HOLLYWOOD -- Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain's barefoot boys of antebellum Mississippi River adventures, are a sight to see spouting Russian and rafting down the Dnieper.
The lads, along with Injun Joe, Becky Thatcher, Jim the slave and Aunt Polly can all be seen in 'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,' a three-hour Soviet TV miniseries.
Happily, the American classic has been produced with greater affection and attention to detail than any Hollywood version of the novel -- the language notwithstanding.
The novelty of hearing the dialogue in Russian quickly palls, but the visual treatment is as good or better than what Hollywood has attempted in the previous four or five 'Tom Sawyer' movies.
Americans will see the film in theaters, television and cable later this year, perhaps by Thanksgiving, but only after it has been dubbed in English.
Costumes, sets, the riverboat, courtroom and street scenes look authentically 19th century American. But every foot was shot in the U.S.S.R. by director Stanislav Govorukhin, a Twain buff, who took meticulous care in recreating the book, page by page, on film.
Govorukhin left nothing out. Not a single frame reflects a political message.
Blacks in the film, including Ethiopian Behailu Mengesha, who plays Jim, were cast from students at Moscow's Patrice Lumumba University.
Tom is played by 10-year-old Fedya Stukov, a professional actor who looks as American as Ricky Schroder. Indeed, the large cast could have been selected from Central Casting.
The Russian version of 'Tom Sawyer' will be sold in this country by a pair of unlikely entrepeneurs, Marvin Hime, a Beverly Hills jeweler, and producer-studio executive Henry Ehrlich, and their Cinema Development Corporation.
Said CDC's Ehrlich, 'The movie is being dubbed in London, in authentic Missouri accents of the 19th century, to save money.'
An English outfit is dubbing the film in exchange for releasing rights in the United Kingdom. It would have cost $250,000 in Hollywood.
Ehrlich and Hime made the deal with the Russians without putting up a dime.
Mosfilm Export wanted $1 million up front and a percentage deal for distribution in the United States. CDC offered them some American films they own in a barter deal. No front money.
'We haven't made any theatrical deals for 'Tom Sawyer' here yet,' said Hime. 'MGM will distribute the film to TV. But before the picture goes to TV, we're going to take it to Disney for theatrical release.'
'We are anxious to make this a family picture,' Ehrlich said. 'It won't be seen in Russian for art houses or for intellectuals interested in foreign pictures.'
Hime and Ehrlich think they have found a gold mine in Russian movies. They have a contract with the Soviets that gives them first call on some 500 films made in the U.S.S.R.
Thanks to their friendship with former cinematographer Robert Estes, now a Chicago businessman with economic ties in Moscow, Hime and Ehrlich have won Soviet confidence.
'We're going to Russia in July for the Moscow Film Festival,' Hime said. 'On the way we're stopping by Sweden to see about getting American rights to five of their top movies.'
'We are negotiating with the Soviets for foreign rights to their eight-hour film of the October 1917 revolution,' Ehrlich said.
'It's an amazing, authentic story of John Reed's coverage of the revolution. It is nothing like 'Reds,' which Warren Beatty romanticized. The picture includes actual black and white footage from that historic revolution.'
'It would be great as a miniseries for American TV,' Himes added.
Again, the two very capitalistic entrepreneurs are seeking means to barter for the picture instead of laying out cash.
'While we're in Moscow we'll look at as many of their 500 films as possible,' Ehrlich said. 'Maybe 450 of them will be of absolutely no interest in this country. But the other 50 might be just right.
'I'll tell you one thing, the Russians may be communists, but they think like capitalists when it comes to making a business deal. They haven't forgotten how.'