In this post we will examine one of Basil Rathbone’s television appearances. On November 20, 1957, CBS broadcast a teleplay called “Huck Finn,” which starred Jimmy Boyd as Huck, Basil Rathbone as the Duke, and Jack Carson as the King. An episode of the U.S. Steel Hour, it was a musical version of an episode in Mark Twain’s novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885).
Young Huck and his friend Jim, a runaway slave, are heading down the Mississippi River on a raft when they meet two scoundrels who pass themselves off as a King and a Duke. Jim is completely taken in by their fakery, but Huck goes along with their lies and swindles until they try to bilk the Wilks sisters. They have learned of the death of one Peter Wilks, who left a fortune in property and cash. Since Wilks has two brothers in England who are not known locally, the King and the Duke decide to pose as these brothers and claim the brothers’ portion of the inheritance. Huck knows it is wrong for the crooks to take the money, so he steals it back and hides it in a coffin. When he is satisfied that the money will be returned to the sisters, Huck runs off.
The two Wilks sisters are Mary Jane (played by Florence Henderson) and Joanna (played by Karin Wolfe). Jim was played by Earle Hyman.
The script was written by Anne Croswell and Lee Pockriss. Elliott Silverstein directed.
“Huck Finn” featured nine songs written by Frank Luther.
Basil Rathbone and Jack Carson sang “The Boasting Song.” “Loafin’ on the Water” was sung by Earle Hyman. Florence Henderson had two numbers: “Funny but Likeable” and “You Are One to Wander.” Jimmy Boyd sang “Too Wonderful for Me.”
The chorus sang the following songs:
- My Friend Huckleberry Finn
- The Time Has Come to Say Goodbye
- We All Shout Together in the Mornin’
- Storm Come A-risin’
Despite the impressive cast, the production received lukewarm reviews.
Variety (November 27, 1957) described the play as “a vapid piece lacking the color, satire and inspiration of the original [novel].” The critic went on to say, “Jack Carson and Basil Rathbone, and the Duke and the Dauphin, respectively, had a (Smith)field day hamming up their parts. They played it broad and loud without any particular point of view. … Luther’s score added little to the general run of things. Except for “Loafin’ on the Water,” which fit into the Mississippi mood, the tunes seemed to be shoved into the script at random and weren’t strong enough to stand up on their own.” (“Loafin’ on the Water” was sung by Rathbone and Carson.)
Another issue of Variety noted that Rathbone “deftly captures the rascality of the Duke” (quoted in Michael Druxman’s Basil Rathbone: His Life and His Films, p. 94).
The December 2, 1957 issue of Time reported: “They changed it all around and they put the wrong people in it. … To see Rathbone & Carson was like a showboat, not a raft. … They made [Huck] slushy romantical over Mary Jane Wilks and had her batting her eyes and singing love songs at him.”
In the New York Times (November 21, 1957), Jack Gould wrote, “The episode taken from “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” was the attempt of the Duke and the King to rob the Wilks girls of their father’s estate. But the ludicrous distortions, the farcical approach, the inclusion of a torch song for a grown ingénue and the embarrassingly broad playing of Basil Rathbone and Jack Carson made the venture utterly hopeless. … Usually it is to be regretted when a story that should have appeal for young viewers is presented late in the evening; last night it was fortunate.” (“Huck Finn” was broadcast live from New York, 10:00 to 11:00 p.m.)
Basil wasn’t proud of this production. In a letter dated December 3, 1957, Basil wrote: “There are times now I don’t like myself at all! both as a person & professional … ‘Huck Finn’ was one of them … I thought it was a real mess … not enough Mark Twain & too much superfluous ‘production’ (singing & dancing). Jack Carson and I did what we could for Mark Twain but our opportunities were limited. … All T.V. suffers from lack of time in preparation & tremendous costs. I wish to heaven I could find a play. In the theatre one has the time to prepare & develop a character.”
In his autobiography, Rathbone commented on the making of this show and other live productions, writing, “The atmosphere, from the first rehearsal to the final ‘signing off,’ was frantic with the pressure of competition. … The pace was terrific and one was haunted by fears of inadequacy owing to time limitations for preparation and proper rehearsals, and the knowledge that no one could help you if anything went wrong once you were ‘on the air.’ … It was a miserably frustrating existence.” (In and Out of Character, pp. 268-269)
If a kinescope or video of Huck Finn exists somewhere, I’ve yet to find it. Even with the poor reviews, it would be fun to see it!
photos by Jay Seymour (Gary Wagner Associates, NYC)