Fredric March as Mark Twain
By Cliff Aliperti, Immortal Ephemera
“Some things a man doesn’t like to tell about himself unless he gets beyond the grave as they say. But now I can tell the truth, the whole truth. Well, that is, within limits. You see truth is a very valuable thing, and I believe we should be a little economical with it.” –Fredric March as Mark Twain in The Adventures of Mark Twain (1944)
The Adventures of Mark Twain takes the story of Twain’s actual life, more or less wraps it all up into a ball and then explodes these facts across the screen so as to make them fit the movie in the most entertaining way believed possible.
It’s all there, just rearranged. Some portions are downplayed, others embellished. Some are turned into a fascinating combination of Twain fact colored by Twain’s fiction. You’ll remember just enough of it to have a decent idea about the life of Mark Twain, just don’t get any ideas about quoting it verbatim as the truth. It’s only the truth within limits. March’s Twain is winking at us before it all begins.
Despite these allowances The Adventures of Mark Twain remains far from perfect. It has plenty of highlights and lowlights. But the crowning achievement of the film is our star of March-in-March, and star of the movie, Fredric March as Mark Twain.
After Halley’s Comet inevitably zips across the sky The Adventures of Mark Twain begins with a pair of child actors in the role of young Sam Clemens in and around Hannibal, Missouri and the Mississippi River. Up first is Jackie Brown, soon followed by Dickie Jones.
Brown stars in the first gelling of fact and fiction as Twain’s youth is retold in the style of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer with Twain’s own boyhood friends recast as Tom, Huck and Jim. Up next, Dickie Jones plays adolescent Sam getting his first taste of wordplay while working at his brother Orion’s newspaper. This unhappy alliance propels Sam back to the Mississippi and an apprenticeship to a riverboat captain (Robert Barrat). After a ship hand calls out “Mark Twain–safe water!” from down below the captain explains to young Sam that “The welcomest sound in all the world to a river man is those two words. Mark Twain.”
The child actors soon give way to March himself. Student then turns teacher on board the Queen of Dixie as Sam Clemens pilots through treacherous terrain in an important but overblown scene. That’s not to say it’s not well done. Director Irving Rapper weaves in as many tense moments as possible, but with land visible on either side of the boat they just never completely grabbed me. I’m sure the shallow and ever shifting Mississippi must have been a lot more dangerous to navigate than it appeared to a landlubber like me on screen, though if that is the case than March’s Clemens basically put the safety of his passengers at stake so he could show off. I’m not really aware of how good an actual steamship pilot young Clemens was, but in The Adventures of Mark Twain there can be no doubt that he was the greatest of all-time. The way it played just rubbed me wrong.
In this first view of March as riverboat pilot Clemens the actor is shown in what Warner publicity claimed was one of fourteen (though producer Jesse Lasky said twelve) different make-up changes for him throughout The Adventures of Mark Twain. Perc Westmore’s detailed work on March slowly aged him towards an exact replica of the elder Twain whom we all picture so easily today.
Jesse Lasky told a radio interviewer that March had carefully studied a 1905 Edison film of Twain and copied everything from his walk to the way he smoked his cigar from that footage. We’ve seen enough Twain stills to know Westmore got the make-up right–Fredric March looks exactly like Mark Twain in any photo from any era I’ve ever seen–and from the brief film clips I’ve seen of the real Twain I would agree that March managed to nail the Twain manner as well. The director of the film, Irving Rapper, thought March was “magnificent” as Twain but “that his accent was a little too strong in it” (Davis 35).
“From six to six as the clock flies the daylight circuit, he [March] was not only required to look like Mark Twain but to talk and think like him,” reported the Evening Independent in an unsigned article published just prior to the 1944 release of The Adventures of Mark Twain. March spent two or three hours being made up each morning before living the role each day during twelve weeks of production in 1942. March himself appeared in 419 of 439 scenes in the movie and thus wasn’t afforded even one day off while it was being made (Rosen 157). Publicity items in the papers throughout 1943 and ’44 stressed that March had lived as the character prior to and during production. He only allowed himself to become Fredric March again each night when he closed his eyes and went to sleep.
The Adventures of Mark Twain came at a powerful and productive time in Fredric March’s career. Production on Twain began sometime after completion of March’s work in I Married a Witch, which finished in late May 1942, and just prior to the freelance actor’s return to Broadway in the very successful production of Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth. Wilder’s play opened at the Plymouth Theatre on November 18, 1942 and proceeded to run for over 350 performances on its way to winning its author the Pulitizer Prize for Drama. March had long concluded working on The Skin of Our Teeth before The Adventures of Mark Twain would see even limited release as a road show in May 1944.
While there were a few hiccups with Mark Twain’s surviving daughter, Clara, the cause for the delay in releasing The Adventures of Mark Twain was simply Warner’s desire to get out their backlog of more relevant war pictures as soon as they could. In fact, after having released up to five historical films per year from 1939-41, Warner Brothers only produced five in total between 1942-1945 and none of them were released until 1944. This includes The Adventures of Mark Twain, which was the second of those five historicals to reach the general public (Smyth).
The film itself is episodic and uneven. It’s enjoyment comes almost entirely from the talents of Fredric March in the role of Twain. For the first half of the movie Alan Hale is on board as sidekick Steve Gillis and the movie is very playful in tone. Hale disappears never to be seen again once March’s Twain meets his eventual wife, Olivia Langdon (Alexis Smith), and heads East to Elmira to begin his courtship of her. The second half of the movie concentrates upon Twain’s home life and creative activity and suffers by playing neither light nor dark enough.
It’s one thing to gloss over the tremendous pain the real Mark Twain felt in response to the deaths of beloved family members. That’s depressing territory and not at all in fitting with the upbeat mood of the first half of the movie. It’s another thing to include those painful moments but to, pardon me, whitewash them.
When their firstborn dies in the crib these Twains quickly turn the page with wife Livy inspiring her husband towards greatness. “He’ll never see the river now,” a depressed Twain laments, but Livy fixes everything by declaring, “No, Mark. Our little son will never see it. But Mark, you must save those things you loved. You must save them for whole generations of little boys. Of all ages. Forever. You mustn’t let those precious things be lost. You’re the only man who ever lived who can do it, Mark.” She continues on until Max Steiner’s Oscar nominated score begins to swell and she departs to leave Twain as he immediately begins writing The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
I suppose revenge comes later when Twain manages an even easier time getting over Livy’s own passing and going on to glory in Oxford recognition courtesy of C. Aubrey Smith’s brief spin as Chancellor there.
Besides being emotionally uneven the second half of The Adventures of Mark Twain suffers by trying to show too much, but not concentrating on any of these potentially interesting elements enough to really bring them to life.
One exception is Twain’s speaking at the literary tribute to John Greenleaf Whittier. March especially excels in this scene as he begins his speech with typical confidence bordering on cockiness before stepping in it by insulting literary legends Emerson, Longfellow and Holmes, each of whom is present and frowning. As the eyes of his audience narrow and drop Twain begins to grasp that he’s gone too far. His speech slows, his eyes move from his now disapproving audience to the podium before he eventually apologies and excuses himself.
Otherwise the pace in the second half suffers as director Irving Rapper does his best to make exciting what is quite honestly one of the most difficult professions to bring to life, that of writer. Twain is aged at his desk every few minutes as his completed books pile up. The potential tedium is broken by episodes showing Twain’s misfortune in investing and publishing.
First there is his fascination with a monstrous typesetting device that he believes will revolutionize publishing and then later the publication of ailing General Grant’s memoirs by Twain’s own publishing house with royalties greatly benefiting the writer and his estate. I wanted more of both of these important elements to Twain’s biography, but what was there was enjoyable while it lasted.
The final portion of The Adventures of Mark Twain sees Twain put his old friend and lecture manager, J.B. Pond (Donald Crisp), back to work. With the goal of paying back every penny he’s gone into debt Twain embarks upon his famed worldwide tour with Pond accompanying him across the globe.
I found Crisp miscast as Pond, a somewhat bumbling role whose earliest appearances had me wishing for Edward Everett Horton instead.
As Twain’s wife Livy the most effective thing Alexis Smith gets to do in The Adventures of Mark Twain is age courtesy of Perc Westmore. It’s more the fault of the part, more Twain cheerleader than wife, than Smith, whose best scenes are her earliest before the Twain baggage weighs her down.
March completely dominates the second half of the movie with key assistance from Westmore. Between them they manage to so completely bring our perceived perception of Mark Twain to life that the character stands high above most of the jumbled story.
The first half is the far greater treat thanks large in part to Sam Clemens’ friendship with Alan Hale’s Steve Gillis. Hale does what he always does which almost always works for me. West of the Mississippi the story is framed nicely by Sam and Steve’s poor prospecting experience which is eventually wrapped up perfectly when the whole town strikes it rich at a very familiar location. In between the prospecting and Clemens’ first adult editorial job comes the incident of “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” which is the finest moment of the movie.
The story of the jumping frog unfolds in the same manner as Sam’s youth had with Twain and his real-life contemporaries weaved into his own legendary fiction. Alan Hale might be the only grown man I’d actually believe could get so excited over the opportunity presented by a frog-jumping contest, which better explains why I always get such a kick out of him. While March’s Sam doesn’t share Steve’s excitement he’s at least a willing participant going so far as to get soaked through in a pond while hunting for a bullfrog big enough to compete with Bret Harte’s (John Carradine) acclaimed Dan’l Webster.
Former Keystone comic favorite Chester Conklin, still sporting his famed bushy mustache, presides over the contest enforcing all of the rules and regulations while Sam’s co-worker Billings (Percy Kilbride) announces the affair for the rowdy crowd of onlookers, most of whom have a wager down on the event. The frog-jumping contest is the one scene in The Adventures of Mark Twain that sees Fredric March relegated to the background and leaves all of the fun to the other actors. Most notably Carradine enjoys a brief but memorable moment on all fours calling out encouragement for Dan’l Webster with desperate cries of, “Flies, flies!”
At the conclusion of the contest Sam is back at the office writing a fictional account of it. As he finishes up and signs the piece a moment of fear grips him and he strikes a line through the name Samuel L. Clemens. He turns to Billings and asks if he could use his name. Billings says no as “I aim to do a little writing myself one of these days,” in a nod to Twain contemporary Josh Billings, nineteenth century humorist who ranked right with Twain himself at their peaks. Finally Sam harkens back to his own past and the page is signed Mark Twain.
It’s here that The Adventures of Mark Twain peaks. Unfortunately too early. The fun, mischief and creativity of the Jumping Frog scene is never approached again.
As time passes the movie relies more and more on Fredric March being an effective Twain. The Adventures of Mark Twain is dead without that. March manages to keep it alive.
I believed Fredric March as Mark Twain every step of the way, so much so that he sold me on the warped truth Warner Brothers presents to us. The Adventures of Mark Twain may not be historically accurate but what it absolutely accomplishes is capturing the spirit of Twain through the performance of Fredric March.
- Davis, Ronald L. Just Making Movies: Company Directors on the Studio System. University Press of Mississippi, 2005
- “Mark Twain Role Lived by March.” The Evening Independent. 4 May 1944: 22.
- Raevouri, Saskia, ed. Behind the Screenplay: The Adventures of Mark Twain. Square Circles Publishing, 2010.
- Rosen, Phillip. Change Mummified. University of Minnesota Press, 2001.
- Smyth, J.E. Reconstructing American Historical Cinema. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2006.
- “Stardust.” Spokane Daily Chronicle 22 Jun 1942: 8.
- Todd, John. “Fredric March Has Made Success of Free-Lancing.” St. Petersburg Times 23 Jul 1944: 31.
Cliff Aliperti writes about Classic Movies and Movie Stars at Immortal Ephemera, which is also home base to his vintage movie collectibles business. The Immortal Ephemera website celebrates its 10th Anniversary in 2012 while long-time collectibles dealer Aliperti has been selling online longer than that. Immortal Ephemera offers a combination of information about the collectibles themselves as well as the old time stars which they picture.
Jill Blake is the owner/managing editor of the classic film website Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence. She is also a co-founder and editor of the film site The Moviola and film editor at CC2K. In 2012, she was interviewed on-air by Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz. In 2013, she was a featured guest on the TCM podcast. In her spare time Jill is a stay-at-home mom, wife, fried okra connoisseur, and the neighborhood’s own L.B. Jeffries.