powered by AFI
Sol Polito could shoot anything. During his 35-year career, theItalian-born cameraman filmed toe-tapping chorines in 42nd Street(1933), a folk legend come to life in The Adventures of Robin Hood(1938) and dueling divas Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins in OldAcquaintance (1943), all at Warner Bros. The studio's leading ladiesloved him because he knew how to make them look young and appealing no matterhow old and tired they got. On The Adventures of Mark Twain (1944),however, he did the reverse. He helped Fredric March age 75 years for one of the actor'smost famous portrayals.
It seemed that nobody but Jesse L. Lasky wanted to make The Adventuresof Mark Twain. After scoring a hit with another American legend inSergeant York (1941), he fought for a year to convince Warner Bros.to back a screen biography of the noted writer and humorist. DirectorIrving Rapper wasn't interested in making the film until he learned thathis friend, March, was the first choice to star. March had been suggestedby Twain's only living daughter, Clara Clemens Gabrilowitsch, who informedLasky that she would not help with the picture unless March played herfather. But even with such a stirring endorsement, March had his doubts.He only accepted the role after the makeup department shot a test in whichhe played Twain at 65. When a shot of March in make-up was released to thepapers, Twain's daughter thought somebody had discovered another archivalphoto of her father.
March set out to learn all he could about Twain, a daunting taskconsidering that the studio's research department had assembled a 72 pagebibliography on the man, not to mention finding 2,345 photos and conductinginterviews with 148 people who had known or observed him. One of those wasactor C. Aubrey Smith, who had seen Twain accept an honorary degree atOxford. In the film, he would play the Oxford chancellor conferring thatdegree.
March spent 12 weeks working with the make-up department to develop Twain'slook for the various ages depicted in the film. Since Twain's nose seemedto change shape over time, they created three different noses for March towear at different ages. March also pored over the single piece of film onTwain, a 100-foot newsreel. After speaking to many who had known Twain andhearing contradictory accounts of his speech patterns, he put theirtestimonies together, deciding that he would start speaking slowly until hewas sure his listener was following him. Then he would speed up to matchthe rhythm noted by other witnesses. Years later he would confess tomissing one of Twain's mannerisms, his habit of playing with the bottom ofhis shirtsleeve. He would also praise Hal Holbrook for incorporating thatin his award-winning stage performance in Mark TwainTonight.
Although the film was shot largely on the Warner Bros. back lot, secondunit crews captured footage of Twain's hometown, Hannibal, Mo.; the studyin his farm in Elmira, N.Y.; and his home in Hartford, Conn. TheMississippi River shown in the film was actually a studio miniature,complete with rotting stumps along the shore and a model version of thepaddle wheeler Twain saw destroyed during the Civil War. The specialeffects department also aided in the dramatization of Twain's story, "TheCelebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," and created animated versionsof Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, all of which helped the film score anOscar® nomination for Best Special Effects.
Although The Adventures of Mark Twain was finished in 1942, it saton the shelf for almost two years as the studio focused on releasingpictures about World War II while they were still timely. After completinga USO tour, however, March urged Warner's to release the film to militaryaudiences because of its sense of American history. The GIs saw thepicture in March 1944, with a theatrical release finally scheduled twomonths later. Critics lauded March's performance, though they found thefilm overly episodic as it tried to capture events from several periodsof Twain's life. However, over time, the film and March's performance haveattracted a devoted following, largely through televisionpresentations.
Producer: Jesse L. Lasky
Director: Irving Rapper
Screenplay: Alan LeMay, Harry Chandlee
Based on an adaptation by Alan LeMay and Harold M. Sherman of biographicalmaterial owned by the Mark Twain Co.
Cinematography: Sol Polito
Art Direction: John Hughes, Fred MacLean
Music: Max Steiner
Principal Cast: Fredric March (Samuel Clemens), Alexis Smith (OliviaLangdon), Donald Crisp (J.B. Pond), Alan Hale (Steve Gillis), C. AubreySmith (Oxford Chancellor), John Carradine (Bret Harte), Walter Hampden(Jarvis Langdon), Percy Kilbride (Billings), Willie Best (George).
BW-131m. Closed captioning. Descriptive Video.
by Frank Miller