The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Review
Mickey Rooney was everywhere in 1939, so it was only logical when MGM went into production on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that the diminutive nineteen-year old actor play the pivotal role of the iconic character, regardless of the difference in age. This choice in casting is just one of the many fine qualities that make the 1939 adaptation the best-filmed version of the beloved Mark Twain tale.
Metro Goldwyn Mayer, or MGM as it is better known, was the most glamorous movie studio in Hollywood during the film industry’s Golden Age. Renowned for its lavish musicals, the production company also took great pride in creating so called “prestige” pictures of which they could tout whenever the industry’s moral standing was called into question. To studio head Louis B. Mayer, nothing brought better prestige than adaptations of popular literary classics (Wuthering Heights, Gone with the Wind). The presentations of heady tombs were good for the studio’s reputation and when they did well at the box office that made Mayer and the other executives even happier. And nothing guaranteed financial success at the movies in 1939 more than super-star Mickey Rooney.
At the peak of his career between the ages of 15 and 25, Rooney made forty-three films co-starring alongside the biggest stars of the era including Judy Garland, Spencer Tracy and Elizabeth Taylor, and was the top box office attraction from 1939 to 1941. A powerhouse of talent, the amazingly versatile performer could sing, dance, and play an assortment of musical instruments. And it was this impressive abundance of talent that garnered the young thespian an Oscar nomination at the age of nineteen, becoming the first teenager to be nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actor for his leading role in Babes in Arms, the very same year he performed as Huck Finn. Rooney was without a doubt that rare actor who guaranteed ticket sales while at the same time provided quality entertainment that critics admired.
Of course a classic like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has so much more going for it in addition to its lead actor. The film also boasts an impressive list of supporting actors including Rex Ingram (The Thief of Bagdad, Sahara), Walter Connelly (It Happened One Night, 20th Century), and William Frawley (Miracle on 34th Street, I Love Lucy) who all play their parts to perfection in the story of a rambunctious boy adventurer. Behind the scenes is director Richard Thorpe (Ivanhoe, Jailhouse Rock), cinematographer John F. Seitz (Sunset Blvd., Double Indemnity), producer by Joseph L. Mankiewicz (A Christmas Carol, The Philadelphia Story), composer Franz Waxman (Rebecca, A Place in the Sun) and make up designer Jack Dawn (The Wizard of Oz, Asphalt Jungle). The film is literally packed full of world class, A-list team players whose immense contributions are ever present as Huck escapes his ne’er do well father and sails a raft down the Mississippi River through harrowing events and thrilling adventures.
The only draw back to the entire film maybe the fact that it’s not in color. Being such a high profile project it’s surprising MGM didn’t insist on the extravagance. However, I think the black and white presentation lends to the overall rustic charm of the piece. It’s possible the illusion of days gone by might have been lost in the saturation of Technicolor. And after all, Rooney brings his trademark persona and panache to the film which more than makes up for any lack of visual spectacle. With that and a story from Mark Twain, what more could you possibly want from a film?