15 October 2005 | theowinthrop
The Rumors of His Death Are Slightly Exaggerated
He's now been physically dead all of 95 years, but Samuel Langhorne Clemens (a.k.a. Mark Twain) is still the most popular novelist and writer in American history, and one of the few great American writers to merit his own film biography. There is no film (at the very least no remembered films) about Charles Brockden Brown (our first major novelist), Washington Irving, Fenimore Cooper (whom Twain hated reading), Hawthorne, Melville, Howells, James, Crane, Dreiser, Wharton, Alcott, Cather, Fitzgerald, Lewis, Hemingway, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Wouk, Salinger, Vonnegut, or Bellow. You have to go back to Edgar Allen Poe (the subject of several films, including a silent one (THE AVENGING CONSCIENCE) by D.W. Griffith) to find another major American writer who is a subject of biography. There is also a film on the life of Jack London made in the 1940s. But the key is that Poe, London, and Twain had interesting lives meriting filming.
The film is true in its outline but the fleshing out is questionable. For example, Twain did go into the mining fields of California and Nevada in the late 1860s, but he probably did not win the jumping frog contest that was the basis of his first literary success, "The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County". Nor was his literary rival, Francis Bret Harte (John Carridine), the man who lost that contest. But there was a contest he apparently witnessed in 1865, and he expanded on it for his classic short story.
Some aspects of the story I am surprised to find in the film. The infamous Whittier Birthday Speech fiasco (although still debated) did occur in 1876, and somehow hurt his acceptance by the eastern literati whose "gods" (Emerson, Holmes, and Longfellow) were somewhat laughed at in it. Also there is the frightening story of the Paige Typesetter that helped bankrupt Twain (forcing him to go lecturing and writing around the world in the 1890s.
The fact is, the film is actually better in presenting Twain's literary and private life than the average movie biography of that period or even now. March looks like his subject (and his make-up ages him properly). He knows how to do the delivery of the comic lectures perfectly. Note how at one point when he says to the audience, "The last time I went south....", March points quietly but prolonged downward, so the audience realizes he means "the last time I went to Hell...." We are used today to Hal Holbrook's "MARK TWAIN TONIGHT" performances, with his southern delivery, but March is just as effective in his way.
The other performances are good, with Walter Hampden lecturing March about what gentlemen of his class consider REAL literature, or with Percy Kilbride as a typesetter who trains Twain, and who later claims he helped make Clemens Mark Twain. Alexis Smith manages to portray Livy (Olivia) Twain as the perfect love match she was. The film does not hesitate to show Twain's career had as many missteps as successful peaks. It does avoid his attack on American Imperialism, and it does not detail the series of family deaths that plagued his last decade (two daughters and a nephew followed Livy to the grave before Sam followed her in 1910). But for getting the general outline correct, and for casting the film correctly and producing it very well I can say it deserves a "10" out of "10".