Kino Lorber Studio Classics has released The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in both its 1938 91-minute cut and its 77-minute cut when it was reissued in 1954. When released in 1938, it was the fourth adaptation of Mark Twain's 1876 novel and the first shot in Technicolor. Although the simplicity of the 19th century bucolic Midwestern town the story is set in and that of a 1930s family film may grow increasingly unfamiliar, Tom's adventures retain their appeal.
Tom (Tommy Kelly) lives with his Aunt Polly (May Robson), her daughter Mary (Marcia Mae Jones), and Tom's annoying half-brother Sid, who is always looking to tattle on Tom. There's some interesting backstory about Tom's parents but it doesn't get covered. Polly certainly doesn't spare the rod with Tom, smacking him in the face when a bowl is broken under the assumption he did it, and then not bothering to apologize when she learns the truth figuring it's for “plenty of other audacious mischief.” But deep down, it's made clear she cares about him.
Tom is a crafty boy, but too smart for his own good at times. He ditched school to go swimming, but doesn't use the right color thread when sewing up his collar. But he usually comes out ahead. We see him trick Joe (Mickey Rentschler) into painting Polly's fence, and then a dissolve shows Tom convinced a bunch of kids. I would have liked to have seen how he enlisted one more kid to demonstrate his smarts.
Tom and Huckleberry Finn (Jackie Moran) are out in a grave yard one night. While there, they see Injun Joe (Victor Jory) frame and convince town drunk Muff Potter (Walter Brennan) he murdered Dr. Robinson while the three men are out grave robbing. With Muff on trial for murder, Tom testifies on his behalf. In an unbelievably ridiculous scene, no one in the courtroom notices Injun Joe intimidating the boy, even when he is holding up a knife he is about to throw. In celebration of Tom's civic duty, school is canceled and the kids get a picnic and hayride. Tom and Becky Thatcher (Ann Gillis) run off on their own, and get trapped in a cave. The danger for them is magnified when Injun Joe is discovered there.
While producer David O. Selznick succeeded in creating a family picture with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, it feels like something has been lost in the adaptation. The episodes resolve so easily, which undercuts the plot, but it may be the same in the book. I also wonder if Mark Twain had more to offer with the story, such as societal commentary. For example, the only African American I remember seeing is a boy younger than Tom named Little Jim (Philip Hurlic). There's no information about his character other than he works around Polly's. His parents are neither seen nor spoken about nor is the year the film is set, which would have major implications for them.
The video has been given a 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC displayed at an aspect ratio of 1.33:1. Shot in Technicolor, the primary colors are bright hues, like the red of the tomatoes Tom makes good use of. Grays and browns are duller, creating a strong contrast. Whites, like the newly painted fence, are accurate. Blacks are inky by can crush in shadow. Very fine texture details are display, as seen on the paper that presents Twain's preface to the caves, the sequence of which was designed by William Cameron Menzies. Other times, the focus can loses its sharpness, especially during scene changes. The image looks free of wear and defect.
The audio is available in DTS-HD Master 2.0. Max Steiner's score, is subdued when playing under dialogue. It is too loud, bordering on distortion, during overly dramatic scenes like when Tom finds a way out the cave. Dialogue is clear and the effects sound believable. There's a good balance to the mix for the most part. The track sounded free of hiss. Aside from the two cuts of the film, the trailer is the only extra.
My disc has a problem during the Original Version. At Chapter Six, around 62 minutes, as the town brings in Muff, the video freezes, yet counter jumps ahead in spurts, starting back up about 80 seconds later with Muff's trial in progress. Haven't heard if anyone else has had the same issue.
The adventures in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1938) are thrilling for kids and those who remember being a kid. Unfortunately, the characters aren't fully developed and the conflicts so quickly concluded, that it doesn't rise above being a kid's movie. The Blu-ray offers strong video and adequate audio.