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.
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In 1935, after forty years in a West Virginia prison, three released convicts wish to open a legitimate business using the twenty-five thousand dollars earned in jail, but a crooked prison guard in cahoots with the town banker plans to defraud them.
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>
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.
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