THE ADVENTURES OF MARK TWAIN (1944) was released on DVD by the Warner Archive earlier this year. The release was part of a "wave" of Fredric March titles which included ONE FOOT IN HEAVEN (1941), previously reviewed here.
THE ADVENTURES OF MARK TWAIN is a moderately entertaining fictionalized biography which benefits chiefly from a good performance by Fredric March in the title role. At 130 minutes it attempts to cover too much ground at far too leisurely a pace; at the same time, despite the running time, the film remains a surface presentation of the famous man which lacks much emotional depth.
The film begins with Twain's fabled birth during the appearance of Halley's Comet. We see him as the child Sam Clemens (Jackie Brown) playing in the river and as a young boy (Dickie Jones) learning to pilot a steamboat. We then meet the adult Twain, a steamboat captain who gives up working on the river to try to make a fortune in California.
The "jumping frog" contest receives extended screen time, after which Twain writes his famous story.
We next follow him as he meets the love of his life, Olivia Langdon (Alexis Smith in a lovely performance) and they struggle through ups and downs: the loss of their son, the success of TOM SAWYER. And on and on it goes.
March is fine in the title role; indeed, it's a bit hard to imagine another actor of the era tackling the part. As I wrote in my review of ONE FOOT IN HEAVEN, I run hot and cold on March, and I thought he did a good job in this one. I felt the problems with the lack of depth were chiefly attributable to an uneven, episodic script which doesn't quite know which Mark Twain it wants to present.
For example, one of the peculiar things about the film is that although we see Twain's speaking and literary successes, he's treated as something of a ne'er-do-well throughout the entire film. Granted, he and his wife did have financial troubles, but it seems as though the filmmakers made a dramatic decision to treat him as a bit of a loser who, spurred on by his wife's confidence, manages to turn out some successful books.
March is well supported by Smith as his wife, who is charmed by his unconventional ways and the tales of his adventures, then won over by his devotion to her. She's exquisitely lovely in the early scenes, before the "aging" makeup is applied.
The large supporting cast includes Alan Hale (Sr.), John Carradine, Sir C. Aubrey Smith, William Henry, Robert Barrat, Nana Bryant, Walter Hampden, Joyce Reynolds, Kay Johnson, and Percy Kilbride. Look carefully in the Oxford sequence near the end of the film; Peter Lawford is clearly visible as an extra.
THE ADVENTURES OF MARK TWAIN was actually shot in 1942, but Warner Bros. had so many films in the marketplace during the war that it was held back from release until 1944. It was directed by Irving Rapper from a screenplay by Alan LeMay, based on a play by Harold M. Sherman. It was filmed by Sol Polito; curiously, IMDb lists four additional uncredited cinematographers, including future director Don Siegel. The fine Oscar-nominated musical score was composed by Max Steiner.
As a side note to allay any possible confusion, THE ADVENTURES OF MARK TWAIN was released by the Warner Archive some years ago, but while Archive releases usually remain available indefinitely, it was later pulled from circulation for reasons which are unknown to me. Whatever the issue was has obviously been cleared up!
The Warner Archive DVD is a good-looking print. The disc includes the trailer.
For more on this movie, please visit posts by Jacqueline at Another Old Movie Blog and Cliff at Immortal Ephemera.
Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this DVD. Warner Archive releases are MOD (manufactured on demand) and may be ordered from the Warner Archive Collection at the WBShop.