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Barbara Schmidt <[log in to unmask]>
Mon, 2 Feb 2015 06:46:22 -0600
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_88 Days in the Motherlode: Mark Twain Finds His Voice_. By John C. Brown
and Bert Simonis. This 'n That Films, 2015. 70 min. $20.00. ASIN:

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Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:

Barbara Schmidt

Copyright (c) 2015 Mark Twain Forum. This review may not be published or
redistributed in any medium without permission.

In early December 1864 Sam Clemens and his roommate Steve Gillis left San
Francisco one step ahead of the law. Gillis had gotten into a bar room
brawl, injured a man whose life was teetering in the balance, and been
jailed and bailed out by Clemens who didn't have the funds to cover the
bail if Gillis skipped town. Gillis headed to Virginia City, and Clemens
headed to Jackass Hill in Tuolumne County to lay low for a few months with
Gillis's brothers, Jim and Billy, and their mining partner Dick Stoker.
Clemens would not return to San Francisco until February 26, 1865. However,
Mark Twain scholars agree that what happened to Clemens during those
eighty-eight days turned out to be a motherlode of inspiration and stimulus
to his future career as a writer.

The documentary _88 Days in the Motherlode_ examines the events leading up
to this time period, what happened at Jackass Hill and nearby Angels Camp,
and the outcome. John C. Brown and Bert Simonis are new names in the field
of Mark Twain scholarship. Their respective lists of previous productions
are short in comparison to other documentary film makers who have attempted
to tell the story of the enigmatic life of Samuel Clemens. Brown and
Simonis have scored a commendable success in this initial foray into Twain

Brown is a graduate of the University of New Hampshire and was an
award-winning producer and editor with New Hampshire Public TV prior to his
relocating to California. Simonis, a native of the Netherlands, studied at
the Disney Institute in Anaheim, California, and graduated from the
University of San Francisco. According to Simonis their production is the
culmination of eighteen months of research into this particular period of
Mark Twain's life. Six months were then spent filming and editing the

Brown and Simonis recruited two very familiar names in Twain scholarship to
help interpret Clemens's growth from a newspaper reporter to a writer who
found his voice during this time period--time spent in the company of
storytellers like Jim Gillis who Clemens described as the "Sage of Jackass
Hill." James Caron, author of _Mark Twain: Unsanctified Newspaper
Reporter_, and Vic Fischer, editor at the Mark Twain Papers at the
University of California at Berkeley, provide expertise as they discuss
Clemens's life and career. Fischer offers glimpses into Clemens's "Notebook
4" which he began writing shortly after arriving on Jackass Hill. Michelle
Gordon, assistant professor of American literature at University of
Southern California, may be a new name and face to many Mark Twain
scholars, but her contributions to the discussion are well-informed and
spot on. While Fischer is featured behind his desk at the Mark Twain
Papers, Caron and Gordon appear in casual dress and settings. Caron is
seated outdoors and Gordon is sitting barefooted and cross-legged on an
office sofa. This casual approach emphasizes that Sam Clemens's story is
the most important detail of the discussion, and the viewer is invited to
pull up a chair and listen.

Two local historians from Calaveras and Tuolumne County are featured. James
Fletcher, identified as the "Calaveras County Storyteller," is an engaging
and enthusiastic storyteller, the kind students love to have as history
teachers. Fletcher is featured on the street in front of today's
_Territorial Enterprise_ building in Virginia City. Other shots show him in
a wicker chair on a porch, spinning his history of Clemens and the Gillis
brothers. Again, the viewer wants to pull up a chair and listen. Rob Gordon
of the Tuolumne County Historical Society, dressed in a work shirt with
rolled-up sleeves, takes the viewer behind an enviable array of files and
documents and brings out mining claim maps while he relates the history of
the area.

In addition to drawing upon the expertise of scholars and local historians,
Brown and Simonis use a wealth of print sources to tell their story in
Twain's own words as well as the words of those who knew him. These include
Mark Twain's letters, notebooks, autobiography, _Roughing It_, and a rare
passage from "The Innocents Adrift" (a manuscript that has yet to be
published in full.) Written accounts from others who knew Clemens include
those by Dan De Quille, William Gillis, and James Ross Clemens. Thomas F.
Maguire furnishes a gravelly voice of Mark Twain, and his narration using
Twain's words is woven among the narratives of the scholars, historians,
actors' vignettes, and still photos to tie the story together. Both the
video and sound editing are seamless and the formula works.

Matt Sweetland plays the role of Clemens. Sweetland, a resident of Toulumne
County and a University of California at Santa Barbara graduate, holds a
degree in English Literature. His studies focused on African American
literature as well as the works of Mark Twain. Vignettes featuring
Sweetland as Clemens include pivotal moments such as his "slinking" period
in San Francisco and his struggle with thoughts of suicide. While Caron
expresses doubts about Clemens's claim to ever putting a pistol to his
head, Fischer gives the claim more credibility. Other vignettes include
walking on roofs in Virginia City with Artemus Ward; Clemens and Billy
Gillis spending time with Nellie and Mollie Daniels, "the Chapparal
quails"; and Clemens listening to stories told by Jim Gillis at Jackass
Hill and Ben Coon at Angels Camp. Stories he heard from Gillis about a cat
named Tom Quartz found its way into _Roughing It_. Gillis's "Bluejay Yarn"
later went into _A Tramp Abroad_. According to Fischer, the bluejay story
probably originated with Gillis himself rather than being a mere rendition
of an older and earlier folktale. Gillis's "Burning Shame" tale appeared in
_Adventures of Huckleberry Finn_. Vignettes of events at Angels Camp
include gloomy rainy days spent around a fire where Clemens listened to
tales about a jumping frog told by Ben Coon.

Approximately 23 minutes of the documentary lays groundwork for Clemens's
trip to Jackass Hill. Thirty minutes is devoted to time spent at Jackass
Hill and Angels Camp. The final seventeen minutes are devoted to analyzing
the national sensation created by Mark Twain's jumping frog story once it
reached the East Coast; Clemens's newspaper assignment in the Sandwich
Islands; and his early career as a platform performer upon his return to
California. One of Sweetland's best performances is playing Clemens as he
battles stage fright, although both Caron and Gordon express doubt that it
was as severe as Clemens later claimed. The DVD also includes fifteen
minutes of "Extras," which include Thomas Maguire describing how he decided
to "play" Twain's voice.

In order to identify the sources of narratives or dates of events, a brief
text appears at the bottom of some scenes. Two errors should be noted. One
letter to Mollie Clemens is misdated June 18, 1855, rather than 1858. The
date of Clemens's first lecture in San Francisco is misdated October 4
rather than October 2, 1866. Overall, however, the textual identifications
are helpful in establishing timelines, as well as providing information
about source material. In the case of identifying a source of narration
from "The Innocents Adrift" (1891), the note serves as a reminder to
scholars that this manuscript merits further study. Although Mark Twain's
biographer Albert Bigelow Paine published a portion of "The Innocents
Adrift" and retitled it "Down the Rhone," scholar Arthur L. Scott in 1963
revealed it was an "unpardonable" editorial fraud. It is a delight to hear
the narrator as Clemens read a portion of the material Paine suppressed
regarding the "Chaparral Quails." Clemens recalled that the girls could
"outswear Satan. It was the common speech of that remote & thinly settled
region, they had come by it naturally, & if there was any harm in it they
were not aware of it."

A short clip of the documentary is available at the producer's website at:

The vignettes for this documentary were filmed on location in Tuolumne and
Calaveras County. The local community's pride in ownership of this part of
Mark Twain history is evident throughout. The production partners for the
documentary include Greenhorn Creek Resort, Camps Restaurant, and Tuolumne
County Historical Society. The film premiere is scheduled for February 21,
2015, at the Bret Harte Theater in Angels Camp on 150th anniversary of Mark
Twain's departure from the area.  If you are in the vicinity of Calaveras
County, it is an event to mark on your calendar.