The dramatized life of immortal humorist Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, from his days as a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi River until his death in 1910 shortly after Halley's Comet returned.
He was a riverboat pilot, newspaper reporter, penniless prospector, would-be entrepreneur, loving family man, world traveler, pomposity burster and raconteur. Then he passed away on April 21, 1910 at age 75 shorty after Halley's Comet returned as he predicted. This turns out that the man who created adventures for Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn and a Connecticut Yankee led a mighty adventurous life himself. Samuel Langhorne Clemens (Mark Twain) said, "Truth is a very valuable thing. I believe we should be economical with it." And that sets the tone for what follows: a biography about the immortal humorist's life from Hannibal boyhood to Big River exploits to global literary lion and more. Written by
Michael Crew <email@example.com>
Clemens was actually a deserter from a Confederate militia company in his home town area of Missouri in 1861. It was the basis of his story "The Short History of a Private Campaign That Failed". See more »
As in many biographical movies, several characters and events are fictionalized, conflated, or depicted out of order. See more »
Well I found out what a mine is anyway. It's a hole in the ground with a darn fool at the end of it.
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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".
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