I got introduced to Mark Twain’s books about the rambunctious, adventure-seeking Tom Sawyer and his best friend, Huckleberry Finn in my early teens. I read a lot of Twain in those days, and—as tends to happen with me when I’ve read a lot of one author’s works—over a period of time, they started to blur. I forgot which books I’d read, and which I hadn’t.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is one such: I couldn’t recall whether this was among the books I’d read. But, while making my very sporadic way through The Daily Telegraph’s list of 100 Great Novels Everyone Should Read, I found this book on it, and decided I may as well read it. And, as often happens when I read a book that’s fairly popular (in this case, an acknowledged classic), I followed that up with seeing if it had been made into a film. Sure enough, it had: a 1960 adaptation starring Tony Randall was what I chanced upon.
Tony Randall appears about half an hour into this film. It begins with Huckleberry Finn (Eddie Hodges) running about on the riverbank, watching with yearning eyes as a steamboat comes down the Mississippi and to the dock. As Huck tells the slave Jim (Archie Moore) who works for his guardians, it is Huck’s dearest wish to go down the river, to New Orleans and then beyond—to South America. To adventures.
Because Huck’s well-meaning guardians can be often suffocatingly well-meaning. The Widow Douglas (Josephine Hutchinson) is rather kinder and more tolerant of Huck’s wildness, his going about barefoot and so on; but her stiff-upper-lipped friend and companion, Miss Watson (?), is openly disapproving. Miss Watson is praying all the while that Huck, wild as he is, won’t end up like his no-good father (Neville Brand), a drunk for whom there’s not a good word to be said.
We meet ‘Pap’ Finn soon after: he’s waiting for Huck upstairs, and soon starts yelling at the boy for letting himself be put into shoes, and for going to school: all, according to Pap, calculated to turn Huck into a milquetoast, no man at all. When Pap starts to hit Huck, Widow Douglas comes rushing to the boy’s rescue, and Pap gets belligerent.
He threatens Widow Douglas: he’s taking Huck with him to live by the river. If she wants him back, she’ll have to pay him $500. Widow Douglas is aghast: where will she get that much money? Pap points out that she’s pretty well-to-do: she has this fine house. And she has that slave, Jim, whom she can sell easily for that amount. Through the open window, Jim (who’s busy stacking wood down in the yard) overhears this.
Anyway, Pap Finn takes Huck back home, to their dirty hut beside the river. They share it with a sow and her piglet, assorted rubbish, and other junk. Huck is stuck in this hovel; Pap comes home drunk, bringing no food with him, and thrashing Huck when he gets angry.
Huck decides this is too much. The only way he’s going to escape Pap is by pretending to be dead—so he rigs up things to give the impression that he’s been murdered and his body thrown into the river. Then Huck gets a canoe and rows off downriver. Within a very short time, he meets an old friend: Jim, who’s run away from Widow Douglas and Miss Watson. He’s got a raft, and he’s bound for Cairo, Illinois, where he can be free. And, given that Huck is also bound for freedom (for South America, to be precise), they can travel together.
Soon, the two of them plunge into adventure: they find themselves caught in a cross-fire between feuding families. When they just about manage to get back intact to their raft, they discover that it’s been taken over by two men, who assure them that the raft would have drifted off had it not been for them. They’re suspicious about Jim, but Huck spins them a yarn about how he (Huck, calling himself ‘Abner’) was from a very wealthy family, which has since fallen on evil times, and everybody has died, so now Huck and his servant Jim are the only ones around.
This is when one of the men, the ring leader, jumps in with the news that they too are an example of ‘how the mighty have fallen’: the other man (Mickey Shaughnessy) is the Duke of Bilgewater, and he himself (Tony Randall) is none other than the King of France. Right now, they’re headed to a town downriver, where—according to a newspaper that the King has got hold of—a man named Peter Wilkes is very ill, and is expecting the arrival of his long-lost brothers, Harvey and William, along with his young nephew Percy, from Sheffield, England. Harvey and William, who are clergymen, are expected to help look after Peter Wilkes’s business.
Huck and Jim, when they’re alone together, compare notes. Of course both of them have cottoned on to the fact that the King and the Duke are nothing but frauds, but what should they do about it? Watch on and see, suggests Huck. He’s had plenty of experience, thanks to Pap, of dealing with bossy men who are fond of saying whatever comes into their minds—and the way to do it is to let them have their way.
So Jim and Huck, accompanying the King and the Duke, arrive in Peter Wilkes’s town (where they soon see a poster about Jim, the runaway slave, for whom a prize is being offered). They manage to hurry past this, and discover that Peter Wilkes has died. The only Wilkeses around are his bereaved daughters, Mary Jane (Sherry Jackson) and Joanna (Patty McCormack).
The King and the Duke immediately swing into action, passing themselves off as Harvey and William Wilkes, the reverend fathers (though the fervour with which the King kisses Mary Jane is far from fatherly or even avuncular). Huck gets passed off as Percy.
Soon after, the King and the Duke find out the truth about Peter Wilkes’s bequest: he’s left behind a huge legacy, including houses, a tannery, and lots of wealth in the form of gold coins. And that, of course, is enough for the King—leading the way in matters such as this—to quickly concoct a plan to get his hands on all that wealth.
And the adventures of Huck Finn and Jim have barely even begun, yet. As they try to go north to Cairo, they’ll have many more escapades and close shaves. They’ll end up working on a steamboat, and then in a circus, where ‘Abner’, the world’s youngest lion-tamer, as he calls himself, will be the interpreter for the show’s latest star attraction, the Emperor of Patagonia.
What I liked about this film:
The adventures, and the bond they build between a young white boy and an African-American slave. As a story, it’s fun, and the adventures are—though different from the book (I’ll get to a comparison further on)—pretty mad.
Tony Randall and Buster Keaton. Randall, whom I remember seeing before only in a slew of Doris Day-Rock Hudson films, is different here from his usual rather harried, genial character; the King is a slimy, slick, nasty bit of work, even if there’s a superficial humour to him. Buster Keaton, who has a brief appearance as a lion tamer in the circus, is a hoot: this is one man who doesn’t need to say much to make me laugh. His expressions are enough.
What I didn’t like:
The occasional moments of melodrama and sentiment. True, they’re not many, but they do crop up now and then. For instance, there are times when Jim lapses into religion and goes on about how much of a sinner he is; then there is Pap and his relationship with Huck. Pap, in a drunken moment near the beginning of the film, accuses Huck of having killed his mother just by being born: it shows how much, perhaps, this man loved his wife, and how (possibly) he’s actually trying to drown his sorrows in drink. Later on, near the end of the film, Huck says something that shows how sorry he feels for the father who was perpetually drunk and perpetually thrashing his son.
So how does the film compare to the book?
For a start, how it’s adapted. James Lee, who wrote the screenplay, and director Michael Curtiz, take only the first half or so of Twain’s book, and then go their own way. What happens in the film after the King and the Duke try to help themselves to Peter Wilkes’s property is very different from what happens in the novel: the steamboat, the circus, and thereafter is all concocted rather than adapted. Even in the portion at the beginning, there are changes, though not as drastic as later.
This, obviously, is not unexpected; cinema, as a medium, cannot be as expansive as literature. Episodes need to be telescoped, especially when it comes to what is as convoluted and intricate a novel as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Some need to be dropped, some need to be fused together. In my opinion, though, as long as the ethos of the original work is maintained, that’s acceptable in an adaptation.
Which, to some extent, is what happens here. The adventures, the friendship between Huck and Jim, the underlying thread of racism/slavery, even the occasionally shocking presence of violence: all of these are there both in the film as well as in the novel. Huck’s quick wit, the way he invents stuff on the fly to get out of scrapes, is there in both, too.
For me, where the film suffered was in missing Huck’s ‘voice’. Huck is the narrator of his own book, and his voice plays an important part in adding to the humour of the story. Also, the last quarter or so of the book involves Tom Sawyer turning up and him and Huck doing some hectic plotting to help Jim—locked up as a runaway slave—escape. This particular episode, a long and convoluted one, is very funny, but is completely missing (as is Tom Sawyer) from the film. I suppose leaving out Tom Sawyer from a film primarily about Huck makes sense, but it also makes the film a lot less funny.
On the whole, not a bad adaptation, but I wish it had been a little low on the sentimentality which it sometimes falls prey to. It detracts from the fun and adventure.