Classic Film Guide

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The (1939)

Produced by Joseph Mankiewicz and directed by Richard Thorpe, with a screenplay by Hugo Butler that was based on the classic novel by Mark Twain, this average adventure drama features Mickey Rooney in the title role. Huck lives with the widow Douglass (Elisabeth Risdon) and her sister Miss Watson (Clara Blandick); their Black slave Jim, who's a big part of the story, is played by Rex Ingram. Huck's fearsome and largely absent father ‘Pap’ is played by Victor Kilian. Walter Connolly and William Frawley play two con-men, dubbed the King and the Duke respectively; Lynne Carver and Jo Ann Sayers play these men's intended victims, Mary Jane and Susan Wilkes. Minor Watson plays Captain Brandy, who later helps these sisters and Huck as well. Harlan Briggs (uncredited) plays Mr. Rucker, a friend of the sisters’ recently departed father. Twain's passionate novel was softened to make a family friendly movie starring Rooney.

Huck would rather fish in the mighty Mississippi River than go to school, hence he's about to be passed over (e.g. not promoted) by his teacher. This will disappoint the widow Douglass, and especially her less tolerant (of his boyish ways) sister Miss Watson, greatly. But that's not Huck's only problem: his missing thought-to-be-dead (by some) father arrives to claim his son; Pap's actual intent is to extort money from the widow whom he knows would like to keep Huck. This prompts the boy to run away, but he's caught in the process by his laying-in-wait Pap, who then holds him captive in his ramshackle "cabin" by the river. When Pap leaves to get the money from the widow, Huck escapes and makes it look like he'd been shot and then drowned in the river. When Huck later runs into Jim, who'd been hoping to buy his freedom from the widow but had learned that he was being sold (e.g. so that she could pay Pap for Huck), he's surprised that the slave has run off. Huck goes into town to see "what's what" and learns that Jim is being wanted for the boy's own (phony) murder! While fleeing, Jim sees something that he chooses to keep secret from Huck, that the boy's father is dead.

While escaping down the river in hopes of getting to Cairo and a free state (Illinois), Huck and Jim encounter a couple of men who've just been thrown off a river boat. The two are able to con neophytes Huck and Jim into believing they're royalty, when actually they'd been ejected for cheating while gambling. The ‘King’ and the ‘Duke’ are on their way to their next confidence game: pretending to be the relatives of a wealthy man who'd recently died in order to fleece his daughters out of their inheritance. In fact, once ashore, they're quickly able to fool the man's best friend Mr. Rucker, who then helps to legitimize the claimants to these daughters, Mary Jane and Susan Wilkes. Another family friend, river boat Captain Brandy doesn't believe the con men but, in part because they'd cleverly given the deceased’s $2,000 in gold to his daughters, Mary Jane and Susan choose to trust in their legitimacy, giving the con men back the gold. Huck has witnessed the entire set-up, and his conscience doesn't like it, but he'd been afraid to speak up because he'd found out that the con men know about the $1,000 reward for Jim, who'd stayed a little up the river hidden with the raft.

When the con men fall off to sleep, Huck takes the gold and ends up putting it in the open casket before escaping to Captain Brandy's home, where he tells what he knows about fraud being perpetrated. Before morning, however, the con men wake up to discover the missing gold; meanwhile, Huck had gone to see Jim. The next thing you know, here comes the sheriff with his dogs to capture Jim who, along with Huck, is able to escape yet again until the boy gets bitten by a rattlesnake and the slave selflessly takes him into town to see a doctor. The con men are tarred and feathered. While recovering from his snakebite, Huck isn't told that Jim was sent back to be tried for murder until it's almost too late. However, Huck, with help from Captain Brandy, is able to return, piloting the river boat himself, in time to save Jim's life (from some vigilantes that want to lynch him). He then negotiates the slave's freedom with the widow, by promising not to play hooky from school, to wear shoes, not to smoke, etc..

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