Multimedia Review

Mark Twain: A Film Directed by Ken Burns. PBS Home Video, 2002. (2 ea. VHS format tapes), $24.98; Approx. 220 minutes. ASIN: B00005RJ24; (DVD), $29.98. ASIN: B00005RDB0.

Mark Twain, A Film Directed by Ken Burns.
Original soundtrack. Legacy Recordings, 2001. $17.98. ASIN: B00005R62L.

Mark Twain's America, A Portrait in Music. Jacqueline Schwab, piano. Audio CD. Dorian Recordings, 2001. $17.97. 61 min. 38 sec. ASIN: B00005Q6JS.

Commissions from sales through are donated to the Mark Twain Project.

The following review appeared 18 January 2002 on the Mark Twain Forum.

Copyright © 2002 Mark Twain Forum
This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.

Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
David Thomson

An enclosure in the soundtrack recording of Ken Burns' Mark Twain, a Film proclaims: "Own the DEFINITIVE story of America's Most Beloved Author on Videocassette and DVD." If Burns and company had written their companion volume first, and then made a longer (multi-episode) film based on that book, they might have had something that more closely approached being definitive. As it stands, the less you know about Mark Twain the better you'll like the film since it's a mere appetizer to Clemens aficionados.

Watching Ken Burns' Mark Twain is a bit like being the captive passenger on a tour bus. The speed of the vehicle and the duration of the stops and what you are shown are all at the discretion of the omnipotent driver/guide. Sam Clemens' boyhood in Hannibal is viewed at a fast clip with a few vague historical references but before you're ready to leave you've been driven out of the city limits and are speeding through the journeyman printer phase.

Burns was given unrestricted access to Twain sites in Hannibal, Hartford and Elmira though only a fraction of the footage shot in those locations was actually used in the film. The Hartford home got the most coverage, filmed during all four seasons inside and out. Very little of Hannibal is seen except for some Mississippi River scenery. Old photos of the boyhood home from different eras with drastically different appearances are used in a seemingly arbitrary way. One of them is shown when the narrator tells of the death of Sam's father, but John Marshall Clemens died upstairs in the Pilaster House which is down on the corner across Hill Street from the boyhood home.

During the short profile of Clemens' father, the photo seen on the screen is of an unidentified man circa 1900 standing on the front porch of the Clemens' birthplace in Florida, Missouri. During the Mississippi steamboat sequence, the photo of Henry Clemens is one of him taken as an immature boy rather than the less beguiling portrait of him as the adolescent, a month shy of his twentieth birthday, at the time of his death from injuries sustained during the explosion of the steamboat Pennsylvania.

Things slow down a bit at the outset of the Civil War for the secessionist Missouri home guard stint (which was interpreted here as "Confederate") then we're off across the prairie on our way to Nevada (but somebody forgot to include the big unabridged dictionary in the stagecoach inventory, darn it.) We stall out in the middle of the Great Plains for some musings on ham and eggs.

The film (along with Clemens himself) really gets its bearings when Sam meets Livy; courts her and weds her and the glorious Hartford days unfold with the three daughters in that magical palace. But all along, death and financial woes stalk the Clemens' family fortunes and exact a terrible toll in the loss of Langdon, Susy, Livy and Jean. The illness and death of Susy in Hartford, while her family is out of the country, is truly the most heartbreaking sequence in the whole saga. Clemens' personal life rivaled his best fiction in the absorbing drama department.

The phenomenally prosperous Florentine Films in its bucolic New Hampshire setting consists of some very happy campers according to the PBS profiles accompanying the show. Burns and co-writer Dayton Duncan are delighted to be here thank you, and have a foolproof system that runs like a well oiled but routine machine. Bright eyed and precocious; hyperactive and intense; he's the twenty-first century's own Dorian Gray who has a hidden portrait somewhere that displays the psychic wounds administered by the musicians and buffs who were disappointed with his Jazz series.

The gestation process of a Burns documentary begins with the recording of voice overs with Burns putting some fine actors (working at "scale") through grueling paces to extract performances from them that come up to his high standards. The music is prerecorded under Burns' supervision and the film is cut to the music rather than being scored after the fact. The music is engaging and much of it of the period though the style of playing is frequently a bit more contemporary to cater to the modern ear. There's so much talk in the Twain documentary that the music is dialed down for the most part and is more ambient than obtrusive. However, to properly exploit the sales possibilities, much of the music is put out in a sprightly recording with some of Kevin Conway's maple syrupy readings of Clemens' words thrown in for good measure. An opportunity to use some really relevant music during a pivotal event was lost when a Beethoven adagio was used in place of the Negro spirituals that Sam actually played on the piano in Florence as Livy lay dying.

Burns' prestige opens the doors to hallowed archives where he can film priceless photographs to his heart's content. The photos will not always be shown in chronology with what's going on in the narrative of the life story but such is documentary license. A steamboat named City of Memphis is shown as one of the boats Clemens steered as a pilot. The picture is of a sternwheeler with the same name that was built in 1898 as opposed to the sidewheeler that Clemens was aboard which was built in 1857, forty one years earlier. An 1874 photo of Clemens shaking hands with actor John T. Raymond is used to represent Clemens and his publisher congratulating each other after the first printing of Roughing It in 1871.

Burns interviews eleven scholars and writers as well as actor Hal Holbrook who brings raw vitality and emotional vehemence to his deeply felt observations of Clemens. Ron Powers, Shelley Fisher-Fishkin, and Laura Skandera-Trombley provide commentary in extreme close up shots. An out take features Skandera-Trombley stating that she believed that Olivia Clemens really was her husband's collaborator (in a way) and making a solid case that Clemens defined America and Americans to the rest of the world and continues to be one of our best ambassadors, translated and enjoyed in every written language. Writer William Styron (who wrote of his own struggle with depression in Darkness Visible : A Memoir of Madness) brought a special poignancy to his insights of Clemens' own tortured psyche. Playwright Arthur Miller gave a refreshing appreciation of Clemens' "expansiveness of spirit" and "limitless sympathy." The two-sided DVD edition of the film includes a selection of out takes with eleven of the guests. These consist of four parts: Twain the Man, Twain the Writer, Huck Finn and Older Twain.

The guests help to illuminate and define the personality of the man and the merits of the writer and none of them really contradict each other. Regarded by them with affection and admiration, the magnitude of his genius and his multifaceted career and enthusiasms are addressed satisfactorily. Consequently, the film really succeeds better as a "portrait" than a biography. Clemens' great gifts are elucidated: exuberance; a heightened sense of awareness; outspokenness; compassion and sympathy; a profound personal as well as social conscience and an honesty that infused his correspondence, journalism, essays, fiction and platform speaking. His humor was the delicious frosting on the cake.

Clemens' foibles and personal demons are defined: a penchant for guilt and depression that was exacerbated by the terrible losses of his loved ones; his volatility and blasphemousness; his ego and vanity; his striving to be richer that led him into investments which resulted in financial woes, self imposed exile and the dividing of his family and ultimately the disillusionment and cynicism that deepened in his last decade.

Nothing new in terms of scholarship comes to the surface here but the splendid array of photographs of Clemens (some of which are reproduced beautifully in the companion book to the film) are a joy to behold. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is the fulcrum upon which the literary part of the show rests. Dayton Duncan emphasized this in a recent interview with Jim Zwick: " . . .we probably wouldn't have done this film if Twain hadn't written Huckleberry Finn. . . it's that book that secured his place in American literature." The dramatization of slavery in the ante-bellum South and consequently its relevance to racism in contemporary American society brings forth some heart felt commentary especially from Jocelyn Chadwick, as well as Fisher-Fishkin and Holbrook who champion the book's unflagging ability to enthrall and appall.

Burns' mantra for this film is the misattributed quote that Clemens said, "I am not an American, I am the American." (This was probably something that his friend Frank Fuller said about himself.) During the controversy over this mistake, Dayton Duncan deferred responsibility to the scholarly advisors. It's apparent in retrospect that Florentine Films should have had a researcher assigned to verify the context of all quotes and especially one that was to be showcased so prominently. In a post to the Mark Twain Forum, Barry Crimmins summed up why we shouldn't cut Florentine too much slack for its gaffs: "Burns has the budget and the wherewithal to get it right. If he fails to do so, he's fair game. If this series is inaccurate, the inaccuracies will become 'fact' unless they are refuted."

The Burns format is getting to be a bit stale, overly familiar and predictable. Before I saw it, I heard the show had been cut from six hours to four; but after viewing the out takes on the DVD (which includes a sequence of photos assembled under the narration of the "White Town Drowsing" narrative from Life on the Mississippi) the excising of those two extra hours may have been merciful. The success of the Florentine producers seems to have softened their creative edge to some extent and subdued their vitality.

The soundtrack Mark Twain: A Film Directed by Ken Burns consists of twenty-nine selections. Bobby Horton overdubbed himself playing over a half dozen folk instruments in eleven of the cuts and introduces the film's signature tune "Sweet Betsy from Pike"(track 2) which was a hybrid of an old English ballad called "Villikens and His Dinah" and a gold rush song called "Joe Bowers" who "came from old Missouri, All the way from Pike." Horton's finest moment is a minstrel style rendering of "Swing Low Sweet Chariot" (track 29). Peter Ostroushko gives the best acoustic version of "Sweet Betsy" on track 23. Pianist Jacqueline Schwab also plays "Sweet Betsy" (track 26) as well as some lovely solo arrangements of vintage tunes on this sound track and on her own Mark Twain-themed CD. Schwab's characteristic gentle style is elegant for hymns like "How Can I Keep From Singing," "When Tomorrow Comes," and a piece called "Amelia." Guitarists Ed Gerhard and Al Petteway provide two beautiful tracks and "Fiddlin' Johnny" plays a hoe down and a rag which are a lot of fun. The enclosed liner notes on the CD of the Burns sound track includes a seven-page illustrated profile on Mark Twain and music by Dayton Duncan which makes a nice addendum to the companion book to the film. The total of all tracks was not included but appears to be around one hour.

Jacqueline Schwab's solo recording Mark Twain's America: A Portrait in Music contains eighteen tracks with some charming medleys; hymns and spirituals; parlor piano love ballads; Civil War standards, and a rag. A thirty-six page liner notes enclosure written by Schwab with paragraphs on Twain and Classical Music; Twain, the Piano, and Spirituals; Twain's Favorites (one of which "Flow Gently Sweet Afton" is on track 13 of this recording.) The other tunes that are particularly relevant are "Fisher's Hornpipe" (played by Blind Tom Bethune at a concert Clemens attended), the spiritual "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child," and the Stephen Foster song "Gentle Annie" (introduced during Clemens steamboat pilot days.) Schwab's last two liner notes are on "Twain and Dancing"; and "Twain, Improvisation and the Parlor Song Style." She also gives historical background and lyrics on each of the twenty-six songs on the album (there are five medleys among the tracks.) The total running length is 61:38.