Tall Tales

THE ADVENTURES OF MARK TWAIN is exactly what the title suggests: an episodic, highly entertaining (and highly fictionalized) “biography” of the celebrated author through his childhood, riverboating on the Mississippi River, his books and legendary lecture tour. Fredric March is a delight as—and the spitting image of—Twain, and even though much of the film contains barely a kernel of truth, it plants enough seeds to potentially inspire further investigation into the “real” story.

MARK TWAIN was originally filmed in 1942 but wasn’t released until 1944, as a morale booster for a country at war. The film was heavily influenced by Twain’s daughter, Clara Clemens, who was the self-appointed guardian of Twain’s image. Though the film isn’t well-known today, it bears one of Max Steiner‘s most delightful scores, with the composer’s unique brand of Americana perfectly accompanying Twain’s event-filled life.

Though the score is chockfull of memorable music, it is based on two main themes. The first is the steadily plodding low brass accompaniment suggesting the mighty Mississippi River, that signature body of muddy water so closely identified with Twain and his writing.

The second is a four-note figure that represents the name “Mark Twain,” accompanied by gently rolling waves of sixteenth notes in the clarinet and bassoon. As Clemens is trying to steer his riverboat through a treacherous portion of the river and a boat-hand sings out “Mark Twain! Safe water,” we hear the origin of the theme (and Clemens’ pen name). Later, the theme morphs through different harmonies and orchestrations as Twain spans the globe during his lecture tour.


In keeping with the Twain’s legendary wit, Steiner wrote some delightful music to accompany certain scenes that would later appear in the author’s stories. A loping bassoon accompanies the adventures of a group of young boys including Tom Sawyer and the slave boy, Jim. A contrabassoon is the voice of “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.”

Steiner composed a tender theme for Twain’s wife, Livy (Alexis Smith), a melody that would have been perfectly at home in the front parlor of any upper-crust home during Twain’s life. As expected, Steiner interpolates popular songs, such as “Dixie” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” to give a sense of time and place. In his liner notes for the excellent Morgan & Stromberg Naxos rerecording, Bill Whitaker calls the practice a “noisy use of American tunes, refreshing Yankee energy and accessible Wagnerian logic.”

Though Steiner received an Oscar nomination for the score, he won his third and final Academy Award for the far more popular (and bigger-budget) SINCE YOU WENT AWAY. If you’re looking for a historically accurate portrait of one of America’s most famous authors, THE ADVENTURES OF MARK TWAIN is not it. If you’re looking for an enjoyable couple of hours in the hands of old pros like March and Max, then give the film a try.

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