The Adventures of Mark Twain
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Sol Polito could shoot anything. During his 35-year career, the Italian-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 Old Acquaintance (1943), all at Warner Bros. The studio's leading ladies loved him because he knew how to make them look young and appealing no matter how 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's most famous portrayals.
It seemed that nobody but Jesse L. Lasky wanted to make The Adventures of Mark Twain. After scoring a hit with another American legend in Sergeant York (1941), he fought for a year to convince Warner Bros. to back a screen biography of the noted writer and humorist. Director Irving Rapper wasn't interested in making the film until he learned that his friend, March, was the first choice to star. March had been suggested by Twain's only living daughter, Clara Clemens Gabrilowitsch, who informed Lasky that she would not help with the picture unless March played her father. But even with such a stirring endorsement, March had his doubts. He only accepted the role after the makeup department shot a test in which he played Twain at 65. When a shot of March in make-up was released to the papers, Twain's daughter thought somebody had discovered another archival photo of her father.
March set out to learn all he could about Twain, a daunting task considering that the studio's research department had assembled a 72 page bibliography on the man, not to mention finding 2,345 photos and conducting interviews with 148 people who had known or observed him. One of those was actor C. Aubrey Smith, who had seen Twain accept an honorary degree at Oxford. In the film, he would play the Oxford chancellor conferring that degree.
March spent 12 weeks working with the make-up department to develop Twain's look for the various ages depicted in the film. Since Twain's nose seemed to change shape over time, they created three different noses for March to wear at different ages. March also pored over the single piece of film on Twain, a 100-foot newsreel. After speaking to many who had known Twain and hearing contradictory accounts of his speech patterns, he put their testimonies together, deciding that he would start speaking slowly until he was sure his listener was following him. Then he would speed up to match the rhythm noted by other witnesses. Years later he would confess to missing one of Twain's mannerisms, his habit of playing with the bottom of his shirtsleeve. He would also praise Hal Holbrook for incorporating that in his award-winning stage performance in Mark Twain Tonight.
Although the film was shot largely on the Warner Bros. back lot, second unit crews captured footage of Twain's hometown, Hannibal, Mo.; the study in his farm in Elmira, N.Y.; and his home in Hartford, Conn. The Mississippi River shown in the film was actually a studio miniature, complete with rotting stumps along the shore and a model version of the paddle wheeler Twain saw destroyed during the Civil War. The special effects department also aided in the dramatization of Twain's story, "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," and created animated versions of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, all of which helped the film score an Oscar® nomination for Best Special Effects.
Although The Adventures of Mark Twain was finished in 1942, it sat on the shelf for almost two years as the studio focused on releasing pictures about World War II while they were still timely. After completing a USO tour, however, March urged Warner's to release the film to military audiences because of its sense of American history. The GIs saw the picture in March 1944, with a theatrical release finally scheduled two months later. Critics lauded March's performance, though they found the film overly episodic as it tried to capture events from several periods of Twain's life. However, over time, the film and March's performance have attracted a devoted following, largely through television presentations.
Producer: Jesse L. Lasky
Director: Irving Rapper
Screenplay: Alan LeMay, Harry Chandlee
Based on an adaptation by Alan LeMay and Harold M. Sherman of biographical material 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 (Olivia Langdon), Donald Crisp (J.B. Pond), Alan Hale (Steve Gillis), C. Aubrey Smith (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