24 October 2007 | krdement
The Art of Exaggeration
Like Samuel Clemens, himself, this film is a great illustration of the Art of Exaggeration. The rough outline of Twain's life is retained as a foundation for greater elaboration. The Calaveras County episode is a perfect example. Would it have had the same impact on us if Twain (Fredric March) had been a mere bystander? Absolutely not! We have a stake in its outcome because HE has a stake in it. Would it have been as funny if Twain's partner, Steve Gillis (Alan Hale) hadn't been responsible for filling the opposing frog full of buckshot? No way; Gillis' responsibility involves us. That Twain has bet on the frog of the opponent, Bret Harte (John Carradine), and lost all their money serves the interests of justice. More importantly, however, it is one more example of the ironic failings of Twain's early life. Having Bret Harte be the owner of the opposing frog is pure genius - a clever homage to another great American author, who was Twain's contemporary. He is played with aplomb by John Carradine, a wonderfully versatile performer, whose earlier career as a character actor is sadly overshadowed by his later career as a stereotypical ghoul.
As other commentators have noted, March is phenomenal in capturing the legendary Mark Twain. March is one of the greatest actors in American film history. His performance here is typically nuanced, capturing the dry wit of Twain with understated charisma, and also the pathos of the man in his private life. Brilliant!
Alexis Smith is wonderful, too. She had the ability to capture loving, devoted women with a realistic warmth that is never over-sentimental. Besides, she is very easy to look at. (At a similar age, Jody Foster bears an uncanny resemblance to Alexis Smith in this movie. The cameo could easily have been of Foster.)
The very personification of the Art of Exaggeration is Alan Hale, here portraying Steve Gillis, Twain's sidekick out west. Somehow in roles such as Gillis he is capable of the greatest of acting paradoxes - delivering exaggerated performances that NEVER seem overacted or hammy. His characters always appear natural, yet larger than life. Offhand it is difficult to think of another actor who accomplished this incredible balance. I would watch ANY movie in which Hale appears.
Likewise, comedies of this era seem to be able to strike that same balance - natural, yet larger than life. That is what sets them apart. Later films don't seem to be able to capture the same balance. In attempting to do so, actors just come across as hammy. The Art of Exaggeration in American film, got lost some time in the late 40's. What a shame. Movies like this are the quintessence of that fine art.