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Sender: Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Date: Fri, 31 Jan 1997 23:52:52 -0500
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_ Mark Twain: A Concise Biography_. Famous Author Series,
distributed by KULTUR International Films Ltd. (195 Hwy. 36, West
Long Beach, NJ, 07764). Written, produced and directed by Malcolm
Hossick.  30 min., color.  ISBN 1-56127-821-1.   $19.95

     Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
     Wesley Britton & his 9:30 Tues./ Thurs. American Literature
     class, Grayson County College, Denison, TX
     [log in to unmask]

     Copyright (c) Mark Twain Forum, 1996.  This review may not be
     published or redistributed in any medium without permission.

     I have often wondered about the life of Mark Twain.  I knew he
     was from Hannibal, Missouri but knew nothing more of his life
     and journeys he had taken and all the wondrous sites he had
     seen.  This video is good for showing you the life of Twain,
     therefore his works make a little more sense to me.  Even
     though there are some inaccuracies in the script, it still
     gives you a good look at him through all the pictures and
     visuals. Mark Twain is definitely someone I will find out more
            --Craig Small, sophomore

     This is what I liked about the movie--how he went from Sam to
     the ever-so-popular Mark Twain.
          --Jason Jones, fellow sophomore

Whenever I encounter a new Mark Twain media product, one question
is always central to my appraisal of it--can I use this in the
classroom?  In the case of this new _Concise Biography_, the answer
is a qualified yes. In general, short films, recordings, or videos
are more suited for educational purposes than movies or televised
adaptations (such as the Amwell series) because of the time
constraints in classroom activities, and 30 minute productions such
as this one allow for students to get a taste for the world of Our
Author, and then can get into the business of responding to reading

But that's just one opinion--so, for the purposes of this review,
to see how the video would work in a college sophomore American
literature class, I showed the video to a particularly lively and
responsive group and asked them to write responses for this review.

While the results were mixed, the vast majority had good things to
say.  A typical response was:

     It was interesting to see the actual surroundings and it
     helped me understand previous Mark Twain stories that I have
     read.  Overall, I found viewing this documentary much more
     enjoyable and knowledgeable than reading a summary of Mark
     Twain's life in the textbook.  The video also kept my
     attention which enabled me to comprehend more on Mark Twain.

It seems to me the _Concise Biography_ is quite adequate for an
introduction to a unit on Mark Twain as it was clearly designed to
be informative rather than entertaining or attempt to prove a
thesis.  It is simple biography with passing references to Twain's
work, and, judging from my students' responses to the video, such
simple background helps to illuminate their appreciation of their

However, among the flaws is the fact this production does not
attempt to capture the flavor or depth of Twain's writing, choosing
to have the story told by a  narrator without using any of Twain's
own words.  One of my students put it like this:

     The man speaking was quite dull. He mostly kept one tone the
     whole film . . . It should have concentrated more on the works
     by Twain and not the hardships of his life.  After all, he was
     known for literature, not life.

On its own, the video might seem superficial and too abbreviated
for senior level classes; incorporated into other classroom
activities, however, it should open opportunities for instruction
and discussion with one important provision.  It should be noted
the film's content is far from flawless.  Orion went to Keokuk,
Iowa, not "Hohio." I don't recall Twain escaping from Union
in St. Louis, and describing Jean as the central comfort in Twain's
latter years is a debatable opinion.  (Which leads to one
distraction noted by one of my students: "I liked the film despite
the inaccuracies I wouldn't have known about without all your 'Nos'
and 'That didn't happens'.  I hope you will explain these after
quiz.")  There is no mention of Twain's periods in Elmira, an odd
omission particularly because the video does an excellent job of
taking the viewer to Twain sites such as Hannibal and Hartford, and
presenting these scenes pictorially is the video's strongest suit.

Most of the film deals with Twain's early years before 1867--
leading one of my perceptive students to comment "it looks  like a
`come and see Hannibal' tourist film"-- and then compresses the
latter decades into about 10 short minutes.  Again, on its own,
this would be a disappointment, but as part of a unit developed by
the instructor could help start things off in an interesting way.
I, for example, will highlight later years with readings from Hal
Holbrook and finish off with _Beneath the Laughter_ which is still,
in my opinion, the best and most useful Twain video for
instructional purposes (with the Discovery channel's Great Books
episode on _Huck Finn_ a close second).

Other student opinions included one who claimed boredom, saying the
narrator was uninspiring and that he preferred in-class lectures
for better response between teacher and student.  But most both
learned things about Twain they didn't know or were interested in
seeing the clips of modern-day Hannibal and Hartford, the
photographs, and _Punch_ cartoons.  But my personal favorite
response added a touch of irony, and seems worthy of the last word:

     The video was very enlightening.  I've never had much use for
     reading Mark Twain stories, but knowing the background of his
     life does help tell me where he got his ideas from . . . Now
     that I know a little more about the author, it will be easier
     to read more of his works instead of waiting for the movie