“The Adventures of Mark Twain” (1944) features a central figure so familiar as to be legendary, and the film leans heavy on legend. We mark tomorrow’s anniversary of Mark Twain’s birth.
What we discover about Mark Twain through this movie is not so much facts about his life (particularly when the facts are toyed with and not in the order of their appearance), but rather how he fits into, and even represents, the grand mosaic of 19th century American culture. This is a rich story of a vibrant era.
We are also treated to the rarely-presented world of history through literature.
Bret Harte, William Dean Howells, Longfellow, Whittier, Emerson, Rudyard Kipling all parade before us. They are cameos, but they are presented as giants. I particularly like that the film expects us to know who they are.
A modern film might throw the answers to an ignorant audience the way a fellow student slips test answers to a pal beside him, which is ignominious, and unflattering both to ourselves and the great writers.
Mark Twain’s greatest struggle, apart from money worries, is to measure up to these literary lions. That he finds his own place in popular literature and that the 20th century lauds him with movies and stage plays and television programs, and does not do so for the aforementioned first-string players — this would astonish Twain more than anyone.
This is a film more of style than of substance, and for those dismissive of it I would suggest they consider that in classic film, a biopic is less like a Ken Burns documentary and more like an interpretive dance.
Yes, I am being facetious.
The movie is a series of events like tall tales, and even the introduction to the film cheekily warns us not to be too judgmental. First we are on a hill watching Halley’s Comet awe and terrify the townspeople as Samuel Langhorne Clemens is born into this world. He will joke repeatedly throughout his life that he came in with the comet and will surely leave the earth when the comet is due to return in the next century. In a life of quips and witticisms, and wry observations, that he actually did die on the occasion when Halley’s returned in 1910 is probably the biggest joke of all.
But a lot happened in the meantime, and the movie is stuffed with scenes that roll out a long carpet of experiences and adventures. The director plunks us down in the 19th century with beautifully staged settings, many of them artful miniatures, of the majestic Mississippi, its riverbanks bathed in moonlight. We see the long gambling salon on the riverboat (too long to be realistic, but this isn’t a documentary, it’s a pop-up book), and the lordly riverboats that young Sam so admires.
We know he took his eventual pen name, “Mark Twain” from the call of the riverboat men who are testing the depths of the water for channels deep enough for the riverboats to pass safely. Two fathoms is a safe depth, so when they mark “twain” on the measure, it is two fathoms. The sing-song call, “MARR-R-K…T-W-A-A-A-I-I-N-N!” is used stirringly at dramatic moments, and is replicated in notes on the musical score of the film, a clever reprise.
Unlike most movies about great men, Mark Twain is not shown as a man born to greatness. On the contrary, he’s a stumblebum who runs off to join a riverboat crew because he can’t stand working in his brother’s print shop setting type by hand. (His aversion will later move him to invest, disastrously, in an early mechanical typesetter.) He runs off to the western mining camps to get rich, and doesn’t. He delivers a stand-up routine at a dinner for the aforementioned literary giants, and, trying too hard to be funny, insults them in a kind of Friar’s roast. His act tanks and we see his panic as he makes a fool of himself. We begin to wonder if this guy will ever do anything right.
His one stroke of luck seems to be catching a glimpse of a fellow traveler’s photo of a beloved sister. Twain falls in the love with the picture, and eventually the woman, who as his wife will help him achieve lasting success as a writer.
Twain has a lower estimation of his talents, and wants to write something great and important, but the audience sees, even if Twain does not, that the body of his work adds up to a chronicling of America in its most expansive, confident, chest-thumping and stumblebum charm.
Fredric March, who we last saw in "I Married a Witch" (1942), is the adult Mark Twain, in a spot-on performance. It can’t be easy creating a character so well known, and relying in good part on mimicry and imitation. It’s a tightrope to walk. With the help of makeup man Perc Westmore, Mr. March is the very image of Mark Twain. One of the fine achievements of this movie is the way the characters, Twain in particular, age so gradually and so realistically we may feel amazed by the end of the film that so much time has passed. The aging of characters in other films of this era is usually something of a jolt, and artificial-looking.
Alexis Smith plays his wife, and though we may note it’s another woman-behind-the-great-man role where she has little challenge, it’s still a nice piece for her. This is a much softer role in contrast to the sophisticates she often played, and with little makeup in the early scenes, her natural beauty is quite lovely, more stunning than her glamour roles.
Miss Smith is a one-woman cheerleading squad for Mark Twain, but in real life Mrs. Clemens did more than just encourage him. She actually edited most of his work and he came to rely on her judgment.
Alan Hale is along for the ride as Twain’s prospector pal in his patented jovial scamp gig. John Carradine gets a marvelous brief scene as the writer Bret Harte who, in the famed contest between the jumping frogs, exhorts his frog, “Daniel Webster” with the plea, “If you love me…” And repeated calls, “Flies! Flies!” to encourage the magnificent amphibian to hop. I don’t know if Mr. Carradine ever played a scene so intense with a human.
Donald Crisp is at Twain’s elbow as his manager, who also gets the impressive aging treatment. Walter Hampden is great as Alexis Smith’s disapproving father in a scene where he tries to remove Twain from his home.
C. Aubrey Smith delivers a magnificent address at the end of the film when Mark Twain is honored at Oxford. His scene is a standout. That beautifully craggy face and his meticulous speech.
Joyce Reynolds, who we last saw in “The Constant Nymph”(1943), plays Twain’s daughter, Clara, horrified at spotting the return of Halley’s Comet.
A few scenes of note: I love when the teenaged Samuel Clemens is getting his first lesson in piloting a riverboat by grumpy Robert Barrat. Dickie Jones is the youth, who has very few lines, but the scene is marvelous. It runs quite a long time, with close-ups on the boy’s face as he nervously reacts to the dangers of the river and Mr. Barrat’s constant barking at him.
He’s shaking in his shoes, and when at last he manages to pull into a safe channel and the crewman sings, “M-A-A-R-R-RK…T-W-A-A-I-I-N-N-N!” we see the tears glisten in his dark velvet eyes with wonder and gratitude, and love of this river. I don’t suppose it’s necessary to the story as a whole, but I imagine director Irving Rapper kept the attention focused on Dickie Jones for so long because he fell in love with the boy like I did. I think it’s one of the most powerful close-ups I’ve ever seen.
The anxious expression in his soft boy’s face, on the verge of manhood. We last saw Dickie as a much younger child in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939) where he played the congressional page.
The scene where Mark Twain does one of his very first public speaking jobs. Look at the hall filled with extras, and look at their costumes. Such attention to the style and setting of an era is wonderful. There don’t seem to be many shortcuts taken, as we sometimes see in other films where the sets or costumes, or hair is judged by the studio evidently as being “close enough.”
We may gag at Twain’s grotesque, “well done, good and faithful servant” joke, and note how African-Americans, particularly the unfortunate Willie Best as a butler, get the stereotypical treatment in this film. However, there is an aspect to their presence in this movie that I admire, and that is that they are indeed present. We see them on hill watching Halley’s Comet, and as passengers on the riverboat. They work on the river, and live on the river, and they are the boys on the raft. If their story is not told yet, at least we see they are not invisible. We see they are part of the mosaic that makes up America. For Hollywood at this time, this is something.
We get a glimpse of Mark Twain’s house in Hartford. See my post on my New England Travels blog for more on his home, which still stands a museum today. This weekend, another actor famed for portraying Mark Twain, Hal Holbrook, will be honored at the Mark Twain House when a hall is dedicated in his name.
As Mark Twain’s life unfolds it gets busier. He and his wife lose a baby son. They have three daughters. He travels the world to earn money to pay back debts. He saves the fortunes of Ulysses S. Grant when the former Union general and President is dying of cancer, and struggles to write his memoirs to provide for his family. Twain, in his own fledgling company, publishes them.
March has a moving scene when he sings “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” at the piano as his wife lay dying. Decades later in an interview Alexis Smith noted that Fredric March’s work in this movie was underrated. In an article at the time of filming, she commented that she had a hard time, even though she was supposed to be dead, to keep from peeking at March to watch him in his scene.
Back to the pop-up book nature of the movie — the scenes where tiny figures of Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer, and Jim superimposed on the written page, or revisit Twain at the moment of his death and take him by the hand to a distant sunset are imagery we would not see in a biopic today.
But this is a tale, not a documentary. It captures the mood and the tragedy, and optimism of this man’s era. We may be witnessing more Currier and Ives than Vital Records, but that is the nature of interpretive dance.
Remember also that during World War II the movies were reaching back to a comfortable American image to appeal to a frightened audience. Twain’s speech, “our tolerance will never become indifference, and our freedom never come license. Let’s respect each other’s rights…” reflects not only his progressive views, as cantankerously as he sometimes phrased them, but also speaks to a nervous America on the precipice of doom.
For more on “The Adventures of Mark Twain” have a look at Cliff Aliperti’s two posts on his terrific Immortal Ephemera blog here and here. The movie was filmed in 1942, but not released until 1944. For a more detailed explanation why, have a look at Harold Sherman’s “Behind theScreenplay” here.