Sunday, January 13, 2002

Film brings Twain to life

Ken Burns chronicles the triumphs and tragedies of the legendary American author

        Just when we thought we knew everything about Mark Twain, along comes Ken Burns to open our eyes. What more could Mr. Burns, the award-winning filmmaker, tell us about the famous author and humorist? Plenty.

        Most of us know about Mark Twain's famous books: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Life on the Mississippi, The Prince and the Pauper and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.

        But Mr. Burns' two-night PBS biography (8-10 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, Channels 48, 54, 16) also profiles the man behind the mustache, Samuel Langhorne Clemens.

        Unlike the commoner's voice in his books, Mr. Clemens was an aristocrat who lived in a 19-room mansion in Hartford, Conn., with seven servants. He was a publisher and investor publicly humiliated by bankruptcy and devastated by the deaths of his father, brother, wife, two daughters and only son.

        “We think we know Twain. But the humor facade keeps us from delving deeper into his life,” says Mr. Burns, whose previous PBS programs include The Civil War, Baseball, Jazz, Brooklyn Bridge, Thomas Jefferson, Frank Lloyd Wright and Lewis & Clark.

        “It's really a dual biography, one of our funniest and saddest films I've made,” he says.

Humor grew from pain

        Mark Twain is funny because, well, it's about the Lincoln of American literature. Unlike Jazz and Frank Lloyd Wright, the “talking heads” experts take a back seat to excerpts from Mr. Twain's books, journals, letters and stories read in character by actor Kevin Conway. Twain himself is the star of Mark Twain.

  • Born: Samuel Langhorne Clemens on Nov. 30, 1835, in Florida, Mo.
  • Careers: Typesetter (1847-57); riverboat pilot (1857-1861); writer and lecturer (1861-1910).
  • Famous books: The Innocents Abroad (1869), The Gilded Age (1873), The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), A Tramp Abroad (1880), The Prince and the Pauper (1882), Life on the Mississippi (1883), Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889), The American Claimant (1892), The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson (1894), Following the Equator (1897), The Mysterious Stranger (1916).
  • Died: April 21, 1910 in Connecticut.
  • PBS film: Ken Burns' Mark Twain airs 8-10 p.m. Monday-Tuesday on Channels 48, 54, 16.
        • Twain, a Mississippi River pilot from 1857 to 1861, once complained about his slow riverboat: “Ferry boats used to lose valuable trips because their passengers grew old and died waiting for us to get by.”

        • As a 17-year-old printer's apprentice, he wrote this front-page newspaper headline in 1853: “Terrible Accident! 500 Men Killed and Missing!!”

        Beneath it ran this story: “We had set the above headline up, expecting (of course) to use it, but as the accident hasn't happened yet, we'll say (to be continued).”

        • On the craft of writing, he once observed: “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter. It's the difference between the lightning bug and lightning.”

        • In a 1907 speech, he explained: “I like a good story well told. That is the reason I am sometimes forced to tell them myself.”

        Mr. Burns, perhaps TV's greatest storyteller, wisely yields to Twain's words.

        “I was struck, even more that the roller-coaster of a life that Sam Clemens had, at what a great writer he was,” Mr. Burns says.

        “We wanted to get out of the way — even though we have a wonderful stable of commentators in the film — and just listen to him talk about watching Hawaiian beauties swimming naked in a pool, or about a camel eating his jacket and his writing material.”

Media star of his time

        Mark Twain viewers also will find a wealth of photos to accompany Twain's tales. The author may have been the most photographed man of his generation. Of the 600 still photographs in the film, about half are of the writer who took his pen name from a riverboat term meaning the water was two fathoms (12 feet) deep. The documentary opens and closes with rare motion pictures of Twain shortly before his death in 1910.

        “Mark Twain once said, "I'm the most conspicuous person in America.' He was the first media star,” Mr. Burns says.

        Scholars have praised Mr. Burns for his choice of Mr. Conway as Twain. No known recordings exist of the author's voice.

        “We do know that (Thomas) Edison recorded him on a cylinder, and no one knows where it is. It's either lost or destroyed,” Mr. Burns says. “For someone of his stature and fame, there should be a lot more film of him. And there probably is, unless it's been destroyed.”

Lived in Cincinnati

        The first night covers familiar ground, from Mr. Clemens' Missouri birth in 1835 through his literary masterpiece, Huck Finn, 50 years later. He had dropped out of school at 11, when his father's death left the family in debt, to work as a printer's apprentice for his brother at the Hannibal Journal.

        From 1853 to 1857, he worked as a printer in St. Louis, New York, Philadelphia and Cincinnati, where “he also wrote humorous articles for $5 each under the pen name of Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass,” says narrator Keith David in the film. (A 1988 Enquirer story says he lived here for six months, starting in October, 1856.)

        In 1857, he boarded a steamboat for New Orleans, on the first leg of a trip to Brazil. He never made it. He became a steamboat pilot instead. A year later he asked his younger brother, Henry, to join him on the river — and blamed himself after Henry was killed in a steamboat explosion near Memphis.

        When river traffic stopped during the Civil War, he went west with his brother to Nevada and began his writing career as a newspaper reporter.

Dealing with disasters

        The second night explores the largely unknown Twain. He was forced to return to the lecture circuit in 1895, after losing his fortune on an automated type-composing machine and a company that published biographies of Pope Leo XIII and Gen. George Custer's widow.

        Both nights probe the darker side of Mark Twain's alter-ego — how he contemplated suicide in San Francisco in 1864, and was scarred by the deaths of his daughters. (Susy died of meningitis while Twain was on an around-the-world lecture tour with his wife in 1896; Jean drowned in the bathtub from an epileptic seizure on Christmas eve 1909).

        “He had more tragediesthan you can ever expect any one person to have,” Mr. Burns says. Which is why Twain said that “the source of laughter is not joy, but sorrow.”

        After the Sept. 11 tragedies, Mr. Burns says he found solace in Mark Twain.

        “I was really affected, as everyone was, and began to question what I was doing, and Twain rescued me. Twain got me through this period,” Mr. Burns says.

        “There's no other 19th century humorist who's still funny.”

        You just watch and see.

        E-mail Past columns at

Things Twain didn't say
Some memorable Twain quotes

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