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Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Fri, 20 Jan 2012 13:24:03 -0800
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Hello, all! On a recent visit to our local library, I happened to spot a DVD
version of Karen Lystra's _Dangerous Intimacy: The Untold Story of Mark
Twain's Final Years_, a book reviewed for the Forum in 2004 by Barbara
Schmidt. I borrowed the disk, brought it home, watched it twice, and would
like to make a few, informal comments. This is not intended to be a formal
review, because: 1) an individual still recovering from a head-cold should
not attempt to write anything of real substance, and 2) there are other
Forum members vastly more qualified to write with greater depth upon this
subject. With those caveats out of the way, let us proceed.

For this DVD adaptation (History Film, Inc., 2011), "the narrative is drawn
from [Lystra's book] and is also based on Twain's uncensored autobiography
which is being published now, one hundred years after his death, in three
volumes by the University of California Press."

The main feature is just under an hour long and consists of sound bites and
insights from four contributing scholars: Robert Slotta, Kerry Driscoll,
Ellen Dwyer, and of course author Karen Lystra. These interviews are
interspersed with photo montages as well as actor portrayals of Mark Twain,
his daughters, Isabel Lyon, and Katy Leary in what one might call "living
tableaux," in which a voice-over provides the narration for the dramatized
scene. Mark Twain is portrayed by an actor with the remarkable and
deliciously ironic name of Leer Leary.

Mark Twain's life is quickly summarized by the aforementioned means; but to
truncate that literary life into a scant 60 minutes, the producers have had
to conflate the chronology. For instance, Mark Twain's Bermuda trips of 1908
and 1910 [Editor's corrigendum: 1910 date is a correction due to a typo
in the message distribute to list] are presented in such a way that they
seem to have been one and the same. Time constraints do little to excuse
instances where a photo of a known date is shown during a talk about an
unrelated time-period. For example: the familiar view of Mark Twain standing
alone on Laurence Hutton's porch, in Onteora, is positioned between
1840s-50s Hannibal and the 1867 _Quaker City_ voyage, and appears on the
screen during a description of his experiences at the _Territorial
Enterprise_; an image from 1906, at Upton House, Dublin, NH, is used twice
to accompany events of April-October 1909 Stormfield; and a photo of wrapped
packages arrayed on the first-floor guest-bed at the Hartford House is shown
to illustrate Jean Clemens's holiday preparations immediately preceding that
fateful Christmas Eve morning of 1909 at Redding. The photo appears to be a
black-and-white rendering of the Mahogany Room's Virtual Tour image
currently viewable on the Hartford House's website.

The disk is not without material to commend it. One of the two Bonus
Features, a 12-minute, modern interview with Joyce Aaron, is stated to have
been filmed in the gardens of the "Lobster Pot," the home on the Stormfield
grounds that Mark Twain had given to Isabel Lyon and is today an artist's
studio. (The other Bonus Feature, about four minutes' worth of silent
slide-show images, was a bit of a disappointment since many of them had
appeared in the documentary.) Joyce Aaron was acquainted with Isabel Lyon,
in Greenwich Village, shortly before Lyon's death in 1958. The interviewee
does not provide any significant revelations, but I was intrigued to know
she was speaking from that setting. Another bittersweet, video moment, for
me, came toward the end of the main feature: film excerpts from the 1950s,
from the Bahia Motor Hotel, in San Diego, of Clara Clemens with her second
husband, Jacques Samossoud. Another startling moment, for this viewer, was
to see, particularly in the "Christmas 1909" chapter of the documentary but
hinted elsewhere, what one infers was footage captured specifically for this
documentary, in and around the modern Stormfield. Whether any filming for
the DVD was done there is not overtly stated. For those of us (apart from
Kevin Mac Donnell) unlikely ever to have the opportunity to see it for
ourselves--today a private home, rebuilt after a devastating 1923
fire--these glimpses provide a poignant thrill.

However, the absolute highlight of this DVD, each time I have watched it--am
now up to four viewings, for reasons soon to be apparent--was some
unintended comic-relief: the sudden and undoubtedly accidental appearance of
a "photo" from Mark Twain's 70th Birthday celebration at Delmonico's,
depicting Mark Twain seated in the company of none other than (*drumroll*):
Kevin Bochynski, Bill Erwin, Robert Hirst, and Kent and Kathy Rasmussen! The
purported 70th Birthday photo, though obviously altered, is presented with
all possible seriousness. The continued production and availability of these
disks, with the error intact, will ensure the sale of many more of these
DVDs than would otherwise be the case. I am thinking of buying a dozen of
'em. You should, too.

Best regards,

M. L. Christmas