Tom Sawyer (Tommy Kelly) is a boisterous boy growing up in St. Petersburg, Missouri near the Mississippi River in 1850, whose boundless mischief stirs endless headaches for his long-suffering guardian, Aunt Polly (May Robson). Between misadventures with his best friend, the good-hearted wastrel Huckleberry Finn (Jackie Moran), and clashes with his odious taddle-tale of a half-brother Sid (David Holt), Tom falls in love with freckle-faced Becky Thatcher (Ann Gillis), daughter of the town’s new judge, though his attempts to impress her routinely end in disaster.
Produced by David O. Selznick, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, remains the definitive screen adaptation of Mark Twain’s timeless tale. Even as early as 1938 there had been several versions of this oft-filmed book, notably the 1930 adaptation with child star Jackie Coogan for which Norman Taurog handled the sequel, Huckleberry Finn (1931) with Coogan reprising the role of Tom. However, the Selznick production is the one to see, shot in lustrous Technicolor by the great James Wong Howe and with Oscar-winning design by William Cameron Menzies, future director of Invaders from Mars (1953), another tale of wide-eyed youth caught in an adventure beyond their wildest imagining.
Almost all of the book’s famous episodes are present and accounted for (e.g. Tom whitewashing the fence, the bible contest, running away with Huck and Joe Harper (Mickey Rentschler) only to witness their own funeral when the whole town thinks they drowned in the river) and brought vividly to life, with only a few minor omissions. Taurog’s lively directorial style compliments Twain’s wry observational humour and the results are often laugh-out-loud funny. Twain’s novel is, among many things, a celebration of boyhood in all its rambunctous glory but as is proven by the caning episode and subsequent darker events, the author was under no delusions that childhood was all sweetness and light. After an episodic first third, the narrative strengthens when Tom and Huck see Injun Joe (Victor Jory) stab Doc Robinson (Roland Drew) to death in the midst of a grave robbery. With the blame lain on affable town drunk, Muff Potter (an affecting turn from Walter Brennan), it falls to Tom to step forward and do the right thing.
Taurog imbues both the graveyard murder and nerve-wracking climax, with Tom and Becky trapped inside a collapsed cave with the malevolent Injun Joe, with the brooding intensity of a child’s worst nightmare. Kelly’s haunted expression in the aftermath of the atrocity speaks volumes for lost innocence, while his life-or-death struggle at the finale carries a palpable frisson of psychological peril. Young Kelly is pitch-perfect as Tom, the embodiment of irrepressible youth. He delivers a performance so emotive and naturalistic it is hard to fathom why he never found a level of stardom comparable to Jackie Coogan.
Norman Taurog was famed for his skill with child actors, often rewarding a good take with a bar of chocolate. In which case the kids must have had their fill, given performances are strong across the board including Jackie Moran as Huck Finn, David Holt as Sid, Ann Gillis as Becky and Marcia Mae Jones, cast as Tom’s cousin Mary after a growth spurt cost her the role of Becky. Meanwhile a well-chosen roster of reliable character actors perfectly encapsulate Twain’s well-drawn supporting players. The heart of the film remains Tom’s strained yet ultimately loving relationship with Aunt Polly whom veteran actress May Robson imbues with just the right balance of tenderness and exasperation.