Thursday, October 31, 2013

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The (1939)

Director: Richard Thorpe

Sometimes concepts for American motion picture productions are rather easy. Case in point is MGM’s 1939 adaptation of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, simply take one of America’s most popular stories of a juvenile boy and cast it with the most popular juvenile star in Mickey Rooney. Together they make an uncomplicated achievement at the box office. Taking the timeless tale penned by the infamous Mark Twain MGM has yet additional vehicle for the young star as another boy who loves to get himself into trouble.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is an adventure and somewhat coming of age tale about a reckless boy who travels with a runaway slave in search for new lives in the free states and their adventures along the way. The incomparable Mickey Rooney plays the cunning Huck Finn who appears untamable by the women that are raising him when he decides to run away after being kidnapped by his own father. Teaming up with his his friend and runaway slave Jim (Rex Ingram), who after Huck faked his own death is believed to be his murderer, they make way up the river hoping to lead to Jim’s free family in the north. Along the way con men claiming to be an European King (William Connolly) and a Duke (William Frawley) join their journey and attempt to use Huck and Jim for their own gain. Huck and Jim escape their dastardly plans, but Jim is captured and sentenced to death for Huck’s believed murder. With help Huck makes a dramatic dash back home to clear Jim’s name, teaching Huck a moral lesson that slaves are people who can be friends and not just property.

The picture takes a classic Mark Twain story and tacks an important modern ethical message to is with morals on race wrapped around a rather normal Mickey Rooney vehicle. A simple produced picture, the film has everything one would expect in film adaptation of the tale. Although Rooney was nineteen when he was making the picture his easy boyish charm, high energy, and short stature made it easy for him to take on the character that happened to be several years younger than Rooney actually was. Rooney, with his popularity in the Andy Hardy pictures, was a major draw to theaters across the nation and here in Huck Finn the addition of previously known and highly praised material would add to the attraction of the young actor’s latest film.

Believed to be sure money in the bank, the film was directed by Richard Thorpe, a staple studio director at MGM, whose credits included a vast array of pictures, including a Tarzan feature, another successful money-in-the-bank picture. Thorpe’s work was rather simple as he achieved in capturing the nuances of a boy that constantly thinks of way of getting himself in and out of trouble. It would be a rather unassuming point-and-shoot type of film in this production as the most important figure was to get Rooney of screen and let him take charge of a role that seemed to fit him rather well.

To fill the very important role of Jim is the respected black actor Rex Ingram. This gentle giant of a man was the African American actor most notable for his appearance as “Da Laud” in the all black biblical production The Green Pastures. Being a bit on the politically correct side of things as MGM tended to be, focusing primarily on the family type audiences, Jim’s role as a slave is watered down to be a rather happy individual and the rampant use of the derogatory “N” word is completely removed from the material when compared to the original novel. Ingram brings a likable innocence to Jim as is seen in his previous works as the character of Jim becomes the focal point to the story and key to Huck’s growth as a boy in the story.

Character actor Walter Connolly plays “The King” and is an easy conniving villain you learn to hate as he plans to take advantage of Huck and Jim for his own financial gain. His cohort known as “The Duke” is played by William Frawley who in the 1950s would become famously known as Lucy and Ricky’s lovable landlord and friend Fred Mertz in the all time classic television sitcom I Love Lucy. Together Connolly and Frawley provide comedy and tension to the story as they are con men with unbelievable imaginations.

This Mickey Rooney version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn would not be the first version brought to the screen, nor the last. In fact this version might be seen as taking more liberties with Mark Twain’s source materials than any of the other adaptations. Of course it was all done in the matter of getting one of the most recognizable stars in Mickey Rooney on the screen, easily selling the movie to audiences.

With easy productions such as this and his many Andy Hardy pictures Mickey Rooney would become the greatest box office draw of 1939. Movies that starred Rooney collected more money than other actor’s body of work in the year. He would keep up this title as Hollywood’s greatest draw for a remarkable three years, entrenching him as the biggest star during this period in Hollywood’s history.

The picture is simple. You get a bit of classic literature and one of the best known names in the industry at the same time. This adaption would be one the most popular in the slew of productions based on the Mark Twain classic, even having its own liberties with the tale. What audiences get is a charming movie that is enjoyable, albeit nothing significant in nature.

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