(director: Irving Rapper; screenwriters: Alan LeMay/Harry Chandlee/based on an adaptation by Alan LeMay and Harold M. Sherman of biographical material owned by the Mark Twain Co./from the play “Mark Twain” by Harold M. Sherman; cinematographer: Sol Polito; editor: Ralph Dawson; music: Max Steiner; 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); Runtime: 131; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Jesse L. Lasky; Warner Bros.; 1944)

“Solid but conventional biopic.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Solid but conventional biopic directed by Irving Rapper (“Marjorie Morningstar”/”The Corn is Green”/”The Glass Menagerie”). It’s loaded down with too many episodes (none show his dark side and some are further romanticized by poetic license) and soggy at times as it sincerely but drily tells the rich life story of Mark Twain, America’s foremost humorous writer, from a Mississippi riverboat to his becoming honored at Oxford University. It overcomes some of its awkward moments by reasonably good acting (Fredric March in one of his highly regarded roles, where’s he’s asked to age during the course of the film to 75), being stylishly shot by the well-regarded Italian-born cameraman Sol Polito and by Twain being such a colorful and zesty character that his adventurous life couldn’t help but to be captivating (as printer, river pilot, prospector, newspaper editor, bankrupt and international lecturer). The film is based on the play by Harold M. Sherman and is adapted to the screen by Alan LeMay and Harry Chandlee.

Samuel Clemens (Fredric March) is born on Nov 30, 1835, the night of Halley’s Comet over the Mississippi River town of Hannibal, Missouri. Sam has a fun childhood on Jackson Island with his friends, Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn and their black slave boy, Jim. With adventure in his blood, he will run away from his widowed mom and printer’s apprentice job to get work on a riverboat; after several years he becomes a good pilot. Sam prevents Charles Langdon from being robbed by a pickpocket and gets carried away after viewing portrait of his pretty sister Olivia (Alexis Smith) and boldly proclaims that he’ll marry her some day (which will come later on a lecture tour when he’s a famous writer). Hoping to get rich quick, he goes prospecting in the boomtown of Nevada for silver with his friend Steve Gillis (Alan Hale). The boys have no luck in the silver rush but when a local reporter is shot, Sam takes his job. When Bret Harte (John Carradine) challenges all comers to a jumping frog contest, Steve convinces Sam to bet all their money on the contest. Bret’s frog loses because Steve cheats by filling it full of buckshot, but Sam bet all their money on Bret’s frog. Sam writes up the story, using “Mark Twain,” the boatman’s cry for safe water, as his pseudonym. The story is published in a newspaper, and the publisher, Oxford Chancellor (C. Aubrey Smith), offers the writer a lecture engagement. Chance one again propels Twain’s career marvelously forward, as he will marry, write his classic books such as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, and then vows to write serious books. This urge gets him entangled in some moneymaking schemes that leave him broke, and he must now continue to write his successful humorous works. When the publishing company that Sam owns publishes the memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, Sam generously gives all the profits to Grant’s destitute widow. This leaves him facing bankruptcy. Sam must leave his three daughters and ailing wife, and go on a world-wide lecture tour to raise money. It leads to his becoming solvent again and meeting his wife in Florence, Italy, where she soon dies. He’s honored in England by receiving an honorary degree from Oxford University. On his seventy-fifth birthday Halley’s Comet returns and he dies, as he was born, accompanied by the comet.

The film was shot largely on the Warner Bros. back lot, but had location shots of Twain’s hometown of Hannibal, the study in his farm in Elmira, N.Y., and his home in Hartford, Connecticut. Almost all the film’s good intentions get lost in the overlong running time of 131 minutes, in how flat some of the scenes were and in all its inaccuracies. It’s watchable but hardly memorable.

REVIEWED ON 10/23/2007 GRADE: C+

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”