Posted by medusamorlock on November 29, 2007
He’s a daunting subject. Scholars have shaped their careers around studying the life of Mark Twain, aka Samuel Clemens, who was born 172 years ago tomorrow, on November 30, 1835. For every schoolchild who devoured his many literature classics, to the many moviegoers who saw his books brought to life on the screen, Twain captured the quintessential spirit of 19th Century America–brash, inventive, adventurous, imperfect, but always with a sense of humor. We haven’t got time here for a deep study of Mark Twain, but we can take a look at the ways Hollywood adapted and appreciated the wit and wisdom of this entertaining writer.
Beginning with very early silent films, the movies often turned to Twain when in need of a property with plenty of audience appeal. According to the IMDB, Twain himself appeared in one of the early adaptations of his works, the 1909 version of The Prince and the Pauper, which had been preceded two years earlier by the first screen Tom Sawyer. From that time onward, Twain’s characters Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn would be perennial silver screen and later television subjects, both of them appearing both singly and together dozens of times over the past century. In the early outings, such boy actors as Jackie Googan, Billy Cook, and in David O. Selznick’s lavish Technicolor 1938 version Tommy Kelly, brought the young Sawyer to vivid life.
A year after Selznick’s Sawyer, MGM made The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with their resident bright-eyed boy Mickey Rooney in the title role. Over twenty years later MGM would bring Finn to the screen again, a semi-musical version with songs originally written for a never-filmed 1952 version, to have been directed by Vincent Minnelli, which would have starred Gene Kelly and Danny Kaye as the Duke and the Dauphin. (As a fan of both Kelly and Kaye, I rue that this was never made….).
Almost as popular as Tom and Huck was one of Twain’s other famous duos, The Prince and the Pauper, filmed many times with the identical boys played by variously by slight women, trick photographed boys, or in the case of the popular 1937 Warner Bros. version, by actual male twins. Sixteen-year-olds Billy and Bobby Mauch (I was saddened to learn he died this past October) were delightful in the lead roles, as was Errol Flynn in actually a very minor role as the dashing Miles Hendon. A great score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold helped the action along (and was later incorporated into his Violin Concerto) and Twain was well served by this rousing adaptation.
The time-traveling comedic adventure A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court was also popular Hollywood fodder, memorably starring Will Rogers in 1931, with Maureen O’ Sullivan as his love interest and Myrna Loy as the treacherous Morgan le Fay. In 1949 Bing Crosby, at the height of his popularity, starred in a delightful musical version for Paramount, co-starring the ravishing Rhonda Fleming, with William Bendix around as able comic relief and Cedric Hardwicke as King Arthur. It’s a charming, breezy Crosby performance, with some nifty songs including a hilarious song-and-dance number with Bing, Bendix and Hardwicke dressed up like peasants and roaming the countryside. I think this is one of Bing’s best films, a treat all around, and is out on DVD. The novel has also been interpreted in animated form and with females in the lead; the concept seems to take on all comers.
Mark Twain died in 1910 at the age of seventy-four as an incredibly prosperous and world-famous celebrity, and his name is as famous today as ever. He is, I would say, as popular and uniquely American a character as Abraham Lincoln, and that might account for the fact that he’s turned in up as a character in shows such as Star Trek:TNG and in assorted biographical works, including Fredric March’s turn as Twain in The Adventures of Mark Twain from 1944. Twain's unpretentious and cantankerous nature continues to appeal to us from across the years, and his stories offer opportunities to each new generation to discover and make Mark Twain their own. Happy Birthday, Mr. Clemens!
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