• Tom Sawyer/Huckleberry Finn

    Released by: Twilight Time
    Released on: July 18, 2017
    Directed by: Don Taylor/J. Lee Thompson
    Cast: Johnny Whitaker, Celeste Holm, Warren Oates, Jeff East, Jodie Foster, Lucille Benson, Henry Jones, Noah Keen, Dub Taylor/Jeff East, Paul Winfield, Harvey Korman, Arthur O’Connell, Gary Merrill, Natalie Trundy, Lucille Benson, Kim O’Brien
    Year: 1973/1974
    Purchase From Screen Archives

    The Movies:

    The adventures of Tom Sawyer were first published as a series of short stories in a newspaper, after which they were collected and printed in novel form in 1876. The book represents one of the earliest—and most successful—attempts at young adult literature, and it was followed by several more: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in 1884, Tom Sawyer Abroad in 1894, and Tom Sawyer, Detective in 1896. Tom is a 12-year-old living with his Aunt Polly in a fictional town based on author Mark Twain’s hometown of Hannibal, Missouri; the character was allegedly based on a heroic fireman whom Twain had met while living in San Francisco, California. The first two books in the series were the most successful, and it was early in cinematic history (1917 to be exact) that Hollywood saw the potential in a film adaptation. For years, the only real “classic” adaptation remained the 1938 film The Adventures of Tom Sawyer from Selznick International Pictures. From that point forward, the character mostly popped up in adaptations of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, often as a minor character (to give credit where credit is due, Huck Finn is considered one of the masterworks of American literature, unlike Tom Sawyer). It wasn’t until 1973 that a film version was released that really did justice to the character, though there had been several decent television adaptations.

    Perhaps the most striking thing about the 1973 film isn’t that it’s the first major film adaptation since 1938, or that it cast a popular and well-known television actor in the lead, or that it cast an at-the-time-unknown Jodie Foster in an important role; it’s that it was a musical, with songs and score written by the Sherman Brothers (Mary Poppins, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) and John Williams (Jaws, Star Wars). Yet, despite these musical powerhouses, the numbers were fairly routine and lackluster. Regardless, the film as a whole works, if mostly for the charming performances of its young leads and the presence of noted thespians such as Celeste Holm and Warren Oates. It certainly has an episodic feel to it, but that works in its favor as it moves swiftly from one thrilling section to the next.

    The writing team followed up Tom Sawyer the very next year with Huckleberry Finn. (It should be noted that both films were planned together and funded by Reader’s Digest, who saw their potential as family-oriented musicals, something that Warner, with whom the project originated, did not.) Unlike its predecessor, however, Huckleberry Finn wasn’t particularly imaginative, thrilling, or entertaining, though it isn’t really terrible either. In a way, the two films present reversals of their literary positions, where Tom Sawyer is considered the lesser work and Huckleberry Finn the masterpiece. That view doesn’t seem particularly fair, given that the first half of Huckleberry Finn is witty and brilliant while the second half, when the “duke” and the “king” are introduced, is dreadful and dull. (There’s a reason for this, but since this is a film review and not a literary dissertation, we won’t go into it, instead leaving it to you the reader to research in your spare time.) The film version isn’t bad by any means, and it does develop the relationship between Huck and Jim that lies at the center of the novel. Performances are good without ever attaining greatness, and direction is serviceable. Regardless, when viewed in the right frame of mind, it’s an interesting and sometimes fun diversion.

    Both films work well when viewed back to back, which is exactly how they are presented here.


    Twilight Time brings Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn to Blu-ray on a single BD50 with a number of audio options and special features. Both films are presented in their original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1 with MPEG-4 AVC encodes in 1080p high definition. With so much information contained on one disc, the question becomes: Do the images suffer? And the answer is a resounding no.

    Tom Sawyer is the sharper of the two films. When it first begins to play, the prevalence of dirt and debris as well as an absence of detail suggests that the film is going to be a chore to watch on a visual level, but after the screen credits have rolled and the story proper settles in, the image really clicks in. Most of the movie takes place outdoors, where a surfeit of foliage reveals rich layers of detail and texture; the image is deep and gorgeous, with a clarity that is rare in films of this vintage and shot on what was likely cheap 35mm film stock. When taken on their own, colors look vivid and beautiful, but pale skin tones suggest that there’s been some fading, which leaves one to wonder how much more beautiful it could possibly be when it looks this good already. Grain is there, but the only time it’s too prevalent is during the opening scene and on a few occasions throughout; most of the time it appears in minor fashion, giving the proceedings a filmic look without overcoming the above-described sharpness. The film is also well lit, even in evening or interior sequences, so there’s no crush, with black levels well modulated. Huckleberry Finn doesn’t fare nearly as well (being the lesser of the two films, it’s obvious MGM never gave it the kind of loving care its sibling received, something that the lack of extras attests to as well). There’s more grain, sometimes too much, and darker scenes are often beset by crush. There’s some dirt and debris and mostly minor defects throughout, though nothing to get upset about. The detail level does pick up as the film progresses, and there are individual scenes that stand out in relief against the rest of the picture because of their clarity. Colors also don’t fare as well as on Tom Sawyer, but one gets the impression that the original color palette was more subdued and earthy here than in the companion film. Both films appear to have had a minor application of DNR in a few spots, but overall this isn’t a problem, as it’s judiciously done. Tom Sawyer has a few scenes shot through a soft-focus filter, and in these cases, the detail level drops a little. Thankfully such scenes are few and far between. On the other hand, some sort of filter was also used for Huckleberry Finn (though being directed by someone else, the filter also appears to have been different), with the result that there are scenes that feature weird lines running through them. In either case, however, compression itself is not a problem, and there’s no artifacting to report. (If only every label would use BD50s.)

    For Tom Sawyer, Twilight Time offers a number of audio choices for aural connoisseurs, all of them lossless. The first is a newly mixed English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. As an article by sound technician Mike Matessino states on Twilight Time’s website, “The 1973 musical adaptation of Tom Sawyer … was originally released in 70mm six-track sound with an Overture and Exit Music. For the Twilight Time Blu-Ray release I oversaw the efforts to present the film as close to that original version as possible. While the film had a widescreen LaserDisc release in the 1990s with stereo sound, subsequent VHS and DVD releases as well as versions prepared for broadcast eliminated the Overture and Exit Music, while an earlier DVD offered only “pan/scan” picture and no multichannel sound. There was much work to do.” Matessino’s article goes on to explain the circuitous route by which the three primary audio tracks were created and why (the other two are in English DTS-HD Master Audio 4.0 and English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0). Now, we here at R!S!P! tend to prefer sound that approximates the original viewing experience, and in that case, the 4.0 track, which replicates the sound that accompanied the 70mm release, would be it. Unfortunately, that track simply isn’t as dynamic as the 5.1 track. This is, after all, a musical, and the sound is important (despite the relative dullness of most of the songs). All three tracks are relatively clean with only minor damage and virtually no hiss or dropout. In addition to these, the film also features an isolated music track (as does Huckleberry Finn). Such tracks are particularly effective in musicals such as these, so we’re thankful that Twilight Time included them here. And both films also include optional English subtitles for the deaf and hearing impaired that incorporate the song lyrics. Huckleberry Finn’s primary track is more evidence that MGM didn’t care as much about it as they did the first film: It only includes an English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track, albeit one that’s in fine form with no serious issues to report.

    Tom Sawyer comes with two audio commentaries. The first, which was recorded specifically for this disc, features “screenwriter/songwriter Richard M. Sherman and music producer/historian Bruce Kimmel.” The second, which is ported over from MGM’s mid-1990s laserdisc, features Richard M. Sherman along with director Don Taylor and co-writer Robert B. Sherman. Both have their value. The first commentary begins by detailing the film’s history and its “arduous journey” to being made. Kimmel acts as moderator, prodding Sherman with thoughtful guiding questions. Sherman’s memory is strong, and there’s little he doesn’t know about his film. He takes his informative dialogue all the way back to the writing of Twain’s original stories, which were later compiled into a single book. He admits that the episodic nature of the stories made it difficult to craft a single narrative for the film. He also discusses the actors and some of the crew as well as the locations (for example, the cave scenes were shot in real caves, not on specially constructed sets). Much of the discussion centers around the songs, their lyrics, and how they play out in the film, in addition to the work of composer John Williams and how he came to be involved. They also touch on the second film. This is a full commentary with very few silent spots. The second commentary is just as full and interesting. Director Taylor opens the dialogue, though he doesn’t dominate; it’s a give and take between all three participants. Some of the same anecdotes repeated in the former commentary are told here, though with Taylor’s involvement we get more discussions about how the film was made. Ultimately, both commentaries are interesting and work as complements to each other.

    Extras for Tom Sawyer include “River Song Featurette,” a vintage 10-minute program shot in full frame; it is presented here without anamorphic enhancement and in standard definition. It provides some interesting behind-the-scenes shots and is more interesting as an oddity than as an historical document. Regardless, it remains a worthwhile if all-too-brief undertaking. “Rehearsal with John Williams and the Sherman Brothers” is exactly what it sounds like, a little over two minutes of the men discussing and rehearsing one of the film’s songs. It too is full frame, non-anamorphic, and in standard definition. (Not that standard definition is a bad thing, as it allows more space for the primary features.) Rounding out the extras is the original theatrical trailer, which runs a little over 3 minutes. The only extra accompanying Huckleberry Finn is its original theatrical trailer, which runs a little over 2 minutes.

    Seamless branching allows viewers to choose each film with or without its overture and, in the case of Tom Sawyer, it’s exit music. (Note that the commentaries do not play through these.) There’s also an online catalog of titles released by Twilight Time denoting which are still available and which have gone into moratorium (as of the time of this disc’s release).

    Rounding out the collection is an 8-page booklet with liner notes written by esteemed film historian Julie Kirgo. It also features full-color stills from each film.

    Each film has 24 chapter breaks.

    The Final Word:

    Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn are films for the entire family. As kid-oriented action/dramas, the first is highly entertaining while the second is a minor diversion; as musicals, they fall a bit flat, though most children probably won’t notice. They feature good performances, particularly from Johnny Whitaker and a very young Jodie Foster. Twilight Time collects both films on a single BD50 with a solid number of extras. Tom Sawyer looks exceptional, with a sharp, detailed picture and good color. Huckleberry Finn fares more poorly, but some of the issues have to do with the way it was filmed. All in all, this is a strong release from Twilight Time, one that makes us hope the company releases more double features like it.

    Note that this release is limited to 3,000 units.

    Christopher Workman is a freelance writer, film critic, and co-author (with Troy Howarth) of the Tome of Terror horror film review series. Horror Films of the Silent Era and Horror Films of the 1930s is currently available, with Horror Films of the 1940s due out in 2018.

    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!