A Weekend With David O. Selznick
Over the weekend of Sept. 27 – 28, I had an opportunity to revisit two of my favorite David O. Selznick pictures. On Sunday the 28th it was the Turner Classic Movies two-day-only theatrical reissue of Gone With the Wind. I’m sure many of my Cinedrome readers (among others) availed themselves of that one — at least, if the size of the audience I saw it with is any indication.
On Saturday the 27th, however, the reunion was more private: a family-and-friends home screening of 1938’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. I’ll be spending most of this post talking about that one, because…well, of all the terms you might use to describe Gone With the Wind, “neglected classic” is certainly not one of them.
Some years ago, my friend John McElwee over at Greenbriar Picture Shows posted on Tom Sawyer here and here. “Does anyone else share my longstanding affection for this show?” John asked rhetorically. In the comments I replied, “Good heavens, doesn’t everyone share it?”
Well, apparently not; in David O. Selznick’s Hollywood Ron Haver dismissed it as “basically old fashioned and slightly dull”, and it has little of the latter-day respect accorded other Selznick pictures such as Nothing Sacred or the original A Star Is Born. Still, John and I aren’t entirely alone; Leonard Maltin gives Tom Sawyer three-and-a-half stars, and I have anecdotal evidence aplenty of the picture’s enduring ability to please any crowd.
In fact, I’m going to go out on a limb and assert that Selznick’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is just about the best movie ever made from any story by Mark Twain. (For the record, I’d give a close-second place to Warner Bros.’ 1937 The Prince and the Pauper, and an equally close third to 1960’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with Eddie Hodges and Archie Moore.)
But back to Tom Sawyer. Selznick originally hoped to shoot the picture in Technicolor, but there were no Tech cameras available. So instead, he began shooting in March 1937 in black and white, with H.C. Potter directing. Shooting proceeded in fits and starts until July, when Technicolor cameras unexpectedly became free; Selznick closed down production, had the location sets all repainted, replaced some cast members (Beulah Bondi was out as Aunt Polly, May Robson in), and brought Norman Taurog in to direct (Potter having walked off, exasperated with Selznick’s incessant kibitzing). The final negative cost, John McElwee tells us, was $1.2 million — some sources say as high as $1.5 million, but I trust John on things like this. Anyhow, whatever the cost, it was astronomical for the time, especially for a picture with no battle scenes, no production numbers, and no scenes using more than maybe 50 or 60 extras. (As a very broad rule of thumb, multiply any figures from this era by about 100 to get an idea of the cost in today’s dollars.) The bottom line: despite some glowing reviews and high hopes, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer broke nowhere near even, losing some $302,000 — probably more than the picture would have cost if it had been produced anywhere but at Selznick International.
The picture got a handful of reissues over the years, both before and after Selznick sold it off (along with the rest of his library) during his cash-strapped 1940s — the poster above is from one of those reissues — and that’s how I first saw it in 1958; my father, with fond memories of having seen it back in ’38, took the whole family to see it at the Vogue Theatre in Pittsburg, Calif. My brother was only four years old at the time, and I still remember his reaction: He sat down with a bag of M&Ms from the snack bar, took one out ready to pop it in his mouth, looked up at the screen, and was instantly hooked. As the movie ended and the lights came up, he was sitting there with that first M&M still between the thumb and forefinger of his left hand (and no, it hadn’t melted).
Today that four-year-old has 13 grandchildren of his own, and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (Mark Twain’s original book) has been working its way through the family. My brother read it, and my sister-in-law, and their daughter has been reading it to her three kids. This prompted a groundswell of requests for a family screening of my 16mm print, which I last screened some six or eight years ago, before many of the kids were born. So I scheduled the screening for September 27, and got out my print to see what sort of shape it was in.
And here I have to discuss the color in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (Selznick’s movie) — in general, and in my print in particular.
The second (and, so far, last) time I saw The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in a theater was at the Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto, Calif. in the late 1980s. Now the Stanford is operated by the Stanford Theatre Foundation, which is headed by David W. Packard (son of the founder of Hewlett-Packard) and has contributed millions in cash and resources to the cause of film preservation. Consequently, the Stanford is on excellent terms with film archives all over the country. Any time a picture plays the Stanford, you can rest assured that you’ll be seeing the very best available print.
So it didn’t bode well that the print I saw that night in 1989 was a slightly red-shifted Eastman print. Oh dear, I thought. Could it be that The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was one of those pictures that hasn’t survived in Technicolor at all? (No, as it turned out. But I’m getting ahead of myself.)
My own 16mm print, when I acquired it about ten years ago, was yet another Eastman print, and the color was distinctly faded. Also, over the years and reissues the running time had been whittled down from 93 to 77 minutes; my print ran 79. When I scheduled the family screening for last month, I hadn’t looked at it in years, so I cranked up the projector to see what condition it was in. Bad news — the color was pretty much shot, and in some scenes even the image was going fast. This print would do, but only in a terrible pinch — so I decided to shop around and see what else I could find.
To make a long story short — if it’s not already too late for that — I found two DVDs. One was a Region 2 British DVD, the other a transfer from South Korea (that one defaulted to Korean subtitles, but through the miracle of DVD I could turn those off). Why this quintessentially American story is available on DVD in Great Britain and South Korea, of all places, but not in the United States is one of those vagaries of video that defy explanation, but there it is. (In any case, it’s a powerful argument for owning a region-free player.)
Either one of these DVDs was a huge improvement over my 16mm print, but the difference between the discs themselves was like night and day. The South Korean disc, in fact, might almost have been made from the print I saw in Palo Alto: it had the same red-shifted, high contrast image. The British DVD, on the other hand, must surely have been transferred from the restoration Disney made when they gained control of the picture in the early 1990s (see Part 2 of John McElwee’s post for details of that restoration). So to answer the question I asked myself that night in Palo Alto: No, the Technicolor Tom Sawyer is not lost; it still exists — if only on DVD. Here are some frame-caps comparing the two transfers, South Korea on the left and UK on the right:
First, here’s Tom (Tommy Kelly) and Becky Thatcher’s (Ann Gillis) first after-school “date”. Notice the increased detail and texture, especially in the hill behind them and the creek under their feet, and the purer fleshtones. Notice, too, in all these frames that the Korean disc crops the image along all four edges.
Below, Tom and Joe Harper (Mickey Rentschler, left) play pirate on their island in the Mississippi, unaware that the folks back home believe they’ve been drowned. As in that frame above with Tom and Becky, the grass is a whole lot greener (and the sky less purple) in true Technicolor.
Below, Becky and Tom on the way to the school outing where they’ll become lost in the cave (superbly designed by William Cameron Menzies and built on a soundstage at the Selznick studios). This shot is a particularly dramatic illustration of the difference between the two discs, both in the quality of the color and the size of the image, as is…
As you can no doubt gather from those frame comparisons, the British DVD was the way to go, so I put the 16mm projector back in the closet and got out my Epson Powerlite 6100. That old 16mm print of mine I junked; it had long outlived its usefulness. The night of the 27th my family and friends were treated to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer looking better than it has in years; for myself, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen it looking as good as it does on that Region 2 DVD from the United Kingdom. If you’re in the market, accept no substitutes. There are a number of Hollywood classics that are available only in Region 2 DVDs, but for my money, this disc alone justifies the expense of buying a region-free player. (Alternatively, Region 2 DVDs will play on most computers.)
Tom Sawyer, like most of Selznick’s literary adaptations from Little Women to Gone With the Wind, is a perfect illustration of his dictum that it’s less important to film an entire novel than to give the impression that you’ve done so. Mark Twain’s book is loosely constructed and episodic, almost a collection of short stories rather than a unified novel. John V.A. Weaver’s script picks and chooses episodes both for how well they express the spirit of Twain and how they form a solid dramatic arc, building to Tom’s climactic showdown in the cave with Injun Joe (Victor Jory) and his struggle up the rocks to the light and safety (two moments that aren’t in Twain’s book, but which fit neatly into the movie).
The casting and performances are spot-on right down the line. Beulah Bondi was closer to the physical description of Aunt Polly in Twain, but it’s hard to imagine her improving on what May Robson does with the role. Robson perfectly captures the stern-yet-tender heart of Aunt Polly, a remarkable tightrope-walk for an actress to pull off. (By the way, here’s a Fun Fact: Do you know what distinction May Robson, who was nominated for best actress for 1933’s Lady for a Day, has among Academy Award nominees? She’s the only one who was born before the American Civil War, on April 19, 1858. Obviously, that record will stand forever.)
Right smack in the middle of all these perfectly cast veterans — Walter Brennan, Victor Jory, Donald Meek, Olin Howland, Victor Kilian, Frank McGlynn Sr. — there’s one of those little miracles that come along once in a great while: 12-year-old Tommy Kelly as Tom. The son of an unemployed Bronx firefighter, he had never acted before — and truth to tell, in time his acting skills would prove to be extremely limited. But that hardly matters here; he simply is Tom Sawyer — it’s as simple as that. Despite his inexperience, he is center-screen in almost every scene and carries the picture with natural ease. It’s one of those incredibly rare moments when exactly the right person for a role came along, seemingly out of nowhere, at exactly the right time in his life to play it. I’m pleased to report that at this writing, Tommy Kelly is still with us at 89, as are Ann Gillis (Becky Thatcher, now 87) and Cora Sue Collins (Amy Lawrence, also 87). (UPDATE 2/13/19: Tommy Kelly passed away on Jan. 26, 2016, age 90, and Ann Gillis, also 90, on Jan. 31, 2018. Cora Sue Collins will turn 92 on April 19; continued long life to her.)
So how did my screening go over? Like gangbusters, as I knew it would because it always has. None of the kids had ever seen it, and it was a revelation to all of them. I know that in years to come they’ll cherish the movie as a fond childhood memory — as their grandfather and I do, and as our father did before us, and all those grade-schoolers in my uncle and aunt’s classrooms over the years. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser that never seems to age, thanks to Technicolor (now brilliantly restored) and a quaint, old-fashioned style that meshes perfectly with the 19th century nostalgia that infused Mark Twain’s book in the first place.
* * *
Then on the next day, Sunday the 28th, it was Gone With the Wind, which I hadn’t seen in a theater since its 50th anniversary reissue in 1989.
The day may come when I have something to say about Gone With the Wind that hasn’t already been said far better by somebody else. But this is not that day. Instead, I’ll just take this opportunity to mention a new book on the subject, and here it is: The Making of Gone With the Wind by Steve Wilson.
Now I will confess that when I heard of this book, the first thing I thought was, “Oh great, just what we need, another book about the making of Gone With the Wind!” And I wasn’t particularly impressed with the book’s cover, with its monochrome image washed in thin blue and green of Vivien Leigh peeking out through the “O” in “GONE” while she grabs a quick cigarette between takes on the set — I mean, was there ever a book cover that conveyed less of a sense of the movie it’s supposed to be about?
So much for gripes and quibbles. I was wrong. No matter how many books on Gone With the Wind you’ve read or thumbed through, this one eclipses them all. It’s actually the companion volume to an exhibition at the Harry Ransom Center, an archive, library and museum complex on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin. The exhibition is running now through January 4, 2015, and it draws from the Center’s massive David O. Selznick archive consisting of 5,000 boxes of documents and photographs and millions of feet of film. Steve Wilson, the book’s author, is curator of the Center’s film collection, and the book takes us step by step through the three-and-a-half years from the day Selznick bought the rights to Margaret Mitchell’s novel to the night the picture swept the 1939 Academy Awards. We see everything from the nationwide talent-search-cum-publicity-tour through shooting (presented chronologically as it was shot), editing, previews, everything. And all of it is illustrated with newspaper clippings, letters, telexes, telegrams, memos, call sheets, concept paintings, makeup and costume tests, notes, set photos, matte paintings, sheet music, maps — you name it, all of them reproduced in their original colors (or lack of them) on high-quality glossy paper.
I thought of scanning a sampling of some of the illustrations and posting them here, but that way lies madness — once I started I’d never be able to stop. Instead, just check out the link to the Harry Ransom Center above, or this link to the Center’s Web exhibit on the movie. That’ll show you more than I could ever post here. After that, just see if this isn’t a book you have to have. At the very least, it’s easier and less expensive than trying to squeeze in a trip to Austin between now and January 4.
Thanks Jim. I just participated in an Intro for a fun screening of " Adventures of Tom Sawyer" in Southern Calif. Presented by the National Park Servcies Paramount Ranch, the original location for the town sets and more. Years later a newer Western Town built and still filmed at today, per Mike Malone retired NPS ranger and volunteer film historian, it's now small part of what was 2700 acre ranch used by the Golden Age studios for filming.
Near Malibu Creek State Park, what was the 20Th Century Fox location ranch. Great places to visit.
Welcome, Brooke, and thanks for sharing your insights. I'm sure my readers will recognize your father as one of Golden Age Hollywood's greats — five Oscars, 24 nominations (including for The Adventures of Tom Sawyer), hundreds of movies from The Prisoner of Zenda and GWTW to The King and I and The Diary of Anne Frank…well, I could go on and on but as I said, one of the greats. Thanks again for stopping by!