6 November 2003 | cariart
Wildly Inaccurate but Still Loving Tribute...
THE ADVENTURES OF MARK TWAIN is one of my favorite films. Even as the years pass, and I discover an ever-increasing number of biographical errors, it still possesses a kind of magic that is captivating. It may not be the historic Twain on the screen, but it's a Twain we all would have liked to know!
How can you criticize a film when, at the beginning of the story, the lead character threatens, in writing, to 'shoot you' if you look for a higher moral? As the camera pans back while a hand signs a name to the document with a flourish, we are 'introduced' to the spirit of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, himself, the living embodiment of the white-haired rascal we've all seen in his many 'turn of the century' photographs, with a twinkle in his eye and his tongue firmly 'in cheek'. Fredric March bears an astonishing resemblance to the author (thanks, in large measure, to Perc Westmore's extraordinary make up), and, more importantly, portrays him with a sense of irreverence and fun. His Twain is a man who loves the 'Mighty Mississippi', writes from his heart, and observes life with the eye of a born humorist, seeing all of Man's foibles as part of a giant Cosmic joke he is privy to.
In the fanciful biography, Clemens is delivered as Haley's Comet streaks overhead, as scores of black slaves listen to his father call the celestial event a "jubilation in Heaven". As a child, he plays with Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer, and the slave, Jim, then escapes to the river after writing a far-fetched tale, which gets his older brother, a printer, in hot water. Despite the boy's total ineptitude, a riverboat pilot swears to teach him his profession, and in a few years, the adult Clemens masters the Mississippi, successfully guiding his riverboat through the dangerous waters at night, until the cry of "Mark Twain...Safe Water" is heard. While dazzling naive passengers with tales of how alligators 'hitch rides' on the paddlewheel, Clemens sees a cameo with the image of young Libby Langdon (Alexis Smith), and announces to her brother that she would be the girl he'd marry.
Heading west with friend Steve Gillis (the always wonderful Alan Hale) to strike it rich where the "gold is on the ground waiting to be picked up", he fails spectacularly, and ends up a reporter at a frontier newspaper. He writes an account of a leaping frog competition, and the sad fate of novelist Bret Harte (John Carradine, perfectly cast!) and his prize jumper. Not thinking the story very good, he signs 'Mark Twain' as the author's name...then decides to throw the manuscript away. Fortunately, his editor retrieves it from the garbage, and sends the story back east, where, to a public overwhelmed by Civil War news, it provides welcome relief, creating a sensation. Mark Twain becomes a national celebrity! When finally tracked down, Clemens sees a way to win his ladylove, and plays both himself and Twain at a packed New York lecture. Libby is dazzled by him, he goes courting and 'moves in' to her home (much to the bemusement of her father), and, with her inspiration, his fabulous career as 'America's Voice' begins.
Chronicling Clemens' eventful life with unforgettable scenes of spectacular success as well as tragedy and failure, THE ADVENTURES OF MARK TWAIN is the tale of a legendary man, told in 'larger than life' terms. While most of the story is fictitious (the real Clemens' biography would require a Ken Burns documentary to do it justice), the film is never less than entertaining. Fredric March is superb in the lead, and, as Haley's Comet returns, ending his time on earth, you may find it hard to hold back a tear, especially when his spirit says to his grieving daughter, "The reports of my death have been GREATLY exaggerated..."
He was absolutely correct...Mark Twain will never really die!