Researching The Adventures of Mark Twain – I Wish They All Had Sources Like This

March-in-March Blogathon at Sittin on a Backyard FenceAs I was putting together my article about The Adventures of Mark Twain for the March-in-March blogathon, which is now well under way at Sittin on a Backyard Fence, I found myself veering off on a tangent even further than I usually do. So much so that I finally snapped these few paragraphs off of the article about the movie in order to use them here instead.

I had a few problems writing about The Adventures of Mark Twain and the main one is actually covered at the open of my piece which will go live in just a few days. On a more minor note I was bugged by the fact that the movie was completed in September 1942 and not released until May 1944. It's not as though movie production and consumption ceased during World War II. The Adventures of Mark Twain seemed to have an unusually long lag in between completion and release.

The only reason I could find for the delay was a brief note in the AFI entry for the film which can be read at TCM.com. In far from confident language they referenced an April 21, 1944 article in a publication called Tidings which stated Warner Brothers had put a precedence on war films and thus held off release of Twain and other historical based movies until all of the more topical material had been released.

This sounded a little hazy and so I dug around a little and began to believe that perhaps Twain's possessive daughter, Clara, might have caused Warner Brothers some trouble and helped in delaying the movie.

Fredric March in The Adventures of Mark Twain

It turns out there is an incredible trove of information available online relating specifically to the production of The Adventures of Mark Twain. And it is free.

219 pages of original correspondence between writer Harold Sherman, producer Jesse L. Lasky, Twain's daughter Clara Clemens Gabrilowitsch, and others all specifically relating to The Adventures of Mark Twain from time of Sherman's conception of a biographical stage play though completion of the film and beyond. Compiled and edited by Saskia Raevouri in 2010, Behind the Screenplay is actually available in its entirety as a free pdf file online at this time.

While Clara did cause some heartburn over money and rights, she was ultimately not the cause of the delay. Tidings got it right.

A September 24, 1942 letter from Jesse L. Lasky to Howard Sherman besides noting that shooting had concluded the evening before and remarking upon Fredric March's performance as "definitely of Academy Award caliber," regrets that the film cannot be ready for release on the anniversary of Twain's birth, November 30, in that same year of 1942 (158).

Lasky and Sherman continued regular correspondence with Lasky writing that The Adventures of Mark Twain had a very successful first sneak preview on January 19, 1943 in Huntington Park (187).

Sherman repeated polite requests for a preview to be staged in Chicago so he could see the film, but that would be a long time in coming.

On April 13, 1943 Lasky wrote Sherman that "The picture is being held back for release until July or August at the earliest, due to a heavy backlog of war pictures which must go out ahead of it" (187).

Sherman replied to that note and just a few days later, April 17, Lasky replied again suggesting an even longer delay as "no date has been set for the release of 'Mark Twain,' and it may be held back until September or October due to an enormous backlog of big pictures that must be released ahead of it" (191).

Fredric March in The Adventures of Mark Twain

Later that year Lasky writes Sherman on September 22 stating that "the picture will probably be released in February and handled as a road show" (205). The Adventures of Mark Twain would eventually be handled as a road show but that didn't happen until early May 1944 with the film finally gaining general release in late July.

While Twain's daughter Clara was difficult and did stretch legal proceedings into an eventual January 1943 settlement which increased her percentage from a third to a half on receipts over $2 million, the real reason for the delay was simply that "backlog of war pictures."

An extremely informative footnote at the back of of J.E. Smyth's Reconstructing American Historical Cinema stated that Warner Brothers only produced five historical films during the war torn period of 1942-1945: Shine On, Harvest Moon (1944); The Adventures of Mark Twain (1944); Mr. Skeffington (1944); Roughly Speaking (1945); and Saratoga Trunk (1945). Judging by those release dates, all 1944 and '45, and the fact that Warner's had produced five different historical films per year from 1939-1941, it is absolutely accurate that the nearly two year wait for Twain was caused by the war backlog.

It had been a long road indeed, especially for Howard Sherman who in March 1936 signed a contract with the estate of Samuel L. Clemens and The Mark Twain Company giving him rights to create and produce a stage play about the life and works of Mark Twain. Sherman was optimistic his script would play on Broadway, but it was never produced for the stage.

Hollywood pioneer Jesse L. Lasky became involved when he purchased screen rights from Sherman in November 1940. Lasky's correspondence stresses that the deal should remain secretive so a surprise announcement of the Mark Twain film project could be made on Twain's November 30 birthday in his Hannibal, MO birthplace with Walter Brennan, the first star attached to the project, on hand in full Twain costume.

After Lasky concluded production on Sergeant York, also featuring Brennan, and that film opened to immediate success, Lasky would receive the necessary backing from Warner Brothers to proceed on the Mark Twain project.

Fredric March in The Adventures of Mark Twain

Howard Kyle, born 1861, was a stage actor active since the turn of the century and was tied to early negotiations between Sherman and the Twain Estate in the 1930's specifically regarding Sherman's production of Twain for the stage. Which, once more, never was. Kyle wrote Lasky offering his services to the screen project and suggesting that he had legal claims on the part of Mark Twain. Sherman and those he wrote found Kyle's claims ridiculous and any legal claims the actor thought he had were quickly abandoned.

Further correspondence collected in the volume indicates that there was a brief rumor tying Spencer Tracy to the Mark Twain role, but MGM wouldn't make him available (107). Twain's daughter Clara suggested Claude Rains for the part, but Lasky wanted a bigger star. That statement would also seem to leave Brennan out of the picture as well.

Meanwhile Sherman's formerly 264 page script had been edited down after Lasky teamed the more experienced Alan LeMay with him. It was LeMay's influence which stressed the comedic and adventurous elements of the play, while Sherman continued to stress the factual elements of Twain's life.

Unfortunately the first reference anyone in the collected correspondence makes about Fredric March, the actor who ultimately portrayed Mark Twain, does not arise in Behind the Screenplay until a Lasky letter of August 15, 1942 written after six weeks of shooting.

Behind the Screenplay: The Adventures of Mark Twain, collected and edited by Saskia Raevouri, is an absolutely fascinating look into the creative, legal and production process of this film from germ of an idea through to completion. Raevouri collected the letters and documents found within Behind the Screenplay from Harold Sherman's archives at the Special Collections at the Torreyson Library, University of Central Arkansas at Conway.

After struggling to piece together information regarding the production of The Adventures of Mark Twain I found Behind the Screenplay to be one of the most enjoyable cases of information overload I've ever been distracted by. I began simply by searching the file for key terms and dates and quickly became so absorbed in the letter writing that I read the entire publication!

You can find the pdf of Behind the Screenplay here and also reach that link throughout the Harold Sherman website.

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Comments

  1. Jacqueline T Lynch says

    Thanks for an interesting and informative piece.  March’s performance in this film is quite good, and though the movie skims briskly along the facts as most biographical films did in those days — it’s hard to fit in a whole life in a couple of hours — I really think this is one of the better ones.

    • says

      Thanks @fef16a154b7472aae29397e080eece5b:disqus . I’ve got about 2,500 words posting on the movie itself in a few days for March-in-March. In the end I thought March saved it with his performance, but there were definitely parts I enjoyed, especially in the first half of the movie.

  2. Laura says

    This is really interesting research, Cliff.  I’ve always been intrigued that Warner Bros., of all the studios, seemed to have held back several films during the war — the WWII-set romantic drama MY REPUTATION was held back four years, perhaps because of its somber tone, and DEVOTION, a biography of the Brontes, was also held back several years.  (It seems that DEVOTION needs to be added to the list you found, cited above, of WB historical films with a delayed release — it was filmed in ’42/’43 and came out in ’46.)  I read somewhere along the way that Warner Bros. sometimes showed these films in war zones even if they hadn’t been released domestically.  I’m not aware of other studios, like MGM and Fox, holding back titles for years during the war, are you?  It’s a little bit of movie history that’s quite interesting!

    Best wishes,
    Laura

    • says

       Thanks, @6c46afbc58a703991f6026e90f2c0107:disqus I’m still stunned about the source I bumped into in the end, that was extremely fascinating charting 8 years works on the project from point of conception!

      Hmm, I’ll have to check that citation, perhaps I misread it and it was only referring to 1944-45 releases.

      I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Twain was shown for soldiers, especially considering it was nearly a year and a half between the first sneak preview and general release. This seems a curious title to hold back, doesn’t it? I mean how much more apple pie American can you get than Mark Twain? It’s really not a depressing movie though I guess, trying to think the way they would think, the hero does die in the end so maybe WB thought that was too much for audiences.

    • says

      Thanks, @0e7459ee9cf9233de5ae1ece96537cf9:disqus the editor of that eBook did all the real work–I just read what they put out. Wish I found it before a lot of the other work I did, it would have saved me quite a bit of trouble, but it sure was fun pounding my way towards finding it!

  3. Jill says

    Cliff–

    This is exactly why I asked you to participate in this. Your attention to detail is outstanding. Really interesting back story to a great film. I cannot wait for your essay!!!!

    • says

       Thanks @1c36c9ca3d9ae4b389f8705465cf6a0b:disqus – I’ll give you great performance, but after spending perhaps too much time with it I won’t go as far with great film anymore. It began to wear on me. Just emailed you my final draft of the movie article, hoping I kept my focus more on the positive of March’s performance than I did the film as a whole in the end!

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