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. The film contains barely a kernel of truth in many spots, but it plants enough seeds to further investigate the “real” story.
MARK TWAIN was originally filmed in 1942. But it wasn’t released until 1944, as a morale booster for a country at war. Clara Clemens, Twain’s daughter, was the self-appointed guardian of her father’s image. She made sure it was a loving portrayal on-screen. Though the film isn’t well-known today, it bears one of Max Steiner‘s most delightful scores. The composer’s unique brand of Americana perfectly captures Twain’s event-filled life.
Though the score is chock full of memorable music, it is based on two main themes. The first is the steadily plodding low brass accompaniment suggesting Twain’s muse—the mighty Mississippi River.
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.”
The tender theme for Twain’s wife, Livy (Alexis Smith) 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.”
Steiner received an Oscar nomination for the score. But he won his third and final Academy Award for the more popular SINCE YOU WENT AWAY. If you’re looking for a historically accurate portrait of one of America’s most famous authors, look elsewhere. But in the hands of March and Max, THE ADVENTURES OF MARK TWAIN is an enjoyable couple of hours.