Watching 1939: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1939)

In 2011, I announced I was trying to see every film released in 1939. This new series chronicles films released in 1939 as I watch them. As we start out this blog feature, this section may become more concrete as I search for a common thread that runs throughout each film of the year. Right now, that’s difficult. 

1939 film:  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1939)

Release date:  Feb. 10, 1939

Cast:  Mickey Rooney, Rex Ingram, Walter Connolly, William Frawley, Lynne Carver, Clara Blandick, Elisabeth Risdon, Minor Watson, Jo Ann Sayers, Victor Kilian, Irving Bacon (uncredited), Delmar Watson, Billy Watson, Harry Watson

Studio:  Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Director:  Richard Thorpe

Plot:
Huckleberry Finn (Rooney) is a troublemaking orphan living with a widow (Risdon) and her sister (Blandick). Huckleberry skips school, lies and smokes pipes. Huckleberry feels bad when he realizes that he is going to disappoint the Widow because he isn’t going to advance at school. When his father who is believed to be dead (Kilian) shows up, he kidnaps his son. Huckleberry runs away, travels down the river and finds Jim (Ingram), the Widow’s slave that Huckleberry befriended.

1939 Notes:
• Rex Ingram’s only film of 1939.
• Walter Connolly died in 1940, and his last films were released in 1939. Connolly was in seven films released in 1939, with “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” as his first released that year.
• Mickey Rooney was 18 when he played the 13-year-old character of Huckleberry Finn, and MGM bought the film rights to the movie specifically for Rooney. Rooney was in five films released in 1939.
• William Frawley was in nine films released in 1939
• Richard Thorpe directed two films released in 1939

Rex Ingram and Mickey Rooney in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”

Other trivia: 
• Brothers Delmar Watson, Billy Watson and Harry Watson appear in the film together
• MGM made “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” in 1960. It was made again in 1974 as a musical.
• Elisabeth Risdon was billed as Elizabeth Risdon in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”
• Adaptation of Mark Twain’s novel, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
“The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” is no stranger to the silver screen.

Huckleberry Finn first graced the screen in 1918 in the film “Huck and Tom” and again in silent films in 1920 as “Huckleberry Finn.” Paramount Pictures then released “Huckleberry Finn” in 1931 with child star Jackie Coogan, who was 17 at the time.

The next adaptation was with another teenager – Mickey Rooney. It’s close enough to Mark Twain’s story but a little exhausting.

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer purchased the rights the story specifically for Mickey Rooney, who was making the popular Andy Hardy films at this time and starting in musicals with Judy Garland.

“The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (1939) is the usual light fair released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, but it isn’t the best.

However, as B. R. Crisler wrote for The New York Times, the character is “more Mickey than Huckleberry.” It’s true, Mickey Rooney might as well be performing as Andy Hardy dressed as Huckleberry Finn. He’s maybe not as exuberant, but pretty much the same ole Mickey. Rooney was a little old to be playing the 13-year-old character, but still looked the part.

My least favorite part of any adaptation of the story is the “King” and “Duke” that are met on the river, here played by William Frawley and Walter Connolly (that’s more an issue of the story than with the actors or film). William Frawley wears a dark wig with sideburns, which looks ridiculous on him. As for 1939, this is the last year audiences would see Walter Connolly because he died in 1940 of a stroke.

Mickey Rooney, William Frawley (with toupee) and Walter Connolly

The real highlight of the film Rex Ingram, in his only film role of 1939. Ingram plays Jim, the slave trying to get to his wife and child. Ingram doesn’t have as much screentime in the middle of the film, but his role is still a powerful one.

“The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” is a fairly forgettable film as far as 1939, but it’s interesting to see how Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer made the Mark Twain story their own. (Though this story is MUCH better than the musical version.)

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