AFI Catalog of Feature Films
Movie Detail
Name Occurs Before Title Offscreen Credit Print Viewed By AFI
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
Director: Norman Taurog (Dir)
Release Date:   11 Feb 1938
Production Date:   18 Jul--5 Oct 1937; retakes and addl scenes filmed beginning early Dec 1937
Duration (in mins):   91-93
Duration (in reels):   10
Print this page
Display Movie Summary

Cast:   Tommy Kelly (Tom Sawyer)  
    Jackie Moran (Huckleberry Finn)  
    Ann Gillis (Becky Thatcher)  
    May Robson (Aunt Polly)  
    Walter Brennan (Muff Potter)  
    Victor Jory (Injun Joe)  
    David Holt (Sid Sawyer)  
    Nana Bryant (Mrs. Thatcher)  
    Victor Kilian (Sheriff)  
    Olin Howland (Schoolmaster)  
    Donald Meek (Sunday school superintendent)  
    Charles Richman (Judge Thatcher)  
    Margaret Hamilton (Mrs. Harper)  
    Marcia Mae Jones (Mary Sawyer)  
    Mickey Rentschler (Joe Harper)  
    Cora Sue Collins (Amy Lawrence)  
    Philip Hurlic (Jim)  
    Spring Byington (Widow Douglas)  
    George Billings (Ben Rogers)  
    Byron Armstrong (Billy Fisher)  
    Betsy Gay (Susie Harper)  
    Luke Cosgrove (Old soldier)  
    Frank McGlynn (Minister)  
    Bob McKenzie (River authority)  
    Roland Drew (Dr. Robinson)  
    Erville Alderson (District Attorney)  
    Arthur Aylesworth (Defense attorney)  
    Eric Alden (Defense attorney's assistant)  
    Bob Murphy (Bailiff)  
    Bruce Mitchell (Deputy)  
    Dan Wolheim (Deputy)  
    Frank Darien (Storekeeper)  
    Frank O'Connor (Mr. Harper)  

Summary: Freckle-faced schoolboy Tom Sawyer, his cousin Mary, his aunt Polly and his smug half brother Sid live in a small town on the banks of the Mississippi River. Tom often gets into trouble with his strict but good-hearted aunt when Sid snitches on him or sets him up for punishment. One day, when Tom is caught playing hookey from school, Aunt Polly punishes him by giving him the tedious chore of whitewashing their fence. Tom, however, cleverly manages to convince his friends that painting is pleasurable, and they soon pay him with marbles, fishhooks and other valuables for the privilege of doing it for him. When Tom first casts his eyes upon Becky Thatcher, he falls instantly in love with her and spurns his first love, Amy Lawrence. While trying to impress Becky with his collection of "Bible tickets," which are earned for memorizing passages from Scripture, Tom purchases the tickets from his schoolmates and is exposed when he is unable to answer a simple Biblical question at the award ceremony. Later, when Mr. Dobbins, the schoolteacher, discovers an unflattering caricature of himself, drawn by someone in his class, Tom takes the blame in order to save Becky from punishment. As a result, Tom wins Becky's admiration. That evening, Tom and his half-caste friend, Huckleberry Finn, go to the local cemetery with a dead cat in order to test Huck's cure for warts. Soon after they arrive, however, they witness three townsmen, Dr. Robinson, Injun Joe and Muff Potter, the town drunk, robbing a grave. During the robbery, a dispute between the men erupts, and Injun Joe stabs and kills Dr. Robinson. In an attempt to pin the murder on the unconscious Muff, Injun Joe plants the bloodied knife in his hand and flees. Terrified by the murder they witnessed, Tom and Huck take an oath of silence and return home. After Tom is spurned by Becky and wrongly accused of spilling sugar at home, he and Huck, whose mother has forced him to wear shoes against his will, decide to run away to play pirates on Jackson Island. Tom and Huck, along with their friend, Joe Harper, dress up as pirates and play along the river, but soon learn that a search party has been dispatched to find their presumed drowned bodies following the discovery of their clothes along the riverbank. The boys camp out for three days until Tom becomes homesick and decides to sneak home in the middle of the night to spy on the grieving mothers. Tom writes a note to Aunt Polly in which he assures her of his safety and his love for her, but pockets it when he learns that his funeral services are scheduled for the following day. Tom, Huck and Joe witness their own funeral service while hiding in the church, but emerge when they become overcome with emotion. Later, at Dr. Robinson's murder trial, Huck and Tom overhear the defense attorney state that there are no witnesses to testify on Muff's behalf, which prompts the guilt-ridden Tom to come forward and tell the truth about the murder. Just as Tom is about to name Injun Joe as the real murderer, Injun Joe hurls a knife at him and flees the courtroom. Tom escapes injury, and during a school picnic at a nearby cavern, Tom, having won Becky's respect anew, takes his sweetheart on a walk through the labyrinth of underground passageways. After they find a treasure chest filled with gold in one of the corridors, Tom and Becky become lost in the cavern. While searching for an exit, Tom and Becky happen upon Injun Joe, who has been hiding in the caves, and run away from him. Meanwhile, a search party is sent into the caves when it is discovered that Tom and Becky are missing. A rockslide blocks efforts to rescue Tom and Becky, but they manage to escape death by sending Injun Joe off the side of a cliff to his death. After Tom and Becky find their way out of the caves, they meet up with the search party and are taken back to town, where they are celebrated as heroes. 

Production Company: Selznick International Pictures, Inc.  
Distribution Company: United Artists Corp.  
Director: Norman Taurog (Dir)
  Eric Stacey (Asst dir)
  Jack Roberts (Asst dir)
  William Wellman (Dir of retakes and addl scenes)
  George Cukor (Dir of retakes and addl scenes)
Producer: David O. Selznick (Prod)
Writer: John V. A. Weaver (Scr)
  Barbara Keon (Cont)
  Marshall Neilan (Contr to trmt)
Photography: James Wong Howe (Photog)
  Wilfrid M. Cline (Assoc photog)
  Jack Cosgrove (Spec eff)
  Roy Clark (Asst cam)
  Ben M. Cohen (Asst cam)
Art Direction: Lyle Wheeler (Art dir)
Film Editor: Margaret Clancey (Film ed)
  Hal C. Kern (Supv film ed)
Set Decoration: Casey Roberts (Int dec)
  William Cameron Menzies (Cave seq des by)
Costumes: Walter Plunkett (Cost)
Music: Lou Forbes (Mus dir)
Sound: William Fox (Sd rec)
Production Misc: Neil McDonald (Chief elec)
  Charles Rose (Chief grip)
  William H. Wright (Asst to prod)
  Arden Cripe (Props)
  Lillian K. Deighton (Research)
Color Personnel: Natalie Kalmus (Col supv for the Technicolor company)
Country: United States

Source Text: Based on the novel The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain (San Francisco, 1876).
Authors: Mark Twain

Copyright Claimant Copyright Date Copyright Number Passed By NBR:
Selznick International Pictures, Inc. 4/3/1938 dd/mm/yyyy LP7894 Yes

PCA NO: 3745
Physical Properties: col: Technicolor
  Sd: Western Electric Sound System

Genre: Comedy-drama
Sub-Genre: Youth
Subjects (Major): Brothers
  False accusations
  Small town life
Subjects (Minor): African Americans--Mixed blood
  Falls from heights
  Indians of North America
  Missing persons, Assumed dead
  Mississippi River

Note: According to HR news items, producer David O. Selznick made two unsuccessful attempts to film this picture before production commenced for the third and final time on 18 Jul 1937. The first round of filming, which began on 27 Mar 1937, was suspended and then begun again on 24 Jun, only to be halted for a second time shortly thereafter. H. C. Potter directed the first two production attempts, and although it is not clear why the first two rounds of filming did not succeed, a modern source claims that Potter walked off the picture because of "Selznickian interference." HR also notes that when Norman Taurog, who directed Paramount's 1931 Huckleberry Finn , took over the direction of the film, he discarded the footage that had already been shot (in black and white), and began production on the film in Technicolor. John Weaver was assigned to refurbish the script to "meet color demands."
       Following Taurog's assignment as director of the picture, Ted Limes was replaced by Jackie Moran as "Huckleberry Finn," and Beulah Bondi supplanted Elizabeth Patterson as "Aunt Polly." Bondi was later replaced by May Robson. A 28 Jun 1937 HR production chart lists A. W. Sweatt, Hugh Chapman, Jimmie Swisher, and Hollis Jewell in the cast, but their appearance in the released film is doubtful. The same production chart included Tommy Bupp in the cast but, according to an interview with Bupp, he was originally cast in the role of Tom, but when the role of Huck was given to Jackie Moran, Bupp was replaced by Tommy Kelly because Bupp was considered too tall. HR news items also note that William Wellman, who was originally announced as the director of the picture, but who could not take the assignment at the time due to a schedule conflict with his work on A Star Is Born , directed two days of retakes in Dec 1937 while Taurog was busy with Mad About Music . George Cukor also directed some retakes and added scenes. Hundreds of boys were reportedly tested for the title role, which Selznick (according to a modern source printing of a memo he wrote on the subject) wanted to cast with an orphan who was unknown to film audiences. Selznick was unable to find a qualified orphan, but settled instead for the inexperienced Tommy Kelly, the son of an East Bronx fireman. The film marked Kelly's screen debut.
       Contemporary sources note that an exhibit called "The Making of a Contemporary Film," sponsored by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, featured material that attested to the exhaustive research efforts that went into making the picture. For example, the studio's research department was said to have consulted over one hundred sources in order to insure the authenticity of the setting and the characters in the film. Among the many experts who were consulted were Bernard De Voto, H. L. Mencken and Albert Bigelow Paine. Late 19th century American school books and Missouri newspapers were also used for research purposes, as was Mark Twain's book, Life on the Mississippi . According to a Feb 1938 Photoplay study guide, some filming took place at Malibu Lake, CA, where a school for the twelve children who were featured in the film was run by Fletcher Clark. A HR news item notes that Culver City proclaimed a "Tom Sawyer Day" in honor of this picture.
       As noted in a biography of photographer James Wong Howe, many disputes arose between Howe and Technicolor cameraman Wilfred Cline over which colors should be used in the wardrobe and sets. Cline suggested brilliant primary colors, while Howe insisted that the film maintain its true Southern and rural flavor by using only subdued earth tones. Howe prevailed, but by the end of the first week of production, the two were reportedly no longer on speaking terms. The biography also notes that while shooting the cave sequences, Howe overcame lighting difficulties by strapping Kelly to a harness that carried a 10,000 watt globe of light with an electrical cord running down the actor's leg. The device created the desired effect of Kelly lighting his path with a giant candle. In addition, Howe's biography notes that the Technicolor company, which had a virtual monopoly on color production, banned Howe from shooting subsequent pictures in color due to his poor rapport with their company. (Howe did not film another color production until 1949).
       According to a HR news item, Selznick International made a separate print of the film for release in Great Britain. William Hamilton Burnside, an English sales consultant, helped the studio eliminate "American colloquialisms, dialogue and situations in the Missouri boy story that might not be understood by a British audience." The NYT review of the film ends with the reviewer stating: "...get busy [Mr. Selznick] on Gone With the Wind , will you, before we begin throwing tomatoes." Lyle Wheeler was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Art Decoration for his work on the film.
       Other films based on Twain's novel include: the 1917 Paramount film Tom Sawyer , directed by William D. Taylor and starring Jack Pickford and George Hackathorne (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1911-20 ; F1.4513); the 1930 Paramount-Publix film of the same title, directed by John Cromwell and starring Jackie Coogan and Junior Durkin (see below); the 1938 Paramount film Tom Sawyer, Detective (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1931-40 ; F3.4677); the 1973 Universal TV--Hal Roach Productions telefilm, directed by James Neilson and starring Jane Wyatt and Buddy Ebsen, which aired on the CBS television network on 23 Mar 1973; the 1973 United Artists musical film Tom Sawyer , directed by Don Taylor; and, the 1995 Walt Disney Company film entitled Tom and Huck , directed by Peter Hewitt and starring Jonathan Taylor Thomas and Brad Renfro. 

Bibliographic Sources:   Date   Page
Daily Variety   11 Feb 38   p. 3.
Film Daily   15 Feb 38   p. 8.
Hollywood Reporter   14 Dec 36   p. 4.
Hollywood Reporter   28 Jun 37   p. 23.
Hollywood Reporter   15 Jul 37   p. 1.
Hollywood Reporter   19 Jul 37   p. 15.
Hollywood Reporter   4 Oct 37   p. 11.
Hollywood Reporter   5 Oct 37   p. 6.
Hollywood Reporter   11 Dec 37   p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter   14 Dec 37   p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter   11 Feb 38   p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter   10 Mar 38   p. 18.
Motion Picture Daily   14 Feb 38   p. 2.
Motion Picture Herald   9 Oct 37   pp. 16-17.
Motion Picture Herald   19 Feb 38   p. 38.
New York Times   18 Feb 38   p. 23.
Variety   16 Feb 38   p. 15.

Display Movie Summary
The American Film Institute is grateful to Sir Paul Getty KBE and the Sir Paul Getty KBE Estate for their dedication to the art of the moving image and their support for the AFI Catalog of Feature Films and without whose support AFI would not have been able to achieve this historical landmark in this epic scholarly endeavor.
Advanced Search
Support our efforts to preserve hisotory of film
Help AFI Preserve Film History

© 2017 American Film Institute.
All rights reserved.
Terms of use.