Tales from the banks of the Mississippi river…
“Try looking back on days that were slower…when living came easy and neighbours were friends!” As if those words, which are sung over a gentle folk song, don’t inspire the viewers to lay back, take it easy and, though not in the spirit of the show, crack open a Cadbury’s Caramel, the titles of Huckleberry Finn And His Friends certainly will. A paddle-steamer makes its way very, very slowly upriver, a barefoot Huckleberry Finna (Ian Pearce) fishes by means of a stick and the tying of the line to his big toe and Sammy Snyders (as Tom Sawyer) greets the audience with a cheeky grin and a bowlcut so severe that it’s a wonder Becky Thatcher so much as looked at him never mind let him kiss her.
Ah but Becky Thatcher. Tom Sawyer was smitten by her and so too, I’d wager, were all the ten-year-old boys sitting at home and trying to make sense of the feelings of confusion that Becky (and Cathy Hargreaves and Daphne Blake) were causing in them. Watching this now, my memory has perhaps overplayed Becky’s involvement in the antics of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, this being, first and foremost, a show about the adventures of the two boys on and around the river Mississippi. Co-produced in a partnership between American and German television production companies, the intention behind Huckleberry Finn And His Friends was to work through Mark Twain’s books on Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn in such a way as to tell the entire story. Given how television expands to fill its schedules, you could read both books several times over in the time it takes to make it through this twenty-six part series, which leaves no stone of the series unturned, whitewashing the fence, having a run-in with Injun Joe, meeting the Duke and the Dauphin and all.
Huckleberry Finn And His Friends begins with Tom Sawyer placing a bet with his brother Sid, bragging that he’ll be the first to collect enough coloured tokens to get a bible from Sunday School. No one, least of all his Aunt Polly who knows all too well the mischief that her nephew gets into, believes him but Tom is adamant. Thanks to his good friend Huckleberry Finn and plan that comes to him while whitewashing the fence, Tom comes good in Sunday School just as Becky Thatcher’s uncle stands up to present the bibles. In an otherwise quiet classroom, Tom is the only one to accept a bible. His engagement to Becky seems assured. In love and with a good friend by his side, Tom Sawyer sets off for the cemetery at midnight with a dead cat in a sack, all with the aim of getting rid of warts. But in the graveyard, they hear voices and witness a grave robbing and a murder, hiding in the bushes as Injun Joe lands the fatal blow. With Muff Potter arrested for the crime, only the two boys know enough to see him released. But that draws them against Injun Joe, who’ll stop at nothing to take his revenge against Tom and Huck.
Thanks, in a roundabout way, to Injun Joe, the boys come into a good deal of money, which means that Huck comes into the guardianship of Widow Douglas, who tries to make the boy civil. Having lived almost all of his life barefoot and tramping about on the river banks, this doesn’t much suit Huck but with Tom Sawyer coming up with yet another great plan, Huck is out of his window that night and off to his wild ways once again. With Huck’s Pap arriving in St Petersburg, the boy finds that an uncivilised life isn’t much fun either, less so when the old man locks his son up in his trapper’s cabin until he finds out where the money is. So, Huck escapes down the river with Jim, meeting with the feuding Grangerfords and Shepherdsons, the wily Duke and Dauphin and Tom Sawyer’s Uncle Silas and Aunt Sally, who confuse Huck with Tom and Tom with his own brother Sid. With a lynch mob after Jim and St Petersburg on Huck’s tail, it needs one more great adventure from Tom to make things right.
I’ve not read the books but a quick scan through the versions on the Gutenberg Project seems to show this run of twenty-six episodes being in keeping with Twain’s novels. Where Huckleberry Finn And His Friends works is in keeping true to the era in which Twain set his stories, with Tom and Huck setting off on all kinds of adventures without much caring for school or church. Although entirely absent of Tom and Huck learning any kind of lessons, it shares much with The Waltons and Little House On The Prairie. However, this is also its undoing. By sticking so doggedly to the stories, it demands a very attentive audience and while it might have attracted one back when it was first shown, it’s hard to believe that very many children would watch it now when they’re distracted by the Disney Channel, the Cartoon Network and CBBC. I would think it was a problem even then, which the producers recognised by beginning each episode with a recap of the previous one and a preview of the following one. Determined was the child who watched every single one.
There are other problems, not least the German/American co-production forcing a lot of German actors onto the show who clearly had some problems with the language. Brigitte Horney (as Aunt Polly), Gunnar Möller (as Constable Moeller) and Dinah Hinz (as Aunt Sally) were either dubbed or re-recorded their dialogue in post-production with some obvious lip-synch problems. But when it’s good, as it is in the episodes in which Huck and Finn get into scrapes with Injun Joe, including his midnight murdering of Doc Robinson, it can be great fun. While I was nostalgic for my watching it when I was young, I’m not quite so sure that an audience of children would now have the patience for this.
Presented in 1.33:1, Huckleberry Finn And His Friends was, according to the notes on the DVD, filmed on 16mm and while the later episodes show up the kind of detail that one would expect from film, the earlier episodes aren’t so impressive. I can only assume that the first half-dozen episodes were shown more frequently due to the series being pulled from the schedules as its audiences drifted away from it on realising that there was six months of Huckleberry Finn to go. Six months is a long time when you’re ten years old, longer still when some commitment is required.
As such, the first half-dozen episodes won’t impress anyone. The colours have faded from the prints, detail is lost and they’re riddled with dirt and scratches. However, get past these and the series picks up somewhere on the second disc with Buried Treasure and The Millionaires, which come close to the end of the Tom Sawyer half of the series. The Huckleberry Finn episodes look much better and by near the end of the series, the episodes are reasonably sharp, show off a good deal more detail and appear much more colourful. There are still problems with the prints at this late stage but much less so than before, only now showing the occasional fault.
The DD2.0 audio track is like the picture in that the later episodes sound much better than the first half-dozen. The Huckleberry Finn stories feature much less background noise and while the dialogue is never obscured by such on any of the twenty-six episodes, it’s certainly noticeable at the start of the series. The theme tune, in particular, sounds in very poor shape but no matter the quality of any episode, it’s consistently poor throughout, which means it arrived that way before the completion of the series but is in no way indicative of the rest of each episode.
The main bonus feature is a Making Of… (30m16s), which, I assume, was produced either for this or for the Region 1 release of this series. Up to date, it features contributions from Sammy Snyders, Ian Tracey, Blu Mankuma and Alex Diakun, all of whom talk about their four months on the set, the making of the show and how many people still remember it. Both Snyders and Tracey talk about the casting process (Michael J Fox was in the running for the Tom Sawyer role at one point) and how like their characters they were with Pearce even admitting that his gap-tooth probably had the advantage of making him look more like the bumpkin that was Huckleberry Finn. Otherwise, there are plenty of text notes on the show, including a production schedule, lyrics to the theme song, episode synopses and profiles of the cast and crew. All of this bonus material is on the fourth disc in the set.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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