Doggone. Seems as though the producers of the latest video version of "Huck Finn" did their casting search in the halls of St. Albans. Long on sweetness and short on the linguistic and narrative fireworks of the Mark Twain novel, tonight's opening episode of "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" (at 9 on Channel 26 and Maryland Public Television stations, with episodes on the next three Mondays) is a pallid reading of an American classic.
And what a shame. Since the days of the young-short Mickey Rooney, filmmakers have been trying to make a decent film of "Huck" and it's just about always the same durn problem: too sweet, too lazy dull.
Patrick Day, a 16-year-old Tennessean whose previous acting experience consists of a few commercials and some regional theater, is not up to four hours of sustained wit and guile. He looks a little too much like the nicest kid on the junior high tennis team, and too little like Huck, who manages to bolt a drunken, brutal father and survive a manic trip down the Mississippi. Every time Day delivers a little of the ol' Twain lingo -- "There ain't no way nohow," etc. -- he is ill at ease, forced.
Day's poor ear for the language of "Huck" is the great failing of the production, for if there was a single factor that compelled Ernest Hemingway to call "Huckleberry Finn" the "best book we've had," it was its language, its delight in mimicking the talk of so many characters -- children, preachers, spinsters, drunkards and slaves. Not until William Carlos Williams (or perhaps Lenny Bruce) came along was there an American author with a better ear for the American idiom.
Day and the viewer both should be grateful for the supporting work of Frederic Forrest as Pap Finn, Lillian Gish as Mrs. Loftus, Geraldine Page as Sally Phelps and, above all, Jim Dale and Barnard Hughes as a team of actors who hijack Huck's raft.
The high point of the series just may be Dale's vaudeville reading of Hamlet's "To be or not to be" soliloquy. Leave it to an Englishman to have the best flair for Twainian comedy. Dale is a gas, mangling and misremembering his Shakespeare, stretching his expressive face like so much Play-Doh. When the crowd boos poor Dale off the stage, his partner Hughes remarks, "I guess we oughtta pass on this soo-blime theater stuff."
Quite right in the case of the "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." Despite an advisory board that included Justin Kaplan, Twain's wise biographer, director Peter Hunt and executive producer William Perry tried for a product a bit too soo-blime. The pacing is slow. The music is too "delightful." The reverence for the sunlit, lazy Mississippi -- played here nicely by the Ohio River -- a bit too much.
But keep 'em coming. Some day, someone who knows a good adolescent actor with a saucy tongue and a sensitive ear will say, "Doggone. Let's make a li'l ol' movie of this book. Whatcha think?"