Mark Twain's much beloved adventure tales have been film fodder for practically as long as film itself has been around. There is a vivacious quality to Twain’s writing that translates well to movies with frank honesty and a sense of the times he lived in without becoming bound to them. His work remains a timeless slice of Americana. That MGM sought to do justice to one of his most beloved fictional characters - Huckleberry Finn - was in keeping with the studio's commitment to literary classics. That Mickey Rooney should be the very embodiment of this wily urchin was perhaps not so clear at the time of the film's release. However, there's no denying Rooney his greatness in the role. He is Huck Finn.
Hence director Richard Thorpe's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1939) remains the benchmark by which all other versions of the story have long since been judged and fallen short. The screenplay by Hugo Butler and Walter Salt manages the minor coup of condensing Twain's beloved literary masterpiece into a workable 96 minutes that captures all the flavor of the original story. And Rooney is remarkably un-Rooney-esque in the film; setting aside his usual hammy improvisation to deliver a thoroughly heartfelt and sympathetic portrait of Twain’s beloved minor reprobate.
Huckleberry Finn (Rooney) is first seen lazily wasting his time by the Mississippi water's edge. He has been delinquent from school and will not be allowed to graduate with his classmates. His benefactors, the widow Douglas (Elisabeth Risdon) and Miss Watson (Clara Blandick) do not know this yet. Douglas is particularly kind to Huck. She sees the good in him despite his father (Victor Kilian); a drunken reprobate who is certain his son will come to no good.
Huck is particularly close to the dowager's man servant, Jim (Rex Ingram); a slave who has dreams of raising enough money to buy his bond to return to his wife and child who are up north and living free. In the middle of the night, Pap Finn kidnaps Huck to his secluded cabin near the river. Huck escapes and Pap is later murdered. Jim, who has chosen to run away without paying his bond is suspected of the crime but Huck knows better.
Together he and Jim trudge up the Mississippi where they run into a pair of con artists, The King (Walter Connelly) and The Duke (William Frawley). They convince Huck to help them swindle a pair of unsuspecting young women, Mary Jane (Lynn Carver) and Susan (Jo Ann Sawyers) out of their life's inheritance. Captain Brandy (Minor Watson) encourages prudence but is ignored by the girls who give all their money to the con artists.
After learning the truth Huck steals the money back for them and The King and The Duke are tarred and feathered by the locals before being forcibly carried out of town. The law catches up to Jim however and Huck, who has been injured and is convalescing has Captain Brandy help him across the state lines by riverboat after it is proven he did not kill Pap Finn. Jim goes home to his wife and child and the widow Douglas makes Huck promise to stop smoking, start wearing shoes and go back to school. Huck agrees, but we see a pipe sticking out of his back pocket just before the screen fades to black.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is poetic storytelling in all sorts of unexpected ways. Franz Waxman's score is simple and understated as is John Seitz' cinematography. In an era of affectation, MGM creates an iconic rural landscape that truly feels like the land of Mark Twain. It's homey when it needs to be and stark as it should be. Mickey Rooney delves deeply into his character. His performance is flawless. So is Rex Ingram's Jim. The rest of the cast are equally understated and effective. It's no wonder this film has sustained its appeal throughout the years as the definitive retelling of Twain's classic tale.
Regrettably, no one at Warner Home Video thinks as much. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a Warner Archive release and so utterly flawed by aliasing and edge enhancement that the image is altogether unwatchable. The gray scale is softly focused for a rather blurry presentation throughout. Chroma bleeding is also in evidence. Truly, there's nothing to recommend this transfer and such a colossal shame too. This film deserves so much better. The audio is mono but represented at an adequate listening level. Like most titles in the archive this one comes with NO extras. Not recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)