’t use the familiar trope of a book opening on screen, it does open with a title card suggesting that the story to come travelled “…out of the heart of Mark Twain, into the hearts of the world…” and follows the opening credits with a quotation from Twain’s preface: “Part of my plan has been to try to pleasantly remind adults of what they once were themselves, and of how they felt and thought and talked, and what queer enterprises they sometimes engaged in.” Which is to say—this story is set in child world, and it respects that world. If you are of an age to have put aside childish things, you can still enjoy remembering what it was like when child world was your world, and you knew no other.
Of course, Adventures gives us the movie studio version of child world (actually boy world, but that’s Twain’s novel as well as Hollywood), so there’s an extra layer of syrupy sweetness laid over the story. The anachronistic cringe factor is also present—non-white characters are relegated to comic relief or menace, little girls exist to be pretty and to scream in fright, and questionable child-rearing practices like hitting kids in the head are on display—but that is par for the course for a studio film of the era.
The delights of Adventures are the delights of a well-made studio film. The costumes (by Walter Plunkett) and art direction (by Lyle Wheeler, with an assist from William Cameron Menzies; they were nominated for an Academy Award for their work on this film) are wonderful, as is James Wong Howe’s cinematography. The screenplay (by John V.A. Weaver) is designed to delight a mainstream audience and consists series of self-contained scenes including most of the memorable episodes from Twain’s novel—whitewashing the fence, scamming the Sunday School superintendent, dosing the cat, attending your own funeral, and of course Tom and Becky’s adventures in the (amazingly well-lit) cave.
Familiar actors plus a talented newcomer appear in key roles. Tommy Kelly, who was selected through a nationwide talent search (a genius act of publicity by the Selznick organization, and one which they would repeat for Gone with the Wind), carries the film as Tom. Rather surprisingly, given his performance in this film, Kelly didn’t have much of a career in Hollywood and gave it up to become an educator. Other cast members include May Robson as Aunt Polly, Walter Brennan as Muff Potter, Donald Meek as the Sunday School superintendent, Victor Jory as “Injun Joe”, and Margaret Hamilton as Mrs. Harper. | Sarah Boslaugh
Two versions of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer are included on the disc—the 91-minute cut and the shortened (77 min.) 1954 reissue. The only other extra are the trailers for this and three other films.