STEINER: The Adventures of Mark Twain
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Max Steiner (1888-1971)
The Adventures of Mark Twain
Musical Americana to the Max
Two forces dominate the history behind Warner Bros.'film The Adventures of Mark Twain. One is ClaraClemens Gabrilowitsch, strong-willed daughter of anAmerican icon and self-appointed guardian of hisimage. The other is World War II, which first promptedWarner Bros. executives to shelve the film, then movedthem to release it two years later, and on the eve of theglobal conflagration's very pinnacle. Today the filmgarners little interest except among Twain enthusiasts(most of whom think little of it) and fans of Max Steiner,who scored numerous films dealing with Americana.
When the film was finally released as a wartime moralebooster in 1944, it received publicity aplenty, includingregional frog-jumping contests (playing off Twain'stale, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of CalaverasCounty), endorsement of the Cigar Institute of America(which praised actor Fredric March, as Twain, forsmoking cigars \in a manner expert enough to please themost exacting cigar-smoking critic") and an 11-page,photo-filled spread in the May 8, 1944 issue of Life,titled "Mark Twain: Despite reports of his death, helives all over again in new film." But the film wasquickly forgotten in the mounting din of World War II,including the D-Day invasion a month later.
In fact, The Adventures of Mark Twain was caughtin another crossfire. Clara Clemens' influence on theengaging if superficial biopic isn't as obvious inviewings of the film now except to Twain scholarsaware of the titanic battles Twain's daughter wagedwith scholars such as famed American historianBernard DeVoto. Editor of the Mark Twain Papers andfirmly convinced of the author's genius, DeVoto metequally firm resistance when, two years into his eightyearcuratorship in 1940, he pressed Clara to release thedarker, unpublished works her father had penned, manybrimming with contempt for religion, capitalist greedand what Twain viewed as evil in the "damned humanrace." Even if Clara had been open to publishing theseworks - and she wasn't - the American homefrontduring the war that soon consumed the nation wasprobably the wrong time and place for Americans towrestle with the cynical, bitter side of a homespunliterary figure largely seen as a master storyteller andgifted humorist. It was this benign, folksy portrait thatemerged in veteran film producer Jesse L. Lasky's filmbiography - a work heavily influenced by ClaraClemens, who moved to the Los Angeles area shortlybefore America's entry into World War II.
Studio documents indicate great research went intothe making of The Adventures of Mark Twain, dwellingon everything from Twain's nose (which changed shapethrough the years) to the type of jumping frog used inCalaveras County (a once-formidable red-leggedspecies that largely disappeared from the amphibianfamouscounty because of pesticides, pollution,introduction of the American bullfrog and, in the late1800s and early 1900s, the appetite of Californians).
Whether all this meticulous research was done to satisfyTwain scholars and Clara Clemens Gabrilowitsch or tospawn publicity is debatable, but Warner Bros. didn'thesitate to trumpet the pains taken to make the film andits title figure "boner-proof." Among the experts: ariverboat pilot (who got lost upon arriving in LosAngeles and instinctively went to the Mark TwainHotel) and Alfred Jermy of Angels Camp, Calif.,chairman of the Calaveras County frog-jumping jubilee(who brought 47 "expert jumpers" to the Burbankstudio, reportedly enduring their chorus of midnightcroaking in his Pullman bedroom). Even so, the finishedfilm proved pleasing but episodic, sprawling butshallow, its focus a one-dimensional characterstumbling through a series of loosely knit vignettes. Itssaving grace is the music.
For all his lampooning of Wagner and, in particular,German opera, Mark Twain probably would haveenjoyed Viennese-born Max Steiner's massive score forThe Adventures of Mark Twain. The American humorist- frequently, humorously and erroneously quoted asjoking, "Wagner's music isn't as bad as it sounds" -likely would have recognized Steiner's music asevolving from the rich realm of German music masters.
He might also have recognized in it the compositionaland dramatic guideposts laid out by Wagner for hisgargantuan operas. But Twain also would have reveledin the uniquely American qualities marking Steiner'sscore, especially its vitality, good humor and readyembracing of the American musical vernacular.
Certainly, American moviegoers of the 1940srecognized it as part of their own national psyche, andnot just because German impulses had infusedAmerican symphonic music for decades. A few yearsearlier, Steiner - in America since 1914 after schoolingin the Old World that included lessons from GustavMahler and Robert Fuchs - brilliantly displayed thesame skill in capturing American vigor and whimsy inhis film scores for Dodge City and The Oklahoma Kid(both 1939). And his massive score for Gone With theWind (also 1939) - complete with the sweeping lovethemes, lively folk tunes and rousing orchestralclimaxes that American audiences adored - proved astunning success. Steiner wrote greater music during hismany years in Hollywood - his volcanic score for KingKong (1933) remains a landmark, followed closely bythose for She (1935) and The Most Dangerous Game(1932) - yet Tara's theme from Gone With the Windworked its way into the American consciousness in away unlike any of Steiner's other music.
Highly entertaining as film accompaniment,enormously satisfying heard purely on its musicalmerits, Steiner's richly orchestrated, rollicking score forThe Adventures of Mark Twain deserves far moreattention than it has received over the years. While themusic is a far cry from that emerging in Americanconcert halls at the time, including the works of AaronCopland, Roy Harris and Virgil Thomson, Steiner'smusic is defiantly American in a way that eluded manyof his film-scoring peers, particularly celebrated WarnerBros. colleague Erich Wolfgang Korngold (the latter'smasterly score for Kings Row notwithstanding). Manyyears of arranging and conducting duties on Broadway,working alongside American-born composers such asJerome Kern and George Gershwin, saw to that. Wellbefore Korngold, Franz Waxman and other foreignbornHollywood composers sought safety in the UnitedStates from the Nazi menace, Steiner gained deepinsights into American art forms, popular music andaudiences that aided him immeasurably during his earlydays in Hollywood, working at RKO. He never lost,however, his steep regard for Wagner as the filmcomposer who never was.
Somewhat akin to American iconoclastic composerCharles Ives' early symphonies and orchestralconcoctions, Steiner's noisy use of American tunes,refreshing Yankee energy and accessible Wagnerianlogic made his Twain music among the most winningscores of the 1940s, enough to garner an AcademyAward nomination. Musicologist and film-musicscholar Christopher Palmer, a champion of Americanborncomposers such as Elmer Bernstein and JeromeMoross, lavished praise on Steiner's easy way withAmericana in films ranging from The Oklahoma Kid toThe Adventures of Mark Twain to his exhilaratingcontributions to This is Cinerama (1952). "Their senseof grandeur may be romantic-European rather thanauthentic-American," Palmer acknowledged, "but it isgenuine nonetheless." And if The Adventures of MarkTwain failed to plumb the depths of Samuel Clemens'character as a film, Steiner's score at least furnished theverve, color and jocularity of the man and his times. Theupbeat Twain theme makes its first appearance in themain title right after the familiar Warner Bros. fanfare(another Steiner creation) and permeates the entirescore. The bristling, closely related two-note motif tha