Directed by Irving Rapper, with additional dialogue provided by Harry Chandlee, this Harold M. Sherman play, co-adapted with Alan Le May, stars Fredric March in the title role. It's an above average fictionalized biography of the famed author and humorist, from his humble beginnings in Hannibal, Missouri to his final, worldwide speaking tour.
The cast includes Alexis Smith, Donald Crisp, Alan Hale, C. Aubrey Smith (near the end), John Carradine (in not much more than a cameo appearance), William Henry, Robert Barrat, and Dickie Moore (who plays Samuel Clemens at age 13), among others. The film received Oscar nominations for its B&W Art Direction-Interior Decoration, Special Effects, and Max Steiner's Musical Score.
The story plays out in four well constructed 30 minute segments, each of which tells a significant part of Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain's life, and includes numerous of his famous witticisms:
After being born coincident with Halley's Comet, the first scenes touch on Samuel's life as a boy through the time that he became a river pilot on the Mississippi River. It begins with him as a youngster (Jackie Brown) playing with friends Tom, Huck, and a Negro slave boy on a makeshift raft on the river, pretending to be pirates as they lounge on an island in the river's middle and try to avoid getting run over by the riverboat Missouri. As a teenager (Moore), Samuel kissed his mother's head before running off to learn the river's 1,200 miles of turns and hidden shoals from Horace Bixby (Barrat), captain of the Paul Jones. We learn that the term "mark twain" means safe water, e.g. water deep enough for a river boat's safe passage. By the time he was in his twenties, Clemens (March) had become its master, piloting "his" Queen of Dixie with derring-do through the fog to impress his former teacher(s) and Charles Langdon (Henry), from whom he stole a picture of his sister (picture of Alexis Smith) upon declaring that one day, he would marry that girl.
Off to make his fortune, to make his statement good, Clemens partners with Steve Gillis (Hale) and heads West hoping to strike it rich by finding a gold mine. Though their mule seems to know where they should stake their claim, the two novices fail to discover any valuable minerals and return to town penniless where they witness the newspaper reporter being shot dead in the street. The next thing you know, Clemens is the town's reporter. Enter Gillis with another get rich quick plan by winning a frog jumping contest against the longtime defending champion, owned by Bret Harte (Carradine, whose character may have been the man that shot the previous reporter). Though Clemens is on the verge of having enough money to return East to find his future bride, his friend Steve convinces him to catch a frog and then bet everything he has on their challenger. Unbeknownst to Samuel, Steve has sabotaged the champion jumper (filling it with buckshot) on whom Clemens has really placed their bets. This foreshadows Samuel's bad financial sense, exhibited throughout the film. The thing which eventually rescues Clemens is his writing about the flog jumping contest, using the pen-name Mark Twain, which is discovered by J. B. Pond (Crisp), who pursues Samuel until he finds him on a levee of Mississippi, looking at his post-Civil War ruined Queen of Dixie.
Pond takes Twain East on a speaking tour, during which he introduces himself and entertains the paying customers with his witty insights about our culture, and ourselves. In attendance is Charles Langdon, who introduces Mark to his sister Olivia (Smith) after the show and invites him home. She turns out to more than he had dreamed she was and, eventually he (and her love for him) convinces her skeptical father (Walter Hampden) to allow their marriage. Twain writes several popular books but, according to the film, didn't begin Tom Sawyer until the death of their first child, a boy, after Olivia convinces him to capture the stories he'd been waiting to tell their son. As everyone should know, Tom Sawyer was an international bestseller which gained him wealth (Willie Best, uncredited, plays their butler) and the respect of his father-in-law and his favorite authors: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Unfortunately, just as he'd nearly completed Huckleberry Finn, Twain made a social error at a luncheon in his honor that insulted his would-be peers.
The final fourth the film delves into the financial folly undertaken by Twain; he'd become his own publisher in order to avoid writing any more "funny" books such that he could concentrate on more serious works. He invested a lot of his assets in a failed automatic typesetting machine as well such that he was "forced" to write many of the classics he penned like A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court and The Prince and the Pauper just to stay afloat. His insistence on publishing the memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, for the benefit of his near destitute widow and so that his three daughters (including Joyce Reynolds) and other children would know the man's great deeds, ruined him to the point that a Pond sponsored speaking tour around the World was his only hope of existing bankruptcy by paying off all his creditors in full. Once he'd accomplished that, he met his wife in Europe where she'd lived her final days, but not before learning of his pending honors at Oxford University. C. Aubrey Smith plays the University's Chancellor who, not only honors Rudyard Kipling, bestows the "highest possible honor" on the now humble, and teary eyed Twain, who later days with Halley's Comet.