The Reader’s Digest adaptations of two Mark Twain classics – Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn – may not match one another in quality, but both offer tuneful versions of the familiar stories that fans of the songwriters or the original author won’t want to miss.
The Production: 3.5/5
Mark Twain’s two unadulterated classics The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn were both brought to the screen in musicalized form under the auspices of Reader’s Digest in 1973 and 1974, each produced by Hollywood veteran Arthur P. Jacobs and featuring scores by the Oscar-winning Sherman brothers. Tom Sawyer had received a wonderful film treatment courtesy of David O. Selznick in 1938 while Huckleberry Finn had had several screen treatments, none of them completely satisfying. Likewise, these musical versions follow the same pattern: Tom Sawyer is lively, tuneful, and a great deal of fun while Huckleberry Finn seems like, once again, a missed opportunity with its less appealing score and a trundling narrative and flat direction that fail to hold our interest.
Tom Sawyer – 4.5/5
The episodic nature of Tom Sawyer’s (Johnny Whitaker) story is captured wonderfully well with all of the book’s highlights featured: scalawag Tom’s clever way of getting Aunt Polly’s (Celeste Holm) fence whitewashed, Tom and Huck’s (Jeff East) witnessing of the murder of Dr. Robinson (Richard Eastham) in the cemetery by the vicious Injun Joe (Kunu Hank) and the subsequent trial of Muff Potter (Warren Oates, vocals by Billy Strange) for the crime, Tom and Huck watching their own funeral, and the climactic cave adventure with Tom and sweetheart Becky Thatcher (Jodie Foster) fleeing for their lives from the vengeful Injun Joe.
Robert B. Sherman and Richard M. Sherman have not only contributed the jaunty song score for the movie but also provided the screenplay which moves beautifully and manages to sustain the adventurous mood of childhood that Tom experiences throughout its running time. Director Don Taylor likewise does a fine job meshing the musical moments with purely dramatic ones with only one curious choice: the Fourth of July celebration montage features the song “Holiday in Hannibal, Mo.” on the soundtrack with various characters singing bits of it as in a standard production number, but the on-screen images are done strictly in montage with no one singing along to the tune (contrast that to “Independence Day” in Summer Holiday which has the same feeling but is done as a more standard production number). Elsewhere, though, the songs really fit the spirit of the movie whether they’re done as interior monologues or sung for the screen: Charley Pride’s nostalgically melancholy “River Song” to get things started, the title song warbled by an exasperated Aunt Polly and her children Mary and Sid over Tom’s array of shenanigans, the spirited “Gratifaction” sung by the boys during the whitewashing sequence, Huck and Tom’s sprightly “Freebootin’” while living the high life on the island, Muff Potter’s delightful philosophy of life “A Man’s Gotta Be,” and Tom’s two emotional expressions, one of love (“How Come?”) and one of lament over his lot in life (“If’n I Was God”).
You couldn’t ask for finer performances. Johnny Whitaker is cherub-like in his innocent mischievousness as Tom, never malicious or mean-spirited, and Jeff East as Huckleberry Finn matches him in manner and appeal. Celeste Holm returns to musicals after a long, long screen absence and scores beautifully as Aunt Polly, annoyed that she can’t tame the rambunctious Tom but never giving up hope for his salvation. Warren Oates is a great Muff Potter, and his amusing song montage as he tours Hannibal rooting out his hidden liquor stashes is one of the film’s highlights. Jodie Foster pops in and out as Becky Thatcher to good effect, and Kunu Hank’s Injun Joe is just as ruthless as one would expect him to be.
Huckleberry Finn – 2.5/5
After learning that his Pap (Gary Merrill) is demanding $1,000 from the Widder Douglas (Lucille Benson) for her to continue to be his guardian and knowing that the only way she could raise that kind of money would be to sell her slave Jim (Paul Winfield), Huckleberry Finn (Jeff East) and Jim hop on a raft and head downriver toward Cairo, Illinois, where Jim will be a free man. On the river, the duo have a series of adventures from getting involved in a family feud between the Grangerfords and the Sheppertons to meeting up with a couple of con men who claim to be the King of France (Harvey Korman) and the Duke of Bridgewater (David Wayne) and who are out to fleece some wealthy heirs out of their fortune by pretending to be their relatives from England.
The Sherman brothers’ screenplay and tunes for this adaptation can’t come close to capturing Twain’s rather savage satire on the morals and ethics of the era, managing only a surface treatment of its darker themes while including only some of the highlights from Twain’s masterpiece. Huck’s song “What’s Right; What’s Wrong” comes the closest to dealing with the constant struggle with his conscience which runs throughout the book, but Jeff East isn’t a powerful enough singer to plumb its depths to any great degree. As in most screen versions of the novel, the King and the Duke steal the show once they appear, and here they’re given the two best songs in the show: “Royalty” and “The Royal Nonesuch,” both delightfully performed by Harvey Korman and David Wayne. The other tunes, including Roberta Flack’s song “Freedom” behind the opening and closing credits, are rather mediocre and not up to the Sherman brothers’ lofty standards. (The work wouldn’t be fully realized until Roger Miller musicalized the book for the stage as Big River.) And J. Lee Thompson’s direction is even less impressive making the film’s three action set pieces: the feud sequence, the unveiling of the King and Duke, and Jim’s escape from slave traders underwhelming and somewhat desultory in spirit rather than the high spots in the film.
The casting is just fine. Jeff East is earnest and well-meaning as the title character, and Paul Winfield makes for a loving and loyal Jim. Harvey Korman and David Wayne act up a storm as the over-the-top King and Duke. Gary Merrill is certainly scary enough as the drunken, brutish Pap (even if his song “Rotten Luck” is a bare snippet of melody), and veteran Arthur O’Connell is all smarmy insincerity as the head of the Grangerford clan.
3D Rating: NA
Tom Sawyer – 4.5/5 Huckleberry Finn – 3.5/5
Both films are presented in their original Panavision aspect ratios of 2.35:1 with 1080p resolution using the AVC codec. Tom Sawyer looks mostly smashing. Apart from a few infrequent specks, the image is lovely with excellent sharpness and vivid color reproduction including believable and appealing skin tones. Black levels in the cave sequence are also very good. Huckleberry Finn is plagued by many more dust and debris artifacts. Sharpness isn’t as striking here either, and color is sometimes unwieldy with skin tones that seem oversaturated and a bit hot and a slightly darker color timing to the entire image. Each movie has been divided into 24 chapters.
Tom Sawyer – 5/5 Huckleberry Finn – 4/5
Tom Sawyer offers three DTS-HD Master Audio tracks: 2.0 stereo, 4.0, and 5.1. The latter is by far the most impressive, and the spread of the orchestra through the fronts and rears is really outstanding. Dialogue and song lyrics are always clearly recorded and easy to understand, and atmospheric effects are well placed in this expanded mix (it’s also the default mix on the disc). Huckleberry Finn offers a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo mix. It’s perfectly fine throughout with no age-related artifacts to mar its presentation, but it’s less impressive once the track to Tom Sawyer is experienced, and lyrics and dialogue aren’t always as well recorded or presented in this track.
Special Features: 4.5/5
Audio Commentary: two commentaries are available on Tom Sawyer, one with director Don Taylor and the Sherman brothers reminiscing entertainingly about the making of the movie and a more recent track with producer Bruce Kimmel questioning and conversing amiably with Richard M. Sherman about both musicals (but more about Tom Sawyer).
Isolated Score Tracks: each film offers its score in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo.
“River Song” Featurette (10:03, SD): a promotional featurette featuring some behind-the-scenes shots of the movie in progress, some song excerpts from Tom Sawyer, and a few bits of information about the original book.
Rehearsal with John Williams and the Sherman Brothers (2:21, SD): the brothers and arranger/conductor John Williams discuss the placement of some numbers in the script.
Theatrical Trailers: Tom Sawyer – 3:08, SD; Huckleberry Finn – 2:11, HD
Six-Page Booklet: contains some color stills from both films, original poster art for the films on the back cover, and movie historian Julie Kirgo’s enthusiastic analyses of the movies.
The Reader’s Digest adaptations of two Mark Twain classics – Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn – may not match one another in quality, but both offer tuneful versions of the familiar stories that fans of the songwriters or the original author won’t want to miss, and two movies for the price of one is a very good deal indeed. There are only 3,000 copies of this Blu-ray available. Those interested in purchasing it should go to either www.twilighttimemovies.com or www.screenarchives.com to see if product is still in stock. Information about the movie can also be found via Facebook at www.facebook.com/twilighttimemovies.