The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1938 film)

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The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
UK DVD cover
Directed by Norman Taurog
H. C. Potter (fired, uncredited)
George Cukor (uncredited)
William A. Wellman (uncredited)
Produced by David O. Selznick
Written by John V.A. Weaver
Marshall Neilan (uncredited)
Based on The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
1876 novel 
by Mark Twain
Starring Tommy Kelly
Jackie Moran
May Robson
Ann Gillis
Music by Max Steiner (uncredited)
Cinematography James Wong Howe
Distributed by United Artists
Release dates
  • February 17, 1938 (1938-02-17)
(New York City)[1]
Running time
91 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $1.5 million[2]

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is a 1938 American literature adaptation directed by Norman Taurog starring Tommy Kelly in the title role. The screenplay by John V. A. Weaver was based on the classic 1876 novel by Mark Twain. The picture was the first film version of the novel to be made in color. It was remade in 1973 as a musical.


The United Artists release includes most of the sequences familiar to readers of the book, including the fence-whitewashing episode; a wild raft ride down the Mississippi River; Tom and Huckleberry Finn's attendance at their own funeral, after the boys, who were enjoying an adventure on a remote island, are presumed dead; the murder trial of local drunkard Muff Potter; and Tom and Becky Thatcher's flight through a cave as they try to escape from Injun Joe, who is revealed to be the real killer.


Production notes

This was the fourth screen adaptation of the Twain novel, following versions released in 1907, 1917, and 1930, and this the first filmed in Technicolor.

H. C. Potter originally was signed to direct but was fired and replaced by Taurog after George Cukor declined the assignment.[3] Cukor directed some scenes, but received no on-screen credit for his contributions.

Tommy Kelly, a Bronx fireman's son, was selected for the title role through a national campaign waged by producer David O. Selznick, who later would conduct a similar search for an actress to portray Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind. According to a 1937 memo he sent to story editor Katharine Brown, he originally hoped to cast an orphan as Tom, feeling such a stunt would receive "tremendous attention and arouse such a warm public feeling that it would add enormously to the gross of the picture."[4] Kelly failed to achieve the star status of fellow child actor Freddie Bartholomew, and after an inconsequential career he retired and later became a school teacher.[5]

After reading the comment cards completed by an audience at a sneak preview of the film, Selznick sent director Taurog a memo expressing concern about the climactic scene in the cave, which many viewers had described as "too horrible for children." He advised Taurog "this worried me, because we certainly want the picture to be for a family audience," and as a result he was cutting a close-up of Becky, in which her hysteria was "perhaps a shade too much that of a very ill woman, rather than that of a little girl," "with regrets."[6]

On the strength of the designs for the cave sequence executed by William Cameron Menzies, Selznick hired him for Gone with the Wind.[7]

Some exterior scenes were filmed at Big Bear Lake, Lake Malibu, Paramount Ranch in Agoura, California, and RKO's Encino movie ranch. Other scenes were filmed on recycled sets left over from A Star is Born (1937), such as the Boldgett family home interior (kitchen, living room, & bedroom), and a silhouette of a wolf howling at the moon. Mississippi River long shots from Tom Saywer would later be reused in MGMs 1951 musical Showboat.


B. R. Crisler of The New York Times wrote that Tommy Kelly was "a miracle of casting" and called the film "one of the better pictures of the year" on the strength of the source material alone, but also criticized the film for including scenes of "cheap and obvious" slapstick involving such things as tomatoes and cake icing. Crisler told producer David O. Selznick to "get busy on 'Gone with the Wind', will you, before WE begin throwing tomatoes."[8] Variety wrote that Selznick had "pulled no financial punches" in mounting the production and that while the film was generally faithful to the book, an "excellent job" had been done on the new dialogue written for the screen.[9] Film Daily called it "a triumph for all concerned."[10] John Mosher of The New Yorker praised Kelly and Gillis as "altogether very much the Twain children" and called Weaver's screenplay "excellent".[11]

Time Out London called the film "extraordinarily handsome to look at, with exquisite Technicolor camerawork by Wong Howe and some imaginative designs . . . [it] has its longueurs, but it does capture the sense of a lazy Mississippi summer and much of the spirit of the book, with Jory making a superbly villainous Injun Joe."[12]

TV Guide described it as "a lively production featuring a quick pace, a chilling climax, and a surprising amount of wit."[13]

It received a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Art Direction, and the Venice Film Festival Mussolini Cup for Best Film.

The film lost $302,000 at the box office.[14]


Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer released a version of Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with a different cast the following year, replacing Jackie Moran with Mickey Rooney.


  1. "The Broadway Parade". Film Daily. New York: Wid's Films and Film Folk, Inc. February 14, 1938. p. 2.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Finler, Joel Waldo (2003). The Hollywood Story. Wallflower Press. p. 47. ISBN 9781903364666.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Rudy Behlmer, (1972). Memo from David O. Selznick. Viking Press. p. 168. ISBN 978-0573606014.CS1 maint: extra punctuation (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Memo from David O. Selznick, pp. 124-125
  5. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer at Turner Classic Movies
  6. Memo from David O. Selznick, pg. 125
  7. Memo from David O. Selznick, pg. 156
  8. The New York Times Film Reviews. 2: 1932-1938. New York: The New York Times & Arno Press. 1970. pp. 1472–1473.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. "Film Reviews". Variety. New York. February 16, 1938. p. 15.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. "Reviews of the New Films". Film Daily. New York: Wid's Films and Film Folk, Inc.: 8 February 15, 1938.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. Mosher, John (February 26, 1938). "The Current Cinema". The New Yorker. pp. 64–65.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. Time Out London review
  13. TV Guide review
  14. David Thomson, Showman: The Life of David O. Selznick, Abacus, 1993 p 268

External links