Sunday, May 3, 2015

The silent Tom Sawyer from 1917

Tom Sawyer, 44 minute-version, B and W, 1917. Directed by William Desmond Taylor. Starring Jack Pickford as Tom Sawyer, Edythe Chapman as Aunt Polly, Helen Gilmore as Widow Douglas, Robert Gordon as Huckleberry Finn and Clara Horton as Becky Thatcher. Schlock-meter rating: Eight stars out of 10.

This early silent is an interesting curio, creaky but far more entertaining than you'd think. Jack Pickford, brother of Mary, plays Mark Twain's famous scamp, and while he was old for the role (20), he pulls it off with a talented performance. His best scenes are when he cons his buddies into whitewashing the fence and his romance of Becky Thatcher, played by 13-year-old Clara Horton. Pickford had an "aw shucks" type of charm that must have made him pretty famous 85 years ago. Chapman as Aunt Polly is agreeably fussy and Gordon smirks effectively as Huckleberry Finn.

The acting is highly melodramatic, the sets are very effective. On the Internet Movie Database, on reviewer describes the film as having the "feel of an old photo album." Incredibly, this was not the first adapation of Twain's novel. That occurred in 1907. The film ends halfway through the novel, the climax being Tom and Huck crashing their own funeral. This has confused several reviewers, but the story goes that director Taylor divided the film into two movies. A year later he released Huck and Tom, which is the second half of the novel. The tinny score irritates a bit, but the film, recently shown on TCM cable channel, is a real treat for silent film buffs.

Director Taylor was murdered under mysterious circumstances in 1922, a scandal that still thrills Hollywood today. Star Jack Pickford died in 1933, his career and health ruined by fast living.
-- Doug Gibson

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