Friday, 26 June 2015

Tom Sawyer, the 1917 Film

Today's special post is part of the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon, hosted by Movies Silently, Silver Screenings, and Once Upon a Screen, and sponsored by Flicker Alley. Click on the banner above to see the full line up for three days of classic film posts from across the blogosphere. Thanks for letting us be a part of this great event!

When director William Desmond Taylor set out to adapt Mark Twain's beloved novel The Adventures of Mark Twain to the still relatively new medium of film, he was not expressly setting out to break any artistic ground. By his own admission, he wanted to simply bring the Tom Sawyer of the novel to life, the character that "people would say, 'There, that's the Tom Sawyer I learned to love in Twain's pages.'"

It is not implausible that one of the people that Taylor inspired was Walt Disney. Growing up in Missouri - first in the small town of Marceline and then Kansas City - Disney would have been steeped in the works of the State's own son, Mark Twain. It's well known that he was inspired by the films he saw in his youth, which he would go on to use as source material for his own films later in life. For example, his Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was essentially a remake of the 1916 silent film, and it's likely that the 1920 Mark of Zorro with Douglas Fairbanks helped inspire somebody to develop the famed television series. Two of the first Mickey Mouse shorts - Steamboat Willie and The Gallopin' Gaucho - were direct satires on contemporaneous silent films Steamboat Bill, Jr. starring Buster Keaton and The Gaucho starring Douglas Fairbanks again. Taylor's Tom Sawyer was even filmed on location in Twain's hometown of Hannibal, Missouri. Clearly there was no Tom Sawyer film produced by Disney, but doubtless the literature, film, and steeping in the general atmosphere of Twain's legacy informed the development of Tom Sawyer Island many years later. In 1917, the year of Tom Sawyer's release, Walt was just graduating high school and the following year, he would lie about his age to enter the American Ambulance Corps in France during the First World War.

Because of the novel's length and the unpreparedness of audiences in 1917 for any film longer than an hour, Tom Sawyer is more of an abbreviation of certain key scenes from about half of the novel. The entire plot of Doctor Robinson's murder at the hands of Injun Joe was excised, only to be resurrected for the sequel Huck and Tom in 1918. The trilogy was completed with Huckleberry Finn in 1920. None of the original cast returned for final picture, which ironically enough is considered one of the best screen adaptations of Twain's work. In the first two, the role of Tom fell to Jack Pickford, brother of silent film superstar Mary Pickford. Doubtless he was far too old for the part, as his 21 years of age in 1917 already strained credulity. Tom and his friends come across more as high school students than children, which undermines the movie somewhat. The more grievous problem is that Mark Twain's humour rests primarily in good turns of a phrase and that quality does not translate well into film, especially a silent one. The literary Tom certainly says and does funny things, but the real hilarity comes from how Twain describes him. Tom Sawyer, the film, is abbreviated in more ways than one, it's strength deriving most from how it brings to mind the book.

Without further ado, here is 1917's Tom Sawyer...

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Next Week: Classic Movie History Project Blogathon!

This Friday, Yesterday, Tomorrow, and Fantasy will be participating in the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon! This great event will feature blogs from across the Internet sharing informative and thought-provoking posts on the history of film from the Silent Era through the Seventies. To see the full line-up, click here. And join us back here on Friday, June 26 for our contribution, in which we look at a silent film that ties into our series on Tom Sawyer Island!

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Tom Sawyer Island - Part 2: Injun Joe's Cave

One of the most intriguing features of Tom Sawyer Island as it used to be in Disneyland – and blessedly still in Walt Disney World – is Injun Joe’s Cave.

Injun Joe's Cave, in the Magic Kingdom's Tom Sawyer Island.
Up to chapter 29, Tom Sawyer had been obsessed with shadowing Injun Joe, the inveterate killer and thief who was stalking about St. Petersburg, Missouri, looking for a place to stash his ill-gotten gold. Tom had the idea to find out where Joe’s secret stash – “Number Two—under the cross” – was so that he could claim that treasure for his own. However, the return of Becky Thatcher from a trip set Tom’s mind on other things.

The town children were off on a picnic near the mouth of McDougal’s Cave when they decided to venture in…

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Tom Sawyer Island - Part 1: Pirate's Lair

There are two sources I credit for encouraging me to discover Mark Twain's writing for myself: the 1986 Claymation film The Adventures of Mark Twain and Disneyland. If you have not seen the former, I highly recommend it. By pulling stories and quotes from Twain's own body of work, it became a children's film of uncommon maturity and sensitivity, meditating on life, death, love and eternity. Disneyland, of course, piqued my interest through the Mark Twain Riverboat (the only attraction poster I have in my home) and Tom Sawyer Island.

At that nascent stage in my affection for Twain – who is now my second favourite author after Jules Verne – Tom Sawyer Island was more of a contest than a fond bit of nostalgia. I was dimly aware of the iconic images of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but had yet to read the book. I was terribly curious about the basis for Injun Joe's Cave, Harper's Mill, Smuggler's Cove, the Treehouse, and the rest of the island's features. Shortly after that first trip in 2005, I devoured Twain's novel, and when I returned to Disneyland a year later I could definitively say that... well... it didn't actually have all that much to do with it. Most of the island served the interests of a giant, free-range playground, with a few impressionistic ideas from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

The landing for the rafts to Tom Sawyer's Island.

A pair of the original rafts, named for Mark Twain's characters.
The famed whitewashed fence.

The original Fort Wilderness.
Looking down the Rivers of America to the Native American village.
You could almost imagine that you weren't even in a theme park.

Smuggler's Cove.
Perhaps because of this (and Twain’s own prescient quip that "A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read."), Disney's marketeers felt it would be a prime location for a movie-inspired pirate makeover in 2007. They nevertheless failed to account for the nostalgia held by Disney fans, who objected so strenuously to the plans that Disney clarified that this pale imitation of Adventure Isle was Pirate's Lair on Tom Sawyer Island, not Pirate's Lair instead of Tom Sawyer Island. To justify adding a Jack Sparrow stage show, the Dead Man's Chest, and a cage made of human bones, they invoked the chapters of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in which the boys flee home to play pirates. Ironically it was those same chapters that have the closest to a literary justification for Tom Sawyer's Island in the first place. Though the famed whitewashed fence seems to have disappeared, the Treehouse got some extra references to the book, by way of the boys' pirate names scrawled on the walls.

Ashley enjoying some piracy.
In chapter 13, Tom has decided to run away from his Aunt Polly's and take to a life of crime, on account of the neglect he suffered from Becky Thatcher. Along the way he met up with Joe Harper, who was also on a pilgrimage into the world and intent on adopting the life of a hermit, “living on crusts in a remote cave, and dying, some time, of cold and want and grief.” However, “after listening to Tom, he conceded that there were some conspicuous advantages about a life of crime, and so he consented to be a pirate.”  

All that they were in need of was a lair, which brings us to the following excerpt...