29 June 2011 | robert-temple-1
Down by the riverside
Mark Twain's novel TOM SAWYER has been filmed many times for the cinema and for television. It was made into a silent film in 1917, and this film of 1930 was the second film of the novel, and the first sound version. Many more films of the story would follow. The action is set in the year 1850 in St. Petersburg (now known simply as St. Peters), Missouri, on the banks of the Mississippi River. As the film starts, we see an authentic paddlewheel river boat travelling along the River, past the wharves of the town, which still existed in 1930 (although what town was actually used for these shots is unknown; most of the action is simply filmed in a Hollywood studio). The DVD which I obtained of this rare film from vintagefilmbuff.com was of a severely faded print, which in many shots faded almost to invisibility, and which also had poor sound. This film is badly in need of digital remastering. At the time of release in 1930, and indeed for another 25 years afterwards, no literate American viewer would have been unfamiliar with the famous book and its episodes, and most would have read it. Although Mark Twain's lasting classics are HUCKLBERRY FINN (the central character of which also appears as Tom's friend in TOM SAWYER) and LIFE ON THE MISSISSIPPI, the far more accessible and appealing book of his at the time the film was made was TOM SAWYER, which contained a simple narrative of the antics and adventures of the mischievous and lovable scamp, Tom Sawyer, an orphan boy living with his maiden aunt, Aunt Polly. The many quaint exclamations by Aunt Polly in the film such as 'Stars above!', 'Botheration!', and 'Ain't nobody gonna tell me
' are perfectly authentic speech of the Old South, though they probably haven't been uttered since the 1950s. John Cromwell, who directed this film, was born in 1887 in Toledo, Ohio, and although he was therefore not a Southerner by any means, he was old enough to remember the era of Mark Twain's peak popularity vividly and have a feel for it. The film is mostly the story of the children of the riverside town. Tom himself is described as 'a child of nature', and he goes around barefoot with a tattered straw hat and ripped trousers, though he is a model of haute couture compared to his friend Huck Finn, the outcast boy, whose father is a hopeless drunk and who lives without a family in obscure poverty. If there had been a railroad in the town, he would have been described as coming 'from the wrong side of the tracks', since in Southern towns it was always the railway at the edge of the town which formed the boundary between the town itself and the depressing penumbra of impoverished outsiders living beyond it in tumbledown houses or shacks who were not accepted in the town's 'proper society' and were treated as social outcasts. The respectable people of the town of Tom Sawyer spurn Huck, but that does not deter Tom one bit from making him his best friend. Tom is played by Jackie Coogan, and Huck by Junior Durkin. Coogan does well, although Durkin is not particularly good and even succeeds in making Huck boring, which takes a lot of lack of talent to manage to do! This was Durkin's first film, aged 16, and he played Huck the next year in HUCKLEBERRY FINN (1931). By 1935 he had left the acting profession. Since Durkin was a New Yorker, casting him as Huckleberry Finn was an absurdity. He spoke wrong, he looked wrong, and he behaved wrong. The best child actor in the film was Mitzi Green, who played Becky Thatcher, the girl Tom has a crush on. Even though she came from the Bronx and also spoke wrong, everything else about her was perfect. Her facial expressions are priceless. She was only ten years old when she made TOM SAWYER. She went on acting until 1952 but died prematurely of cancer at the age of only 48. Coogan was 16 at the time of the film. Both he and Mitzi Green carried over, with Durkin, into the sequel HUCKLEBERRY FINN the next year. Coogan acted right up until 1984, the year he died, appearing in 138 films. This film is a low-budget production made without a great deal of care, but it conveys much which is authentic and charming, and gives us something of Twain's vision, if only because it is so unpretentious, just as life in that small town was also in those days gone by. Anyone who enjoys American nostalgia would find something in this film. And for those interested in Mark Twain, whose real name was Samuel Clemens, I can reveal that he claimed to be a direct descendant of the English regicide Gregory Clement, who signed the Death Warrant of King Charles I. Clement was a Member of Parliament and one of the wealthiest men in England in his day. He earned his fortune by trading in India, where he lived for years during the reign of Shah Jehan, who built the Taj Mahal. When next thinking of the fondness Mark Twain had of the simple life, which he recorded so lovingly in his writings, bear in mind that his ancestor was personally acquainted with the tyrannical and brutal ruler who built one of the most famous tourist monuments in the world, which is possibly the most extravagant ever constructed. Clement became so disgusted with monarchy as a result of the excesses of Shah Jehan and his Court, that he did not hesitate to join in cutting off the head of his own minor tyrant at home, the tiny tot (only 4 feet 11 inches tall), Charles I. Never cross a Clement or Clemens! Or should I say, regarding a Clement and a king, and you Mark my words: 'Never the Twain shall meet?'