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, this 1938 rendition is one of the select few that do. The acting is first class; the directing often innovative, and the whimsical screenplay is faithful as possible to 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 likeable 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.
Film Rating: *** out of **** stars.
A must-view for all devout Twainians!