Tony Mastroianni Review Collection

It's odd, the tricks your memory plays on you

Cleveland Press August 10, 1973

It's odd, the tricks your memory plays on you.

What I remember about that 1938 movie version of "Tom Sawyer" is seeing it at an angle.

In those pre-TV days when movie going was both a habit and an event, most pictures that amounted to anything drew standing audiences. So at that matinee performance, the first at our neighborhood movie house, folks stood through most of the feature.

Mostly they stood at the back, but those of us too small to look over the top of that rail and the heads of adults were allowed to stand along the side aisles (only old theaters still have them), leaning against the wall and viewing the screen from extreme left or right. Hence the funny angle.

The other thing I remember is that the movie caused a run on the book at the local branch of the public library. The book was out of stock for a time but a wise librarian touted me onto Booth Tarkington's "Penrod" books. "Penrod" was transferred to the screen in low budget and generally poor movie adaptations.

Not so "Tom Sawyer." The reference books show previous versions in 1917, silent with Jack Pickford as Tom, and a 1920 treatment with Jackie Coogan. The 1938 version starred Tommy Kelly and Walter Brennan played Muff Potter, the town drunk. It was a David 0. Selznick production, the same man who made "Gone With the Wind," released a year later.

"Tom Sawyer" is on screen again, this time in a musical adaptation. But music isn't the big difference. Those previous productions were done in studios and on back lots. The new "Tom Sawyer" was filmed in Missouri. With a few changes (mostly pouring dirt on a paved road) the small town of Arrow Rock was transformed into the Hannibal of author Mark Twain's day.

The result is a sense of time and place that sets the new "Tom Sawyer" apart from most other movies.

It is this sense of place, a feeling for a bygone era, that distinguishes the new movie from a quick television special that was rushed into release last spring -- that and the vastness of the wide screen as opposed to television technique of working in closeups.

More than technology has changed over the years. So has sensitivity and with it one of the most famous character in fiction caused the moviemakers a few headaches.

"We were concerned about the villain who is called Injun Joe in the novel," explained associate producer Frank Capra Jr. in New York in an interview prior to the picture's release.

"We called the Bureau of Indian Affairs for a reaction. They took the position that within the context, a character in a classic, that the negative term would be all right and we could go ahead and cast it with an Indian. They wrote us a letter assuring us there wouldn't be any trouble."

Which is a good thing. Imagine "Tom Sawyer" without Injun Joe.

Because that's the other big thing you remember from the past, one of the most memorable things in the novel as well as in movie versions -- the villainous Injun Joe, lurking in the cave where Tom and Becky are lost.

It just wouldn't be the same.