I am posting this review on behalf of Dave Thomson who wrote it.
VIDEO REVIEW: _Tom Sawyer_. Hollywood: Library of Moving Images, 2000.
44 minutes. (Rerelease of 1917 silent film directed by William Desmond
Taylor for Paramount.) Price and ISBN not yet available.
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Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
Dave Thomson <[log in to unmask]>
Copyright (c) 2000 Mark Twain Forum. This review may not be published or
redistributed in any medium without permission.
The first motion picture adaptation of Mark Twain's 1876 novel _Adventures
of Tom Sawyer_ was produced as the silent film called simply _Tom Sawyer_
in 1917 starring Mary Pickford's younger brother Jack in the title role and
William Desmond Taylor directing. A newly restored and scored version of
this adaptation produced by The Library of Moving Images Inc. will soon be
released on video tape and is now currently on tour accompanied by a four
piece chamber ensemble. This musical score, written by Maria Newman and
performed by the Kairos String Quartet provides the soundtrack for the
video tape. Well intended, the score is very high brow in a sort of
vintage avant garde style vaguely reminiscent of Igor Stravinsky's
beautiful musical accompaniment for _Histoire du Soldat_ (A Soldier's Tale)
written in 1918. Newman's score for _Tom Sawyer_ is so strong that it
sometimes overwhelms the viewer/listener. The ideal score for a silent film
performs as an unobtrusive supporting player. Achieving that delicate
balance can't be an easy endeavor.
_Tom Sawyer_ is actually the first of two films which, if they were
combined, would make a more representative version of the novel. _Tom
Sawyer_ is devoted to the more light-hearted episodes of the story and
concludes with Tom, Huck and Joe showing up at their own "funeral". The
second film _Huck and Tom_ made the following year (1918) included many of
the cast members from _Tom Sawyer_ and tackled the more melodramatic plot
lines of Tom and Huck witnessing the murder by Injun Joe, the framing of
Muff Potter and Tom's testimony that vindicates Potter. _Huck and Tom_
concludes with the boys discovering Injun Joe's treasure and sets up the
third film in the trilogy _Huckleberry Finn_ in which Tom and Huck would be
played by different actors (1920). All three films were Paramount
releases directed by William Desmond Taylor and scripted by Julia Crawford
What the film makers decided to film they did by the book and scenario
writer Ivers stuck very closely to the original narrative, editing and
embroidering it where she saw fit but respecting the material. Certain
sequences of this new version were personally tinted by producer Elaina B.
Archer. Blue tinting is her favorite, but it is used sparingly. The
bluish main titles over painted generic landscape cards proclaim: "Jack
Pickford in Mark Twain's Great American Classic 'Tom Sawyer'. By
arrangement with Mark Twain Company, Copyright 1917 by Oliver Morosco
Photoplay Company. Directed by William Desmond Taylor."
The prologue scene shows an elderly actor with receding white hair,
mustache and white suit playing Mark Twain sitting at his desk in a
darkened study--never mind that Clemens was only forty when he finished
writing Tom Sawyer. Suddenly a miniaturized Jack Pickford as a barefooted
Tom materializes sitting on a stack of books or something (it's a very
darkened study.) Twain does a "take" but quickly gets down to business and
starts writing. Tom obligingly offers this titantic old Twain a bite of
his apple as he swings his legs cheerfully. A title is superimposed over
him: "Tom Sawyer who is not the model boy of the village." Suddenly we
are into the first chapter of the book, but we have come in too late to see
the crime for which Aunt Polly is punishing Tom--probably stealing jam.
Edythe Chapman plays Aunt Polly as the character incarnate--bespectacled
and aproned. When she hams it up she's likable so you forgive her
excesses. Tom eludes his Aunt, sprints through the jimson weed-choked
garden and escapes over the high board fence. Looking for trouble he finds
it in the person of the dandified Alfred Temple (Carl Goetz) who is
designated "the model boy of the village," though in the book he was a
stranger, new to the village. Faithful to Mark Twain's narrative, the boys
circle one another and exchange challenges; then Tom elaborately draws a
line in the dirt with his big toe and Alfred obliges him by crossing it.
Alfred gets thrashed with a vengeance by a virile Tom--a real cat fight
filled "with dust and glory" concluding with Alfred face down in the dirt
and Tom perched on his back demanding that he "holler 'nuff'". This is a
no holds barred event--partly because Jack Pickford was twenty-one years
old when the picture was made and pretty much "growed up"--so the
supporting cast of children had to be at the very least adolescents to be
in scale to him. (A very tall man is cast to play the school master but
he's not a character actor like you would expect, his height was what
qualified him.) Not that this sort of casting was uncommon in the silent
film era--in the same year 1917 Jack's sister Mary at age twenty-four
played little girl Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.
During the encounter with Alfred Temple we are introduced to Huckleberry
Finn (Robert Gordon) who sits nearby and witnesses the massacre. Huck is
the most overblown character in an otherwise fairly understated cast.
Dressed in an exaggerated ragged costume reminiscent of burlesque theater
and grinning a gap-toothed daft smile, Huck sits watching the fight,
holding a watermelon under one arm. Huck's hat has the remnants of a brim
left; mostly just a shabby crown. After Alfred has been vanquished, the
retreating boy hurls a rock at Tom's back and Tom chases him home where
Alfred torments him from inside the house while his mother remonstrates Tom
with, "You're a bad, vicious child!" (Or young hoodlum judging by his size
and temperment.) To celebrate Tom's victory Huck breaks his watermelon in
half and splits it with the champion.
Next day Tom is assigned his whitewashing punishment. Aunt Polly's young
slave Jim, who is as big as Tom, walks up with an empty bucket on his way
to the pump and is waylaid and tempted by Tom as a candidate to do the
whitewashing. Jim demurs until the unveiling of Tom's sore toe proves to be
more than he can resist and he bends over to survey this wonder. In a nice
bit of staging we see Polly come out of the house, size up the situation
and put quite a bit of effort into removing one of her slippers. Thus she
telegraphs Jim's fate--Polly has his rear end in her sites and follows
through with style. After Jim runs off, Polly elaborately replaces the
slipper on her foot and goes back inside.
The part Mark Twain wrote for Ben Rogers is replaced by Joe Harper as Tom's
first whitewashing victim. Joe is played by Antrim Short who bears a
striking resemblance to young Ron Howard during his "Happy Days" stint.
Pickford does a lovely job playing Tom as an absorbed artist lost in the
sheer ecstasy of creative expression as he swipes the brush on the fence as
if it indeed was a joy to do. Joe Harper has to coax Tom into sharing this
privilege at which point scenarist Ivers indulges in a little inflationary
language as she expands Twain's original dialogue from "there ain't a boy
in a thousand, maybe too thousand, that can do it the way it's got to be
done" to "ain't one boy in a thousand, maybe a hun'red thousand." Huck
Finn once again shows up as spectator, watching Tom fleecing at least eight
boys that we see on screen who all divest themselves of some of their
boyish treasures for their turn as whitewash artists. Once his victims
have gone, Tom gloats over his booty and laughs with not a little contempt
at those gullible fools. During this and several other closeups the camera
irises in on the actor's face, another stylistic feature peculiar to the
silent cinema along with its narrative and dialogue title cards. Director
Taylor displayed a fully developed style of shooting and editing that is
still in vogue today and it is remarkable to see it fully employed in 1917.
After Tom's whitewashing triumph he walks back into Polly's house, hides
his treasure and finds his Aunt just as Twain described her sleeping in a
chair with her cat in her lap. Tom takes Polly outside and she responds
with a hands up "take" of shock and disbelief. She escorts him back into
the kitchen and rewards him with an apple while Tom clandestinely "hooks"
two doughnuts. Here Ivers took Twain's mention of Polly's "happy
scriptural flourish" and gives her the line, "What you earn by honest
effort and without sin has the best flavor."
Footloose and fancy free Tom roams the neighborhood and spots Clara Horton
as Becky Thatcher picking daisies in the front yard of her home. Clara was
in sore need of one of those cinematographers who specialized in glamor
photography. She is filmed in harsh sunlight in a Baby Jane wig with
braids and decked out in a wedding cake dress and full length pantalettes
which make it hard to look demure. The whole effect is quite unflattering
and you are left to wonder what charm this Becky holds for Tom. Tom throws
a few cartwheels and retrieves with his toes a daisy Becky coquettishly
dropped for him.
Sunday finds Tom being forced to wash up and don the same ridiculous
apparel that his fellow Sunday school students wear--a tight waist length
roundabout--and crowned with a precious beribboned little straw hat. The
fact that the actors are too old to be dressed this way underscores the
absurdity. Tom parlays his whitewashing booty to buy out the prize tickets
that will earn him the coveted Bible and squirms with embarrassment when he
misidentifies David and Goliath as the first two apostles in front of Becky
and her father Judge Thatcher. In a departure from the original text the
Widow Douglas is introduced as Tom's Sunday school teacher in this sequence
although she won't have anything else to do until she appears in the two
Monday morning Tom tries to avoid going to school by claiming a toothache.
Straight from the book--Polly ties one end of a string to Tom's tooth and
the other end to the bed post. She's about to shove the flaming end of some
firewood in his face to complete the procedure when there is an
inexplicable cut to Huck Finn outside shooting at something off screen with
his sling shot. In the following shot Tom surveys his tooth dangling from
the string. The set dressing in Polly's home is unusual--an elaborate
cooking stove which probably post dates the Civil War is a prominent
fixture and Polly's four poster (in which Cousin Mary also sleeps) is in
the same room with the stove.
A following scene finds Tom arriving late to school and confessing that he
was delayed for stopping to talk to the forbidden Huck Finn. He is
walloped on the shoulders by the schoolmaster with something that looks
like a small sagebrush before being sent to sit with the girls, Becky
Thatcher in particular. When Tom writes "I love you" on his slate for
Becky, he is caught by the teacher and made to sit disgraced in front of
the class wearing a dunce cap. During the noon hour Tom and Becky stay in
the classroom and Tom quickly proposes an engagement, chases Becky around
on top of the benches before getting the promised kiss, then blunders by
confessing a previous engagement to Amy Lawrence. Becky's rejection is the
first of several events that bruise his boyish feelings. At supper Sid
breaks the sugar bowl and Tom waits for "that pet model Sid" to get
punished by Polly at last. Instead Polly hits Tom upside the head
naturally assuming he was the culprit. Crushed, Tom retreats to Becky's
house and lies down below Becky's window where he is unceremoniously
drenched by a bowl of water thrown out by a black servant.
Another scene finds Tom crossing paths with Joe Harper and the two decide
to visit Huck Finn at his "home"--a big old empty "hogshead." As they
approach we see tobacco smoke from Huck's corn cob pipe wafting out between
the barrel staves--the movie's funniest sight gag. Tom drafts his buddies
to join him in piracy and dubs Huck "The Red Handed" at which point Finn
surveys his own left hand to verify the claim. The boys commandeer a raft
on the shores of the "Mississippi" (probably the Sacramento River in
California which closely resembles Old Man River in many places and
consequently became a favorite stand-in for Hollywood film makers.) This
sequence is obviously meant to take place at night but was shot in broad
daylight; however, the audience is not supposed to notice. At "2 AM" the
boys land on Jackson's Island and inexplicably let the raft float away
though they don't hesitate to jump in and swim in the river the next day.
A propeller driven steam lugger (a rare vessel for that stretch of the
Mississippi at this early date) discovers the abandoned raft miles down the
river and the boys are presumed to have been drowned. Back on the island
Huck watches with demented glee as Tom and Joe puff away on their first
corn cob pipes and then stagger away to be sick.
That night Tom makes his stealthy visit home but decides not to leave a
message for his Aunt when he learns of the memorial service planned for him
and his companions. Tom returns to the island and plots their auspicious
return to the village. On the day of the funeral the congregation is
properly broken up and the minister appropriately dumbfounded when the
three drowned boys brazenly and unhesitatingly march down the aisle of the
church to be reunited with their families. Widow Douglas hugs and kisses
Huck and he grimaces with distaste at this unwelcome attention. The choir
sings; Becky reconciles with Tom; and Huck, wiping the Widow's kisses off
his face, beats a skulks out of the church grinning like a feral animal.
Tom and Becky hold the same hymnal and sing as we iris out. The End.
A review in the 1918 _Moving Picture Review_ stated, "Jack Pickford was
simply beyond compare. To see him is to see the original Tom with all his
gay impishness brought back to life." _Variety_ echoed this appraisal
with, "The fresh young kid to the life."
It is evident that The Library of Moving Images wants to reintroduce Jack
Pickford to today's audiences and bring him out from under the shadow of
his famous sister Mary Pickford. In an accompanying biographical film also
produced by A Library of Moving Images called _In Mary's Shadow: The Story
of Jack Pickford_ there is a tantalizing clip of a smaller Jack playing a
real boy at age fourteen in 1910--at which point he would have been ideally
suited to portray Tom Sawyer; but alas, seven years would roll by and the
boy became a womanizing, hard drinking young man who had just married the
beautiful actress Olive Thomas in 1916. His worldliness shows despite a coy
childishness which he effects in an almost creepy way as when he first
glimpses Becky Thatcher and nibbles on his apple rather suggestively.
However, the restoration and scoring of this new rerelease are a labor of
love and whet one's appetite for the two sequels.
Jack Pickford and Robert Gordon would reprise their roles in _Huck and Tom_
(1918). Frank Lanning would play Injun Joe. In 1920 Frank Lanning would
play Pap Finn in _Huckleberry Finn_, the final installment of the trilogy
in which Huck was played by Lewis Sargent and Tom by Gordon Griffith.
Director William Desmond Taylor was shot to death on February 1, 1922 in
his Los Angeles bungalow. No person was ever convicted of the crime. In
1967 film director King Vidor conducted a personal investigation of the
crime. Vidor concluded that a woman named Charlotte Shelby was probably
the guilty party. Shelby was opposed to the relationship Taylor had with
her daughter, actress Mary Miles Minter. Charlotte Shelby died in 1957 and
the crime is still officially unsolved. An extensive account of the Taylor
mystery and Vidor's investigation is given in Sidney D. Fitzpatrick's _A
Cast of Killers_, E.P. Dutton, NY 1986.
About the reviewer:
Dave Thomson has been a Mark Twain aficionado since he read _Tom Sawyer_ at
age twelve in 1958. That same year he made his first trip to Hannibal, MO
and has been a frequent visitor ever since. In 1986 he designed the first
of a series of book jackets for the publications of Hannibal historians
Hurley and Roberta Hagood. Thomson's collection encompasses Mark Twain and
the history of steamboat navigation in the Mississippi valley. He spent 25
years at the Walt Disney Studio planning the photography of animated
features. Some of Dave's graphics can be seen on Barbara Schmidt's Mark
Twain Quotes website.