A Family Affair

Tom Sawyer A Reader's Digest-Arthur P. Jacobs Production, directed by Don Taylor. At various Sack Theaters around Boston.

ONE OF THE first novels I read as a child was Mark Twain's classic novel of juvenile adventure, Tom Sawyer. Its unique blend of noble deeds, perilous cave exploration, playing 'hooky,' and otherwise escaping the realities of life--all intermingled with the inescapable wit of Twain--kept this city boy from Detroit fascinated through many of his grade school years. Perhaps, then, it was deja vu--memories of happy hours spent with Tom, Huck Finn, Becky Thatcher, Aunt Polly, and company--that motivated me to see what the Reader's Digest, making its debut as a film producer, had done to my old favorite in the process of adapting it into a movie musical.

I was certainly not disappointed with one aspect of their work. The Digest had obviously spared no expense while recreating the Missouri of Tom Sawyer's day. The Digest and the film's director, Don Taylor, exercised every effort to capture for the viewer the flavor of life along the Mississippi. Painstaking care had been taken to assure that every minute detail was consistent with the word images of the original book. Taylor made excellent use of the Panavision wide screens by means of some dramatic aerial photography that emphasized the breathtaking width of the Mississippi. But dramatic, breathtaking, and expensive photography cannot carry a narrative motion picture over its rough parts, and herein lies the picture's fatal problem.

Too often, important sequences of plot were--albeit in Digest tradion--condensed into a few lines. Screenplay and song writers Richard and Robert Sherman evidently assumed that their film audience would already know the Tom Sawyer story, and there was consequently no need to go into it at any great length. While this might have been a worthy thought, it had the unfortunate result of pacing the film so that the brief scenes of story material appeared at times as no more than quick fillers between often absurdly drawn-out musical numbers.

The Sherman brothers' rather bland musical score is for the most part tolerable, even though many of the lyrics seem womewhat stilted and pointless. The indefinite and indecisive nature of the music itself (is it supposed to be Dixieland or isn't it?) reminded this listener of much of the lesser material found in Disney's Mary Poppins, an earlier Sherman-Sherman songwriting opus.

JOHNNY WHITTAKER, formerly Jody on CBA Television's Family Affair, performs the title role quite well, technically speaking. Yet he never completely convinces the viewer that he really is the mischievous character that Twain described. In fact, on the contrary, Whittaker's Sawyer is a rather cocky and not always likeable fellow. Jeff East, however, portraying Tom's sidekick Huckleberry Finn, does a much more admirable job of presenting an image of the slightly reckless, adventure-loving boy of whom Twain wrote.

But neither Whittaker or East can be classified as the 'stars' of Tom Sawyer. That title must remain reserved for the Digest, whose influence is visibly present in almost every scene. The Digest's famous sense of patriotism shows up in a Fourth of July celebration, complete with fireworks. The Digest's equally famous conservative editing discreetly removed the section of the original novel in which Tom discovers an 'anatomy' book--with a color frontispiece--in his schoolteacher's top desk drawer. Even the meticulous detail referred to before is typical of the Digest, which is quite proud of its reputation of accuracy stemming from incessant research.

Yet although some argue that the Digest's unique policies result in a conservatively biased, second-class magazine, it cannot be denied that when applied to family filmmaking they result in a suitable effort, perhaps the likes of which have not been seen since the death of Walt Disney. Tom Sawyer is far from perfect, to be sure. But compared with such recent Disney productions as The Love Bug, it will no doubt provide quite a refreshing change for those who enjoy "family" films.