Mark Twain is the only cigar smoker Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees would ever want to spend a night with.
"I used to tell lies, but I've given it up. The field is overrun with amateurs."—Mark Twain
Actor Hal Holbrook has been a familiar face for so long that I never gave much thought to how he started out as an actor. Not until I read the fascinating bio included on Mark Twain Tonight! did I realize that it was in fact his performance as Mark Twain, in the one-man show he put together himself, that first brought him to prominence. He continued to rework and perform the award-winning show over the decades, and this taping, which originally aired on CBS, captures Holbrook in 1967 playing the role that launched his acting career.
Mark Twain Tonight! gives us a chance to spend an evening with the brilliant American author, satirist, and humorist who wrote The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. Holbrook has fused together excerpts from Twain's writings from various sources into an informal lecture, in which he addresses the audience directly about topics that touch on everything from the outright humorous—such as his anecdote about looking for the WC in a strange hotel in the middle of the night—to the blisteringly satirical, as when he discusses slavery, politics, and organized religion. We also get to relish Holbrook, as Twain, performing as still other characters: an absentminded raconteur, Huck Finn and his Pap, and Uncle Daniel, a slave Twain knew as a child, who used to curdle his blood with ghost stories like "The Golden Arm." The performance is structured in three acts, featuring breaks at the half-hour and one-hour marks, but otherwise there are no indications of cuts to permit commercials. Anyone who enjoys Twain's writing, whether his scathing social and political commentary or his amiable, often witty yarns, will enjoy the material that Holbrook has chosen. There's an excellent balance of humor and incisive criticism, and the material on politics, racism, religious hypocrisy, and human egotism is timeless in its relevance and still seems fresh.
With such terrific material, I would have been prepared to accept a merely workmanlike performance, but Holbrook astonished me. In his mid-forties at the time, he portrays the legendary author at the age of seventy, and he has the voice, the posture, and the recognizable tics of an elderly man down pat. He also has some of the most exquisite comic timing I have ever seen. Holbrook doesn't just coast on the inherent excellence of the material; he brings its colorful author to life, vividly conveying his brilliance, mental vigor, and, yes, cantankerousness. Even more impressive is the way he is able to play Twain playing other characters. Without losing sight of Twain's own persona, he shows the author donning other roles, from the diffident young Huck to his belligerently drunk father to the yarn-spinning Uncle Daniel, whose rendition of "The Golden Arm" makes that ghost story from my own childhood more frightening than ever before. It's not a word I use much, but this is a virtuosic performance. I'm thrilled to have discovered it—and grateful that it's been preserved in a form that will allow many others to discover it also.
Speaking of the form, it's to be expected that a videotaped performance from almost forty years ago is not going to offer pristine picture and sound quality. The transfer here is actually surprisingly good, especially considering that Holbrook is giving his performance on stage, with a live audience, and the stage lighting (combined with the videotape medium) can result in some harsh, flat color. At the same time, however, this is a very clean picture, and closeups of the actor are impressive in their clarity and detail. The audio track, humble as it is, brings Holbrook's words across with clarity and a lack of extraneous noise or interference, and that is all that's necessary, since there is no music or other aural furbelows to demand more sophisticated audio reproduction.
Extras are modest, but the eight-page bio on Holbrook was absorbing and increased my admiration for the actor substantially. I was especially impressed to learn that over all the years that he performed as Twain, he never used a set script; he simply chose his material as he went along. It's also fun to see all the different photos of Holbrook that accompany this feature and the list of awards and accolades (for both the actor and Mark Twain Tonight!): They show him both in and out of character, in a range of different roles and ages.
As is so often the case with stage performances captured on film, Mark Twain Tonight! requires that the viewer meet it halfway. It doesn't start off with a bang, and its pace is a bit measured, so impatient viewers may get restless—at least, until they become absorbed in the performance. Usually intimate, monologue-based theater pieces like this work much better live than on tape, but I was surprised at how quickly I was drawn in. Experiencing this theater piece on DVD also boasts at least one substantial advantage over being present at a live performance: We aren't subjected to the cigar smoke that Holbrook exhales throughout the evening. Overall, Holbrook's material and performance are so entertaining that I was sorry when the show was over.
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