The TOM SAWYER I’m referring to here is the 1973 musical version which is unforgiveably forgotten by many people. This musical has some incredibly catchy songs, memorable dialogue portions and terrific performances from all cast members, young and old.
Most importantly the film nicely distills the essential elements of Mark Twain’s popular story in a nearly seamless way. Anything you loved from the book when you read it is to be found here: Tom’s tall tales to Aunt Polly to explain why he’s late for supper or didn’t show up at school, Tom tricking other kids into paying him to whitewash a fence for him, Tom and Huckleberry Finn witnessing Injun Joe’s murder of Ol’ Doc, Tom chivalrously taking a thrashing for Becky Thatcher, Tom and Huck running away and being given up for dead and of course Tom attending his own funeral.
All that and a great musical number during an excellently mounted 1870’s Fourth of July Celebration. Injun Joe gets a much more merciful end in this movie than he did in the book, so that’s a plus, too.
Johnny Whitaker, known to generations of us as “that kid on those Family Affair reruns”, plays Tom in his best incarnation ever. Jodie Foster portrays Becky Thatcher, and in this version Tom shoots Judge Thatcher to prove his love for Becky (I’m kidding!).
That old songbird Warren Oates (?) plays Huck and Tom’s friend Muff Potter and his raspy rendition of Muff’s song There Ain’t No Fightin’ Fate is actually appropriate to the role and Oates certainly does not embarrass himself like, say, Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood did in Paint Your Wagon.
Jeff “Pumpkinhead” East is perfect as Huck Finn, (though his sequel musical wasn’t nearly as good as this one, unfortunately) and Celeste Holm is just the right mix of sternness and reluctant amusement as Aunt Polly. Charley Pride opens and closes the musical with the poignant River Song and its reprise.
Speaking of the songs, this musical is loaded with memorable tunes that you’ll find yourself humming and singing to yourself for years, which is one of the reasons why I can’t believe this movie is as neglected as it is.
Besides the songs I’ve already mentioned this musical features great ditties like Gratifaction, If’n I Was God, Holiday In Hannibal, MO and the title tune. The only misstep I think the creative team makes is to cut the rollicking song Freebootin’ short. That piece is sung when Tom and Huck are initially relishing their freedom after running away and it deserved to be this film’s showstopper, but it is brought to a close just as it seems to get going.
And by the way THE John Williams conducted the music in this flick.
I often think of this film as an American Oliver! and if you have kids this movie might be a good way to kick off summer vacation each year, assuming your kids will sit through a musical. I was eleven or twelve when they had us watch this in school and have loved it ever since, so maybe your kids will enjoy it, too.
This may seem like an odd film to end my Top 4 list with since the other three were balls-to-the-wall action westerns, but I wanted to throw in a movie that people with families could enjoy together.
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