Variations on the Confidence Game

A passel of new films about everyone's favorite con men, from Tom Sawyer to Adolph Hitler, with a few con women thrown in for balance.

THERE’S A NEW TOM SAWYER for the kiddies, the first of a series of “family” films sponsored by The Reader’s Digest. And if there’s a prophylactic RD aura about this huge-screen musical version—well, didn’t Twain put it there himself in his idyllic tale of a Missouri boyhood, circa 1840? And it’s been loved generationally, in the black-and-white movies made thereof in 1917 and 1930 (the latter had Jackie Coogan as Tom, Mitzi Green as Becky, Tully Marshall as Muff Potter, Clara Blandick as Aunt Polly and Jane Darwell as Widow Douglass) and in the 1938 David Selznick Technicolor Adventures of Tom Sawyer, with Tommy Kelly as Tom, Walter Brennan as Muff, May Robson as Aunt Polly, Spring Byington as Widow Douglas and Victor Jory a really terrifying Injun Joe.

This time around Tom is a plastic Johnny Whitaker, with a more boyish but much too clean Jeff East as Huck. The compensations are Warren Dates, as a marvelously befuddled Muff; Celeste Holm as a warmly righteous Aunt Polly and Lucille Benson as a buxom Widder Douglas (three variations on a name in three films). Beyond them there is a literate script and some jolly nice songs, all by Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman, and above all some of the loveliest Missouri scenery. And you have to have a passel of kids around you (as I did at the Music Hall) to provide the raucous giggles over the white-washing of the fence and Huck’s and Tom’s weepy appearance at their funeral, the gasps at the graveyard shenanigans, the suspenseful chills and final cheers during the climactic cave sequence to know that there’s a children’s classic at hand and that you can double your pleasure in adulthood by knowing the generations are ungapped thereby.

Peter Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon, his fifth and most recent film, is exactly what we have in mind when we talk nostalgically of what movies “used to be”—meaningful rather than metaphorical, engrossing rather than exploitative, humanistic in their comedy and their sentiment. Indeed there will be those cineastes who will declare that this is a used-to-be-movie, with shades of The Kid, The Champ, Little Miss Marker—if not homages to the makers thereof. They’re right as far as genre goes. A basic theme is, of course, that of the waif and the con man, the child up against the hard heart and larcenous learnings of the adult. But as Bogdanovich has shown in the progression of his films, along with a steady growth of professionalism and ripening of talent, through Targets, Directed by John Ford, The Last Picture Show and What’s Up Doc?, he is artist enough to make his personal mark upon a genre with a work that is distinctively his own.

Based rather loosely on Addie Pray, a novel by Joe David Brown, with a screenplay by Alvin Sargent (who proves himself better at adaptation than originality), Paper Moon is the story (a love story, perhaps, or a story of love) of a nine-year-old orphan and a small-time confidence man making his way through a Depression-bleak Kansas en route to her aunt’s in St. Joseph, Mo. The Panama-hatted slick-suited gent is a Bible salesman, working the widow-racket, and they meet at her mother’s graveside where he has paused to pay tribute (with second-hand flowers) to the departed, of carnal memory, and a trio of do-gooders are wondering how to dispose of the child. Since he’s on his way to St. Jo, why not take the girl to her only surviving relative? He agrees and in no time has gently blackmailed a chap in town into giving the child $200 in compensation for her mother’s death and spent a chunk of it refurbishing his roadster. He’s about to put her on a train for St. Jo with $20 cash when suddenly he sees the child plain. “You owe me $200,” she declares. He has met his match.

Moses Pray’s match is about four feet tall, a hideous cloche pulled down to her eyebrows, sexless in overalls, firm-pawed and bass-voiced, clutching a cigar-box packed with her treasures, chief among them a bottle of perfume and a snapshot of her mother, a posturing cheap and pretty belle in the same cloche. And Addie has a perceptive eye, a mind like a calculator, a bent for smoking in bed, a passion for Jack Benny and Fibber McGee, a cool head for business and a yearning tenderness. But in eternal-woman fashion, she’s up against a total stinker, a foolish, cowardly petty crook without an honest instinct or a non-egocentric emotion. He’ll earn and repay the $200—if he won’t Addie will scream—but not an iota more will he give.

The two set out and before you know it, Addie’s running the widow-racket, the dollar-switch and the $20-pass like a pro, with the profits bulging in her cigar box. True, there’s a bit of setback when Moses gets himself besotted by Trixie Delight, a carnival dancer of good family, but Addie, with the help of Trixie’s 15-year old slavery, deals with the problem. It’s when Moses gets into bootlegging that things get tough and a little girl really has to cope. But you can bet on Addie all the way.

Addie is portrayed by a nine-year-old named Tatum O’Neal—only a father would be willing to co-star with this technical amateur but actually top-pro picture-stealer. And indeed, it is her father, Ryan O’Neal, who not only cooperates in her large case of larceny but in the course thereof proves himself a highly gifted actor who is surely and steadily moving far beyond his pretty-boy simplistics in Love Story and The Thief Who Came to Dinner and becoming, as he indicated in What’s Up, Doc?, a first-rate character actor. He gives Moses Pray a proper sleeziness, just the right touch of slickery, to make the little girl’s enthrallment—and reticent hope that just maybe, what with their having the same sort of jaw line—just maybe he’s her father.

Bogdanovich’s basic triumph is in keeping the

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