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The following review appeared 2 February 2015 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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In early December 1864 Sam Clemens and his roommate Steve Gillis left San Francisco one step ahead of the law. Gillis had gotten into a bar room brawl, injured a man whose life was teetering in the balance, and been jailed and bailed out by Clemens who didn't have the funds to cover the bail if Gillis skipped town. Gillis headed to Virginia City, and Clemens headed to Jackass Hill in Tuolumne County to lay low for a few months with Gillis's brothers, Jim and Billy, and their mining partner Dick Stoker. Clemens would not return to San Francisco until February 26, 1865. However, Mark Twain scholars agree that what happened to Clemens during those eighty-eight days turned out to be a motherlode of inspiration and stimulus to his future career as a writer.
The documentary 88 Days in the Motherlode examines the events leading up to this time period, what happened at Jackass Hill and nearby Angels Camp, and the outcome. John C. Brown and Bert Simonis are new names in the field of Mark Twain scholarship. Their respective lists of previous productions are short in comparison to other documentary film makers who have attempted to tell the story of the enigmatic life of Samuel Clemens. Brown and Simonis have scored a commendable success in this initial foray into Twain biography.
Brown is a graduate of the University of New Hampshire and was an award-winning producer and editor with New Hampshire Public TV prior to his relocating to California. Simonis, a native of the Netherlands, studied at the Disney Institute in Anaheim, California, and graduated from the University of San Francisco. According to Simonis their production is the culmination of eighteen months of research into this particular period of Mark Twain's life. Six months were then spent filming and editing the production.
Brown and Simonis recruited two very familiar names in Twain scholarship to help interpret Clemens's growth from a newspaper reporter to a writer who found his voice during this time period--time spent in the company of storytellers like Jim Gillis who Clemens described as the "Sage of Jackass Hill." James Caron, author of Mark Twain: Unsanctified Newspaper Reporter (2008), and Vic Fischer, editor at the Mark Twain Papers at the University of California at Berkeley, provide expertise as they discuss Clemens's life and career. Fischer offers glimpses into Clemens's "Notebook 4" which he began writing shortly after arriving on Jackass Hill. Michelle Gordon, assistant professor of American literature at University of Southern California, may be a new name and face to many Mark Twain scholars, but her contributions to the discussion are well-informed and spot on. While Fischer is featured behind his desk at the Mark Twain Papers, Caron and Gordon appear in casual dress and settings. Caron is seated outdoors and Gordon is sitting barefooted and cross-legged on an office sofa. This casual approach emphasizes that Sam Clemens's story is the most important detail of the discussion, and the viewer is invited to pull up a chair and listen.
Two local historians from Calaveras and Tuolumne County are featured. James Fletcher, identified as the "Calaveras County Storyteller," is an engaging and enthusiastic storyteller, the kind students love to have as history teachers. Fletcher is featured on the street in front of today's Territorial Enterprise building in Virginia City. Other shots show him in an office setting and outdoors in a wicker chair on a porch, spinning his history of Clemens and the Gillis brothers. Again, the viewer wants to pull up a chair and listen. Rob Gordon of the Tuolumne County Historical Society, dressed in a work shirt with rolled-up sleeves, takes the viewer behind an enviable array of files and documents and brings out mining claim maps while he relates the history of the area.
In addition to drawing upon the expertise of scholars and local historians, Brown and Simonis use a wealth of print sources to tell their story in Twain's own words as well as the words of those who knew him. These include Mark Twain's letters, notebooks, autobiography, Roughing It, and a rare passage from "The Innocents Adrift" (a manuscript that has yet to be published in full.) Written accounts from others who knew Clemens include those by Dan De Quille, William Gillis, and James Ross Clemens. Thomas F. Maguire furnishes a gravelly voice of Mark Twain, and his narration using Twain's words is woven among the narratives of the scholars, historians, actors' vignettes, and still photos to tie the story together. Both the video and sound editing are seamless and the formula works.
Matt Sweetland plays the role of Clemens. Sweetland, a resident of Toulumne County and a University of California at Santa Barbara graduate, holds a degree in English Literature. His studies focused on African American literature as well as the works of Mark Twain. Vignettes featuring Sweetland as Clemens include pivotal moments such as his "slinking" period in San Francisco and his struggle with thoughts of suicide. While Caron expresses doubts about Clemens's claim to ever putting a pistol to his head, Fischer gives the claim more credibility. Other vignettes include walking on roofs in Virginia City with Artemus Ward; Clemens and Billy Gillis spending time with Nellie and Mollie Daniels, "the Chapparal quails"; and Clemens listening to stories told by Jim Gillis at Jackass Hill and Ben Coon at Angels Camp. Stories he heard from Gillis about a cat named Tom Quartz found its way into Roughing It. Gillis's "Bluejay Yarn" later went into A Tramp Abroad. According to Fischer, the bluejay story probably originated with Gillis himself rather than being a mere rendition of an older and earlier folktale. Gillis's "Burning Shame" tale appeared in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Vignettes of events at Angels Camp include gloomy rainy days spent around a fire where Clemens listened to tales about a jumping frog told by Ben Coon.
Approximately 23 minutes of the documentary lays groundwork for Clemens's trip to Jackass Hill. Thirty minutes is devoted to time spent at Jackass Hill and Angels Camp. The final seventeen minutes are devoted to analyzing the national sensation created by Mark Twain's jumping frog story once it reached the East Coast; Clemens's newspaper assignment in the Sandwich Islands; and his early career as a platform performer upon his return to California. One of Sweetland's best performances is playing Clemens as he battles stage fright, although both Caron and Gordon express doubt that it was as severe as Clemens later claimed. The DVD also includes fifteen minutes of "Extras," which include Thomas Maguire describing how he decided to "play" Twain's voice.
In order to identify the sources of narratives or dates of events, a brief text appears at the bottom of some scenes. Two errors should be noted. One letter to Mollie Clemens is misdated June 18, 1855, rather than 1858. The date of Clemens's first lecture in San Francisco is misdated October 4 rather than October 2, 1866. Overall, however, the textual identifications are helpful in establishing timelines, as well as providing information about source material. In the case of identifying a source of narration from "The Innocents Adrift" (1891), the note serves as a reminder to scholars that this manuscript merits further study. Although Mark Twain's biographer Albert Bigelow Paine published a portion of "The Innocents Adrift" and retitled it "Down the Rhone," scholar Arthur L. Scott in 1963 revealed it was an "unpardonable" editorial fraud. It is a delight to hear the narrator as Clemens read a portion of the material Paine suppressed regarding the "Chaparral Quails." Clemens recalled that the girls could "outswear Satan. It was the common speech of that remote & thinly settled region, they had come by it naturally, & if there was any harm in it they were not aware of it."
A short clip of the documentary is available at the producer's website at:
The vignettes for this documentary were filmed on location in Tuolumne and Calaveras County. The local community's pride in ownership of this part of Mark Twain history is evident throughout. The production partners for the documentary include Greenhorn Creek Resort, Camps Restaurant, and Tuolumne County Historical Society. The film premiere is scheduled for February 21, 2015, at the Bret Harte Theater in Angels Camp on 150th anniversary of Mark Twain's departure from the area. If you are in the vicinity of Calaveras County, it is an event to mark on your calendar.