About this Recording
6.110087 - STEINER: Adventures of Mark Twain (The)
English  German 

Max Steiner (1888-1971)

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 Clara Clemens Gabrilowitsch, strong-willed daughter of an American icon and self-appointed guardian of his image. The other is World War II, which first prompted Warner Bros. executives to shelve the film, then moved them to release it two years later, and on the eve of the global conflagration’s very pinnacle. Today the film garners 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 morale booster in 1944, it received publicity aplenty, including regional frog-jumping contests (playing off Twain’s tale, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County), endorsement of the Cigar Institute of America (which praised actor Fredric March, as Twain, for smoking cigars “in a manner expert enough to please the most 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, he lives all over again in new film.” But the film was quickly 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 caught in another crossfire. Clara Clemens’ influence on the engaging if superficial biopic isn’t as obvious in viewings of the film now except to Twain scholars aware of the titanic battles Twain’s daughter waged with scholars such as famed American historian Bernard DeVoto. Editor of the Mark Twain Papers and firmly convinced of the author’s genius, DeVoto met equally firm resistance when, two years into his eight-year curatorship in 1940, he pressed Clara to release the darker, unpublished works her father had penned, many brimming with contempt for religion, capitalist greed and what Twain viewed as evil in the “damned human race.” Even if Clara had been open to publishing these works – and she wasn’t – the American homefront during the war that soon consumed the nation was probably the wrong time and place for Americans to wrestle with the cynical, bitter side of a homespun literary figure largely seen as a master storyteller and gifted humorist. It was this benign, folksy portrait that emerged in veteran film producer Jesse L. Lasky’s film biography – a work heavily influenced by Clara Clemens, who moved to the Los Angeles area shortly before America’s entry into World War II.


          Studio documents indicate great research went into the making of The Adventures of Mark Twain, dwelling on everything from Twain’s nose (which changed shape through the years) to the type of jumping frog used in Calaveras County (a once-formidable red-legged species that largely disappeared from the amphibian-famous county because of pesticides, pollution, introduction of the American bullfrog and, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the appetite of Californians). Whether all this meticulous research was done to satisfy Twain scholars and Clara Clemens Gabrilowitsch or to spawn publicity is debatable, but Warner Bros. didn’t hesitate to trumpet the pains taken to make the film and its title figure “boner-proof.” Among the experts: a riverboat pilot (who got lost upon arriving in Los Angeles and instinctively went to the Mark Twain Hotel) and Alfred Jermy of Angels Camp, Calif., chairman of the Calaveras County frog-jumping jubilee (who brought 47 “expert jumpers” to the Burbank studio, reportedly enduring their chorus of midnight croaking in his Pullman bedroom). Even so, the finished film proved pleasing but episodic, sprawling but shallow, its focus a one-dimensional character stumbling through a series of loosely knit vignettes. Its saving grace is the music.


          For all his lampooning of Wagner and, in particular, German opera, Mark Twain probably would have enjoyed Viennese-born Max Steiner’s massive score for The Adventures of Mark Twain. The American humorist – frequently, humorously and erroneously quoted as joking, “Wagner’s music isn’t as bad as it sounds” – likely would have recognized Steiner’s music as evolving from the rich realm of German music masters. He might also have recognized in it the compositional and dramatic guideposts laid out by Wagner for his gargantuan operas. But Twain also would have reveled in the uniquely American qualities marking Steiner’s score, especially its vitality, good humor and ready embracing of the American musical vernacular. Certainly, American moviegoers of the 1940s recognized it as part of their own national psyche, and not just because German impulses had infused American symphonic music for decades. A few years earlier, Steiner – in America since 1914 after schooling in the Old World that included lessons from Gustav Mahler and Robert Fuchs – brilliantly displayed the same skill in capturing American vigor and whimsy in his film scores for Dodge City and The Oklahoma Kid (both 1939). And his massive score for Gone With the Wind (also 1939) – complete with the sweeping love themes, lively folk tunes and rousing orchestral climaxes that American audiences adored – proved a stunning success. Steiner wrote greater music during his many years in Hollywood – his volcanic score for King Kong (1933) remains a landmark, followed closely by those for She (1935) and The Most Dangerous Game (1932) – yet Tara’s theme from Gone With the Wind worked its way into the American consciousness in a way unlike any of Steiner’s other music.


          Highly entertaining as film accompaniment, enormously satisfying heard purely on its musical merits, Steiner’s richly orchestrated, rollicking score for The Adventures of Mark Twain deserves far more attention than it has received over the years. While the music is a far cry from that emerging in American concert halls at the time, including the works of Aaron Copland, Roy Harris and Virgil Thomson, Steiner’s music is defiantly American in a way that eluded many of his film-scoring peers, particularly celebrated Warner Bros. colleague Erich Wolfgang Korngold (the latter’s masterly score for Kings Row notwithstanding). Many years of arranging and conducting duties on Broadway, working alongside American-born composers such as Jerome Kern and George Gershwin, saw to that. Well before Korngold, Franz Waxman and other foreign-born Hollywood composers sought safety in the United States from the Nazi menace, Steiner gained deep insights into American art forms, popular music and audiences that aided him immeasurably during his early days in Hollywood, working at RKO. He never lost, however, his steep regard for Wagner as the film composer who never was.


          Somewhat akin to American iconoclastic composer Charles Ives’ early symphonies and orchestral concoctions, Steiner’s noisy use of American tunes, refreshing Yankee energy and accessible Wagnerian logic made his Twain music among the most winning scores of the 1940s, enough to garner an Academy Award nomination. Musicologist and film-music scholar Christopher Palmer, a champion of American-born composers such as Elmer Bernstein and Jerome Moross, lavished praise on Steiner’s easy way with Americana in films ranging from The Oklahoma Kid to The Adventures of Mark Twain to his exhilarating contributions to This is Cinerama (1952). “Their sense of grandeur may be romantic-European rather than authentic-American,” Palmer acknowledged, “but it is genuine nonetheless.” And if The Adventures of Mark Twain failed to plumb the depths of Samuel Clemens’ character as a film, Steiner’s score at least furnished the verve, color and jocularity of the man and his times. The upbeat Twain theme makes its first appearance in the main title right after the familiar Warner Bros. fanfare (another Steiner creation) and permeates the entire score. The bristling, closely related two-note motif that also arises in the main title and returns near the score’s finish is associated with the awe and mystery of Halley’s Comet, whose visits to earth neatly bookend Twain’s birth in 1835 and death in 1910. The strong pattern dominating The River Pilot and Riverboat in Fog conjures up the enduring Mississippi and its magical hold over Mark Twain (and invites comparison with symphonic evocations of both the Hudson and Mississippi rivers by Ferde Grofe, Steiner’s friend). Much of the score revels in scenes of outright Americana, including the jaunty woodwind music that chronicles Sam Clemens’ boyhood adventures on the Mississippi in Pirates; the comic orchestral effects marking the braying of a mule and the relentless digging involved in prospecting; and the low instrumental buffoonery illustrating an afternoon of frog-catching in Frogs, complete with a droll quotation from Lampe’s Misterioso Pizzicato. And is there a finer musical depiction of a gold and silver rush than “My Darling Clementine” exploding upon the American West, evoking the fervor and high hopes of an era?


          Steiner serves up a love theme for Livy, the woman Mark Twain falls in love with, though the composer never loses sight of the rollicking intent of the filmmakers, even trotting out, in the last bar of Cave In, an ironic motif scored for low bassoon and bass clarinet that Steiner dubbed “luck” and cleverly drew from the Twain theme. (A more complete musical portrait of Livy surfaces in The Squirrel—Livy.) Along the way, Steiner taps everything from Queen Lili`uokalani’s “Aloha Oe” to “Rule Britannia” to the spiritual “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” In Bedtime Story, Steiner hints at Twain’s darker reflections, using “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “Dixie” to evoke America’s greatest tragedy while focusing on Ulysses S. Grant’s role in the Civil War. The prolific composer also borrows from himself, including a gay minuet from a Bette Davis film, The Old Maid, albeit with a new ending incorporating, again, the ever-present luck motif. Of special interest is the cue for Livy’s death. In a scene true to life, Twain, as played by Fredric March, sings the American spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” as his beloved lies dying. In his otherwise faithful reconstruction of this full-blooded score of Americana, film-music scholar, composer and Steiner friend John Morgan has chosen to replace the sad vocal line in Sorrow with a mournful English horn. The result of all these musical threads, impulses and quotations is a massive but cohesive symphonic score that neatly symbolizes the rich tapestry of influences that stamp and define Mark Twain’s America.


Bill Whitaker

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