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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.

Sources:

  • 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.

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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.

For the Boys Blogathon: Buddies Forever!

This post is my submission for The Scarlett Olive’s For the Boys Blogathon. I would like to thank Katie and Hilary for hosting this event and welcoming my participation.

Note: You will NOT see the word “Bromance” mentioned in this post. I find it to be the most ridiculous term ever. I will also go on record to say that I strongly dislike “Chick-flick”, “Bromcom”, “Romcom”. You will see the words “man”, “manly” and “dude” maybe even “dudely.”

Ah, the buddy flick. Two guys (sometimes more) out to take on the world. It doesn’t matter when, where, and how their journey takes place, it’s about their friendship and how they deal with adversity and triumph. Women may come and go, and there may even be a fight between them over the same woman. Yet almost always, the friendship will prevail–even in death.  Using the mechanism of the buddy film, Hollywood is able to appeal to men’s emotional side. In classic film, a vast majority of the buddy films appear to be dramas. In the gangster genre I immediately think of James Cagney and Pat O’Brien. These two were close friends in real life, and although they made all kinds of films (and frequently collaborated Frank McHugh, another close pal), I always think of their roles in Angels with Dirty Faces. Another pairing is that of William Powell and Clark Gable. Theirs was in Manhattan Melodrama, one of my favorites, and a similar story line to that of Angels with Dirty Faces: two young friends grow up together on the wrong side of the tracks. One makes it to the right side and lives an honorable and decent life, while the other continues in a life of crime. Despite their differences, they remain friends and can always pick up where they left off.

In the action/adventure genre there is only one teaming that comes to mind: Errol Flynn and Alan Hale. Although Hale was very much a supporting character to Flynn’s leading roles, it’s hard to think of one without the other. Flynn is charming and handsome, and Hale is the sidekick with all the funny quips. They get along so well because there is no competition over women. They each know their place and are friends until the very end. There are some classic comedies with best pals. First are the Road pictures starring Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. In the silent era, Buster Keaton and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle made quite the team. Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, The Marx Brothers are all perfect examples. There are even buddies in musicals, with Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra starring in three films (Anchors Aweigh, On the Town, and Take Me Out to the Ballgame) immediately coming to mind.

Of all the genres, the two that are the fullest of testosterone and strong male friendships, are war stories and westerns. From Battleground to Ride the High Country, these films always feature two friends dealing with the toughest of circumstances.

In the 1980′s and early 1990′s, theaters were inundated with action-packed, testosterone-fueled BFF adventures: 48 Hours, Beverly Hills Cop, Lethal Weapon, and their respective sequels (and threequels and fourquels). These films definitely appealed to a very male audience, but frequently cast the current luscious beefcake to help draw in the ladies. At the time many of these films were considered edgy. By today’s standards, the “raunchy” language of 1980s Eddie Murphy is a distant memory (after all, he is Donkey, Doctor Dolittle and runs Daddy Day Care…oh and he occasionally gives car rides to needy transvestite hookers). In recent years the buddy flick has become an exposition for the raunchiest language, random and pointless nudity (each film appears to compete for the most hideous nude scene or most graphic discussions about bodily functions), and general caveman-like behavior. Their masculinity is worn not on their sleeve, but on a t-shirt three sizes too small and positioned squarely on their chest. Underneath is a tagline that says “I love boobies and I’m absolutely and positively NOT GAY!.”  Some of these newer films are quite funny, despite their overt attempts at pure manly manliness (I give Judd Apatow a lot of credit because his films have heart, sometimes too much. They also appear to be a little insecure about acknowledging love between two friends, re: constant gay jokes).

Going back to classics, I have to admit that I love a lot of the “manly” genres. Some of my favorite films feature two male friends. Sure there might be a love interest, but the friendship is always a main attraction. When thinking about the films for this blogathon, I turned to my husband. The two of us compared our list of quintessential male buddy films and we had a lot of duplicates. However, he had several listed that I did not consider. A few of them are highlighted below.

Cool Hand Luke

My husband is very adamant over Cool Hand Luke being the essential buddy flick. There are no women (unless you consider the big bosomed car wash lady), thus no traditional romance. The “romance” is between the two main characters Luke (Paul Newman) and Dragline (George Kennedy). It is Luke’s strength and determination (and Messiah-like presence) to find a way out that has Dragline and the whole chain gang admiring him. Dragline’s devotion to Luke is so strong and he risks his life just to be around him. Call it hero worship. They are a mismatched duo, but they have each other’s back right to the end. No women, no fortune, no prospects– just brought together by incredibly horrendous circumstances. How does Cool Hand Luke appeal to women? I don’t think I should have to answer that one.

Gunga Din

I have to admit that George Stevens’s classic is one of my all time favorites. In my opinion it is one of the greatest action/adventure films ever made. The friendship between Cutter (Cary Grant), MacChesney (Victor McLaglen), and Ballantine (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) is unwavering. That’s not to say they do not have their differences. Cutter is a bit of a handful with his pipe dreams about finding hidden treasures and golden palaces, and often agitates his comrades. MacChesney is the highest ranked officer of the trio and tries to maintain straight military protocol. Ballantine struggles over starting his life with the woman he loves, or continuing the adventures with his best friends. In addition to the strong friendship between the three, Cutter forms an unlikely bond with the regiment’s water boy, Gunga Din (Sam Jaffe). The two have a mutual admiration and both set out to find their fortunes. Although there is a female character, Ballantine’s fiancee Emmy (Joan Fontaine), she is negatively portrayed as needy and generally whiny. Not great for female viewers, but it helps reinforce the unbreakable bond between the best friends. Despite this, I still love the story and the main characters. Although it ends on a bittersweet note, Gunga Din is also quite a funny film at times.

Blazing Saddles

I realize that Blazing Saddles does not fall under the traditional “classic film” label because it was made after the 1969 cut-off, but it would be flat out wrong to dismiss it strictly based on when it was made. Mel Brooks is a master and Blazing Saddles is his finest masterpiece. Sure it is off-color at times, but it all comes from a good place. Brooks took the typical western (and the musical) and turned it upside down. The Ballad of Rock Ridge is a parody of the main theme in the film High Noon, Madeline Kahn is in full Marlene Dietrich mode with her stage performances, and the hero is…black. Whoa! A western with a black hero? And his sidekick is white? Obviously this arrangement makes way for a endless amount of jokes, but also serves as a commentary on racism. Sheriff Bart (Cleavon Little) and Jim (Gene Wilder) form a fast friendship. They are both social outcasts– Bart because he is black, and Jim because he’s a drunk, and fallen from his glory days as sharpshooter The Waco Kid. The pair team up to save the town of Rock Ridge against the evil forces of Hedley “That’s Hed-ley” Lamarr (Harvey Korman). Underneath the sometimes gross humor (the farting scene) and colorful language, is a story about two best friends…who ride into the sunset not on their horses, but in a limousine.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

For my husband, Cool Hand Luke is the ultimate buddy film. For me, I look no further than Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. From start to tragic finish, it is a beautiful film. Butch (Paul Newman) and Sundance (Robert Redford) rob trains and banks. They are really good at it too. Although criminals, they are loved from the first moment. The two are partners through and through right until the bloody end. Butch and Sundance are truly living an outlaw’s life, but having loads of fun in the process. They are also fortunate enough to keep company with the beautiful Etta Place (Katharine Ross), who loves them both. She teaches them manners and Spanish, and goes along with their schemes for a time. She doesn’t overstay her welcome though. This is one of the few male geared films that has a positive female role.

Only Angels Have Wings

Although heavy on the adventure and romance, Only Angels Have Wings features a strong friendship between two men: Geoff Carter (Cary Grant) and Kid Dabb (Thomas Mitchell) and they absolutely adore one another. Each would walk through fire for the other, and both value honesty, even when the truth hurts. Geoff has his problems with commitment to women, although Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur) is making quite the impression. When Geoff grounds Kid from flying, the decision is not an easy one. Geoff knows how much it bruises Kid’s ego, but it’s the right decision to keep everyone safe. That is what a true friend does– makes a hard decision to save a life, even if it damages the friendship.

There are several more films that need an honorable mention. The Lord of the Rings trilogy is the ultimate buddy epic. Two best friends, Frodo and Sam literally going to the ends of the earth knowing they may never make it back. Not only do they have each other, but they have the support of many others from their original band of brothers. The Big Lebowski features two friends (three if you count poor Donny) that couldn’t be more different. The Dude (Jeff Bridges) is a burned out hippie who lives for bowling, Creedence, White Russians, and his rug (which really tied the room together). Walter (John Goodman) is a Vietnam vet with major anger issues, who often babysits his ex-wife’s dog (“It’s a f*cking show dog with f*cking papers”). This mismatched duo, with their sad little friend Donny, encounter the most bizarre of situations. Although The Dude is often disgusted with Walter’s behavior, he ultimately enjoys his company.

To close out this entry on a testosterone fueled note, here are BFF’s Roddy Piper and Keith David beating the shit out of each other.

Note: The video features fantastic shit-kickery and some bad language, so don’t watch at work, church, or around the kiddies.

“Either put on these glasses, or start eating that trash can.”

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