American Authors

American Authors

Posted by Mike Finnegan on Nov 30th 2017

Two rascally and eloquently outspoken men of letters born a century apart share today as a birthday, and each has spawned movie and TV adaptations from either the printed page or the stage that share an unsparingly witty, frequently caustic, occasionally celebratory and definitely illuminating point of view as to how scalawags and reprobates go about their version of American Free Enterprise. And the elder has had a strong influence on the younger, who has quoted his predecessor in many interviews across the years. As Chicago-born playwright/screenwriter/essayist/director David Mamet, who turns 70 today, told the Chicago Tribune’s Gary Dretzka in 2000: “Mark Twain [1835-1910, born this very day 182 years ago] said a great thing. He'd be traveling around the world and meeting all these interesting people, in bizarre locations, and someone would ask, ‘What's it like meeting people like that?’ He said, ‘I met ’em before. I met ’em on the river.’ That's kind of how I felt, after 10 years or more of bumming around and doing every job in the world.” Via a pair of interesting Blu-ray releases, you too can meet some interesting Twain folks and Mamet mortals, original literary creations yet perhaps full of recognizable dreams, foibles and failings that are startlingly familiar. 

On one bountiful double-feature disc find the melodic Robert B. Sherman/Richard M. Sherman musical adaptations of Missouri native Twain’s two most beloved characters, the exuberant Tom Sawyer (1973) and the thoughtfully darker Huckleberry Finn (1974), each managing to mix the flavor of homespun Americana with the restless undercurrents of growing up and breaking free in an 18th-century, pre-Emancipation era. Sponsored by Reader’s Digest and skillfully shaped by the Shermans to be family-friendly while still retaining some of the grit and cultural sting of Twain’s storytelling, these beautifully shot Panavision efforts, produced by Arthur P. Jacobs (who captained the musical reimaginings of Doctor Dolittle (1967, a recent Twilight Time release) and Goodbye Mr. Chips (1969) and respectively directed by Don Taylor and J. Lee Thompson, brought together marvelous child actors (Johnny Whitaker, Jodie Foster, Jeff East) and adult veterans (Celeste Holm, Paul Winfield, Gary Merrill, Henry Jones, Arthur O’Connell) to vividly embody the variably upstanding and dastardly denizens of Hannibal, MO, and its surrounding, Mississippi River-connected environs. In finding a tuneful equivalent to Twain’s luxuriant prose, the Shermans devised adroitly catchy, comic and moving songs, like Tom Sawyer’s River Song, Gratifaction, A Man’s Gotta Be (What He’s Born to Be) and Freebootin,’ as well as Huckleberry Finn’s Freedom, Cairo, Illinois, Royalty and What’s Right, What’s Wrong? 

Tom Sawyer’s likker-swigging scapegrace Muff Potter (played by Warren Oates) Huckleberry Finn’s hortatory and predatory conmen The King (Harvey Korman) and The Duke (David Wayne) might very well be an earlier era’s country cousins to comparable downtown urban contemporary misfits named Teach, Don and Bobby, the raggedy reprobates incarnated by Dustin Hoffman, Dennis Franz and Sean Nelson in American Buffalo (1996), the flinty film version of David Mamet’s blistering 1975 play directed (from Mamet’s own adaptation) by Michael Corrente. The setting is still the Midwest, but instead of Mark Twain’s small-town Hannibal hominess along the Big Muddy, we’re now in a cluttered, cramped junk shop buried on a side street in a drab, post-industrial Chicago neighborhood (played on screen by the director’s home turf of Pawtucket, RI). It seems like a place where pipe dreams – like those of a big rare coin collection heist envisioned by grungy grifter “mastermind” Teach (Hoffman) – go to die, but as Teach’s misanthrophic mind is on constant overdrive, he’ll hash out his spurious scheme over and over with shop owner Don (Franz) and his part-time assistant Bobby (Nelson), as TT essayist Julie Kirgo observed, “spouting half-baked words of wisdom at a mile-a-minute pace.” Whereas the Twain movies have scores composed of character-revealing songs, Kirgo asserts in her essay on the title that “perhaps the most enduring music of American Buffalo is Mamet’s: the laconic, staccato clang of everyday American talk combined with the loftier sentiments of our country’s reach-for-the-moon, anything-is-possible aspirational speechifying. Teach and Don, in particular, are veritable fonts of this bizarre combination. When [the play] American Buffalo premiered in the mid-1970s, its language apparently seemed shocking; now, it is merely accurate and emblematic.” In the hands of its bravura actors, it is also uniquely engrossing. Two nimble word-spinners, born the same day 112 years apart, offer visions of Americana both light and dark, funny and bleak, each in their unique fashion musical; Twilight Time’s hi-def Blu-rays of the Tom Sawyer/ Huckleberry Finn double bill and American Buffalo are available through tomorrow at limited-time discount prices as part of TT’s Pre-Holiday Sales Promotion. Meet ’em afresh…or perhaps you know ’em already.