Wednesday, September 7, 2022

The Adventures of Mark Twain: A Review



Mark Twain was a uniquely American figure: a spinner of witticisms, author of some of the greatest works in American literature, and elder statesman of letters whose stories shaped America myth. The Adventures of Mark Twain might have had in mind to capture the breath of his extraordinary career. By the time the film ends though, The Adventures of Mark Twain turns into a slow, sluggish bore, unworthy of the bright young man who slowly turned into a dark old soul.

The sighting of Halley's Comet in 1835 also appears to foretell the birth of one Samuel Langhorne Clemens. This eager young man of the Mississippi floats down Old Man River with his friends "Tom, Huck and Jim", wiling away the days. Sam may dream of piloting a riverboat, but he is sent to be a typesetter for his older brother. 

Still, the Father of Waters will not be denied, and young Sam soon begins his long training to sail the mighty river. On one of his voyages, Captain Clemens (Fredric March) sees the picture of pretty Olivia Langdon and decides she will be his wife. However, how to support this true love who has never met or even heard of him?

He strikes out to California, first as a prospector then as a reporter. A fortuitous frog jumping contest inspires him to write The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County but embarrassed to be associated with something he thinks so trite, he uses a pen name. Recalling the old riverboat call of entering safe waters, he signed his story "Mark Twain".

Publisher J.P. Bond (Donald Crisp) rushes to Nevada to find "Mark Twain" but misses him when Clemens goes to fight in the Civil War. After the war, Bond finds him and from there spins public lectures and then marriage to Olivia Langdon (Alexis Smith), the girl in the picture. Tragedy and triumph come to Twain, everything from bankruptcy to success. He helps former President Grant (Joseph Crehan) publish his memoirs to save the General from bankruptcy. Twain has his own financial misfortunes and family tragedies, but after being awarded an honorary degree from Oxford, he can peacefully go out with Halley's Comet, joining his friends Tom and Huck once more.

Perhaps, in the great scheme of things, it was a mistake to try and capture the whole of Mark Twain's life and career in one film, even if The Adventures of Mark Twain is two hours and ten minutes long. A punishing two hours and ten minutes, I would argue, as we spend seemingly endless time on things that are of little interest and little time on things that could explore the man behind the white suit. 

I do not understand why we had to take up so much time seeing the frog jumping race where Twain and his BFF Steve Gillis (Alan Hale) search for the ideal frog and then pull a fast one to win. Granted, Clemens was unaware of the set-up, but screenwriter Alan Le May attempting to make The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County into a true-life incident rather than a charming story comes across as almost insulting. 

Add to that, scenes where Sam interacts with Tom, Huck and Jim (a cringeworthy stereotype that even in 1944 felt out of place) makes things silly rather than sweet. More cringeworthy is when the "Negroes" aboard Captain Clemens' riverboat suddenly break out into a musical number is downright horrifying. Seeing this group of black men and women cheer on the captain's steady sailing with The Pilot is A Mighty Man is startling in its tackiness. 

After this and Tomorrow, the World! I am beginning to wonder if Frederic March was good. His Mark Twain was surprisingly dull, trying to be homespun and witty but floundering in the efforts. I think March tried too hard to be homespun and witty, but he could not be.

I do not put this on March himself. The Adventures of Mark Twain was not going to go into how Twain grew darker and more cynical, angrier as he entered his old age. The various disasters personal and financial that Twain endured were not going to be touched on. While the film briefly touches on the death of his infant son, his daughter's death on Christmas Eve wasn't. 

A lot of The Adventures of Mark Twain was fictional and sometimes went in strange tangents. Why exactly he, albeit nervously, felt the need to attack other writers at a dinner is something I do not think was explained. To be fair, I might have been falling asleep at this time.

Even now, some elements in The Adventures of Mark Twain are more than a little ghastly. A joke he recited about how "an old colored woman" fell into a hot stove and was roasted to have her epitaph read, "Well done, good and faithful servant" seems awful. 

Curiously, I think one of The Adventures of Mark Twain's biggest flaws is how it falls into the "Great Man" biopic trope. Everyone around him, particularly Smith's Livy, acts as though Twain were this great figure and not a person with virtues and flaws. He interacts with and on things that will pop up in future stories (though sadly, not Pudd'nhead Wilson, a personal favorite). That robs Twain of his creative genius and personal flaws. The film works to build him up but not to humanize him, a terrible shame.

The Adventures of Mark Twain is boring and pointless, two things which the real man was not. 



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