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...


  1. Thanks so much for joining in with your review of this interesting (if flawed) film. You're quite right about the clever phrases not translating well to the screen. I know that silent Cyrano de Bergerac's (gorgeous though they are) all have the same problem.

  2. Thanks for including the link to the film. I will bookmark it and come back later to view.

    I like the philosophy they adopted when making this film, to create a Tom Sawyer that people would recognize from the book. Many novels are hard to adapt to screen, but it seems they had the best approach.

  3. I have to watch this one. I can't remember seeing a good silent adaption of a Mark Twain story. I have heard A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court was good, but it is lost.

  4. For my recommendation of best Mark Twain film, I'd have to go with 1985's "The Adventures of Mark Twain". It's a wonderfully sensitive Claymation film that offsets the problem of translating Twain's clever turns of a phrase by just having him say them!