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Television Review

Storytelling Stars in Twain Special

January 14, 2002|HOWARD ROSENBERG | TIMES TELEVISION CRITIC

"Great books are wine," America's great author-lecturer Mark Twain once said. "My books are water." Then he added, "But everybody drinks water."

And sounding like an early Groucho Marx, who would never join a club that would have him as a member, he once said he "wouldn't have a girl that I was worthy of. She wouldn't do. She wouldn't be respectable enough."

He commanded the stage as he did the written page, and if he were alive today, Leno and Letterman would have him on.

In fact, there's more effortless wit in an evening or two of Twain than in all of prime time. That's not to say this literary giant was merely the sum of his quips and one-liners, a new Ken Burns documentary emphasizes repeatedly. Twain was far more than a purveyor of easy laughs, more than "the stand-up comic of his time," author William Styron notes in this superb two-part PBS film that is one of Burns' very best. Styron suggests that Twain's seemingly dark, depressive streak--he was said to have a ferocious temper and deep insecurities--"balanced off this need to be amusing and entertaining and gave depth to his work."

And deep much of it is, most notably his consensus masterwork, "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," which Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner and others proclaimed the father of the American novel.

First published in 1884, it's a revolutionary book about two ignorant runaways on the Mississippi River. The white boy, Huck, is fleeing civilization, and the black man, Jim, escaping slavery. The story is told entirely in Huck's illiterate dialect and from his point of view, its moral epiphany coming with Huck's ultimate awareness of Jim as a human being and his decision to "go to hell"--which is where he expects to end up--rather than rat on Jim. Although he is a product of the age of slavery, Huck's basic goodness transcends the corrupt society around him.

Just as this documentary is transcendent because of its simplicity, Burns has smartly discarded some of the more repetitive and pretentious cinematic furnishings of his bigger documentaries the way Twain, a meticulous craftsman, pared down his prose.

"He used the way we talk and turned it into literature," says Hal Holbrook, who performed his one-man stage show "Mark Twain Tonight!" for half a century.

Burns and his collaborators use the way Twain talked and wrote and turn that into profound storytelling for TV. Burns employs much less production here, and, wine or water, it goes down smoothly.

We hear this story from scholars, from Kevin Conway speaking as Twain, from a fine narration written by Dayton Duncan and Geoffrey C. Ward, and in old photographs, most of them showing Twain well before his hair and bushy mustache turned famously white.

The Mississippi seems almost to have run through his veins. He grew up along the river, in the small town of Hannibal, Mo., as Samuel Clemens. And he later took his literary name from the Mississippi, where he became a riverboat pilot, "mark twain" being a phrase signifying 12 feet or the point at which dangerous water becomes safe water or vice versa.

Twain was young man river. The 1,200 miles of Mississippi became "his Harvard and Yale the way that Melville says the whaling boat was his Harvard and his Yale," says Hamlin Hill. He was a "prodigious noticer," says Twain biographer Ron Powers--so much so that Twain said he first met on the Mississippi every character he had ever created in his writing.

Include that famous little prankster of "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," which Powers calls "The Norman Rockwell version of what we would like to think boyhood is."

Its publication in 1876 delivered enormous fame and riches to Twain, and we hear tonight that he adored wealth--and the grand life it gave him and his family--perhaps as much as words. Evidence was the family's palace of a home in Hartford, Conn., whose household expenses ran to $30,000 year.

Although Part 1 ends with Twain having it all at age 50, ahead in the second two hours are financial ruin--he turns out to be a much better spender than investor and businessman--and many heartbreaking personal tragedies, as his loved ones gradually fall away and he increasingly questions God in his writings.

Twain died in 1910. "He was a wiseguy who was wise," someone says. All the wiser when viewed from 2002.

"Mark Twain" airs tonight and Tuesday at 8 p.m. on KCET and KVCR. The network has rated it TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children).

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