Mark Twain: Ladies and gentlemen, William Shakespeare, the greatest author in the English language is dead…..and I feel far from well myself. —The Adventures of Mark Twain (1944)
Without question, one of the greatest writers in American history–if not the greatest–was Mark Twain. Leaving a body of beloved works as well as an assortment of witty quips, his works have gone on to inspire other writers in addition to several films. While not an interpretation of any one Twain work, The Adventures of Mark Twain (1944) takes on a Hollywood biographic depiction of his life, offering a loving homage to this prolific writer and bright mind, who had passed away 34 years prior to the film’s release.
Beginning and ending with Halley’s Comet, viewers follow a dramatization of Samuel Langhorn Clemens, best known as Mark Twain. Viewers learn about his early years, how he adopted his pen name, and his intricate link to the Mississippi River–steadily flowing through his life and written work. In addition to following Twain’s career, memorable novels, and ventures on the lecture circuit, viewers also learn of pivotal relationships in Twain’s life, including his marriage to Olivia Langdon. Spanning from November 30, 1835, to April 21, 1910, and on to literary immortality, the film takes on the many challenges and celebrations throughout Twain’s life. Moreover it also depicts one intriguing coincindence predicted by Twain himself in 1909:
“I came in with Halley’s Comet. It is coming again next year. The Almighty has said, no doubt, ‘Now there are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together. ” Twain died on April 21, 1910—one day after the comet had once again reached its closest distance to the sun.
The film was directed by Irving Rapper and written by Alan Le May and Harold M. Sherman. Produced by Jesse L. Lasky, the film starred Fredric March and Alexis Smith. The music was by Max Steiner and the film was distributed by Warner Bros., with a release date on May 6, 1944. Though the film was originally intended to have a 1942 release, a backlog of war films and some delays from Twain’s daughter, Clara, led to a delayed release.
The cast list for the film is as follows:
- Fredric March as Mark Twain
- Alexis Smith as Olivia “Livy” Langdon Clemens
- Donald Crisp as J.B. Pond
- Alan Hale as Steve Gillis
- C. Aubrey Smith as Oxford Chancellor
- John Carradine as Bret Harte
- William Henry as Charles Langdon
- Robert Barrat as Horace E. Bixby
- Walter Hampden as Jervis Langdon
- Joyce Reynolds as Clara Clemens
- Whitford Kane as Joe Goodwin
- Percy Kilbride as Billings
- Nana Bryant as Mrs. Langdon
- Burr Caruth as Oliver Wendell Holmes (uncredited)
- Davison Clark as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (uncredited)
- Joseph Crehan as Riverboat Captain/Ulysses S. Grant (uncredited)
- Russell Gleason as Orion Clemens (uncredited)
- Harry Hilliard as John Greenleaf Whittier (uncredited)
- Brandon Hurst as Ralph Waldo Emerson (uncredited)
- George Lessey as Henry Huttleston Rogers (uncredited)
- Paul Scardon as Rudyard Kipling (uncredited)
- Douglas Wood as William Dean Howells (uncredited)
Overall, the film was released to boost the sprits of a country that was well into World War II. Moreover, Clara Clemens Gabrilowitsch, Twain’s daughter, acted as the self-appointed guardian of her father’s image, ensuring a loving and positive portrayal of her Twain’s eventful life. In fact, Clara herself argued with Lasky that March portray her father, refusing to be involved in the project if another actor were to take on the role.
Interestingly, in addition to Clara’s involvement, an actor appearing in the film happened to have had a brush with Twain himself. The scene in which Twain receives an honorary degree from Oxford University in 1907 was the recreation of an event that C. Aubrey Smith, who plays the Oxford Chancellor, actually witnessed.
Though the film opened with mixed reviews, March’s performance was largely praised as offering a deep understanding of the subject at hand. Otherwise, different reviews criticized the direction as well as Smith’s portrayal of Olivia. Nonetheless, the film received three Academy Award nominations, including Best Art Direction-Interior Decoration, Black-and-White to John Hughes and Fred M. MacLean; Best Effects, Special Effects to Paul Detlefsenand John Crouse for photography and Nathan Levinson for sound; and Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture to Max Steiner.
In summation, The Adventures of Mark Twain is well worth viewing for fans of American literature and classic Hollywood biopics. The story is well-structured and March’s performance as this literary giant is superb.