Sunday, March 28, 2021

Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey (2014).

Sometimes it can be tough to talk about certain subjects.  There are tons of reasons why that should be the case, and often a lot of it can be explained by the presence of a simple phrase such as controversy.  It's a word that at least one of the two subjects under discussion here was well acquainted with.  However, that's not the real reason for the difficulty, at least not in my case.  In that sense, I  guess you could say I've got off easy.  My problem just has to do with how do you discuss an artist whose work has gone on to be a major impact on your life?  We're talking here about one of those guys whose work is like a bomb going off in your mind.  It's the sort of quality that is able blow doors off in your thinking that you probably didn't even know were there until someone showed enough mercy to point them out to you.  That's sort of the favor Mark Twain did for me.  Yeah, I know, the guy who got forced inside your skull way back in high-school?  That stuff was old long before things like 8-track cassettes and corded telephones were consigned to the technical scrap heap of history.  

Well, credit where it's due.  You got one part of the equation right, at least.  Twain really is what you might call one of the Great Old Ones.  Often the first and last anyone ever hears of him is in the hallowed halls of classroom puberty, where a lot of other important stuff was going on, regardless of whatever the teacher was talking about.  Besides, everyone knows high school English is the kiss of death to any subject that gets brought up in such domains.  I was one of the lucky few, in that sense.  I never ran across the old geezer in a classroom.  I had to find out about him on my own, and even then, it's not as if I went out looking for him.  It was a lot more like bumping into an accidental stranger with a unique gift for the gab, and a genuine sense of wit to match.  In retrospect, it also kind of helped that the first time I ever saw him was on TV, long before I even knew what a classroom was. 

I didn't see the man himself, that sort of came later.  Instead it was an adaptation of one of his novels.  What makes it stick out in my memory after all these years is the way it all got started.  Imagine, if you will, the image of a young tow-headed kid and an African-American slave in a dark room, lit only by the combined, flickering specks of gold, red, and yellow cast off from a single kerosene lamp.  The boy is dressed in brown overalls.  The man was wearing blue railroad suspenders, as I recall, with a red and white checkered work shirt.  Both the man and boy were leaning in to get a look at a dead body draped across a chair in the dark.  They edged closer, step by step, until the grisly scene was brought in full up to the light.  As long as I live, I'm sure I'll never forget the sick looking, wide-eyed, rictus grin of the corpse as it glared up at the viewer from the unblinking gaze of the screen.  

The older man told the boy not to look.  Though to be fair, it was kind of like trying to shut the barn door long after the livestock had vacated the premise, isn't it?  Once seen, can't be unseen.  To sort of sweeten the deal, that has to be the first time I ever saw a corpse in a work of art.  This was before I even had a chance to be introduced to the concept of mortality.  Yeah, now how's that for first introductions?  Some of you still reading this are probably craning your necks to see the pile up damage by the side of the road.  If pressed, some might be willing to fess up that it's just their nature.  They might also ask where did that little freak show come from?  That, ladies and gentlemen, came straight the pen of a man who never existed.  His real name was Samuel Langhorne Clemens.  You read his moniker and then quickly forget all about it, even if it is sort of convoluted and colorful.  Nobody ever remembers guys like him.  What no one has been able to do is erase the pseudonym that made him famous out of historical memory.  Everyone remembers the name of Mark Twain.

I suppose you could call him something in the  way of being a natural storyteller.  It's true enough to start with, anyway.  It's also kind of like saying Ray Charles knew how to play the piano.  The description is so basic it doesn't even begin to do the subject justice.  That's something Hal Holbrook seems to have understood in time.  For whatever reason, it would turn out to be one single Hollywood actor that would be responsible for helping to keep the memory of Twain alive.  Hal Holbrook is a name that might still be somewhere on the tip of the tongue these days.  If that's the case, then it's probably because he did a decent enough job of carving both his name and efforts into something approaching immortality.  The basic rule of thumb here appear to be, if you can accomplish something like that, then you might have a chance of sticking around even in something as fickle as memory.  It is just possible Holbrook was able to make that kind of grade.  If he's known for anything at all today, then it has to be for his efforts in the Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford vehicle, All the President's Men.  

In that film, Holbrook was tasked with bringing a real life, flesh and blood human being onto the screen.  This person's name was Mark Felt.  It's another moniker that goes in one ear and out the other.  The difference is this time it could be something of a mistake.  In real life, Felt was more popularly known as Deep Throat, the inside source who helped Woodward and Bernstein bring Richard Nixon to justice.  His role in the film, as in history, is relegated to that of a background figure.  This gives Holbrook a very limited amount of screen time.  However the actor never wastes a single moment that he's on camera.  As embodied in Holbrook's performance, Felt is shown as a man of the shadows, both paranoid, mistrustful, and maybe even just a little bit world-weary and regretful.  While not the biggest part in the film, whenever I think back on it, it's always that first introductory image of Holbrook, his face veiled in the blue sodium of parking lot lamps and constant trails of cigarette smoke that occurs to me the most, along with a handful of others.  Such is the role assigned to him by immortality.  Either that or else it's just the picture of him that's easiest for most of us to remember.

The one thing everybody seems to forget is what joined Holbrook and Twain almost at the hip.  Every so often, Holbrook would walk onto a theater stage located almost anywhere in the United States, and assume the role of a chain smoking writer from Missouri, who one day coughed up a book known as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  This is the subject at the heart of director Scott Teems' 2014 documentary, Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey.  "The idea for the documentary came from Dixie Carter, Holbrook's wife...Mark Twain Tonight! was the longest-running one-man performance in theatre history. Hal Holbrook performed the show from 1954 to 2017 when he announced his retirement.[5] Director Scott Teems, who had worked with Holbrook and Dixie Carter on That Evening Sun, interviewed Holbrook, family members, fellow actors, and Twain scholars to go behind the scenes to reveal the challenges and rewards of life on the road (web)".  Apparently Holbrook and his family felt that the topic was important enough to be worth setting down on record.  All that remains to ask is whether or not the two subjects at the heart of the documentary have anything worth saying.

Origins of the Act.

By his own admission, Holbrook fell into the role of Mark Twain more or less by accident.  The way it came about is remarkable for how almost unreal the whole thing seems.  We open with our hero as a type, almost a living cliche.  It's the sort of thing that's not supposed to happen except in books, so apparently this time its all real.  Just another trick of the universe to confound expectations.  It almost looks as if reality likes to turn upside down on us, for some reason.  In Holbrook's case, the cliche was a familiar one.  You've got your portrait of a young man as a struggling, would-be artist, looking to make his big break as an actor.  This all happened back in 1947, according to Holbrook, not long after he became a husband for the first time.  "I met Ruby Johnston, my first wife," Holbrook says, "in Newfoundland.  We got married in a little church round the corner in New York, and then we went to (Denison University, sic).  I had already put a year in there.  So I had three years to go, and Ruby had never been to college.  The beginning of my senior year, our teacher, Ed Wright, he was at a convention in Ohio.  

"And a school assembly booker, from Dallas, TX, named Harry Bird Cline, said to to Ed..."Have you got some kids down there at that school (who) can do drama"?  And Ed said, "Well, yes, I do.  I have a young couple who are going to be the next Lunt and Fontanne".  (Cline) didn't know who that was, so he just went, "Uh-huh.  What do they do"?  Wright told him, "Well they have a show, you know"?  It's easy to get the distinct impression, based on the way the veteran actor tells this story that perhaps Wright was just pulling a lot of this right out of thin air.  It would be interesting to find out what made him just toss off these suggestions in such an off-hand way.  As Holbrook recalled, Cline then asked what their supposed act was like, saying, "I mean it has to be educational.  (Wright) said, "Oh, it's educational!  Yes, they do, um...they do Shakespeare, they can do a scene from Hamlet.  They do something with Elizabeth and Essex, and Robert and Elizabeth Barret Browning, Mark Twain".  

"He made up this show right there on the street", Holbrook admits.  In response, Cline then asked how long is it?  Wright told him, "It can be as long as you want it to".  Cline said he needed a 50 minute performance piece. "It can be 50 minutes", Wright assured him.  "Well do you think they'll be interested"?  "I think they might".  Cline said he could pay both of Wright's chosen amateur thespians $210 a week.  I suppose that really is chump change today.  The perfect irony is I can also say there was a time when this might have amounted to a small fortune, and not be telling a single joke.  There's probably a lesson in karma wrapped up somewhere in all that.  I just wish I could make it out.  Cline then said he was willing to throw in a few extra for gas and oil.  "And I can give them thirty weeks on the road next year, when they get out of school".  So Ed came back, and gave us this offer.  And we took it.  So, he gave me this piece, "An Encounter with An Interviewer", by Mark Twain.  I thought it was the corniest thing I'd ever read in my life", confesses Holbrook.  "I thought Ed must be crazy.  I mean I thought he had a better sense of values than this.  This is awful!  

"So finally I got my courage up.  I said, "Ed, I'm sorry.  I think this is kind of corny".  He said, "Why don't you kind of work it up and show it to me".  So we did.  We did it for him, in a classroom.  And he said, "Hal, I understand why you don't think this is funny.  You don't understand what's going on.  This is a man with a terrific sense of humor pulling the leg of someone with no sense of humor at all.  That's the joke".  I said, "Oh, okay".  And so we traveled for thirty weeks.  We did three hundred and seven shows, in thirty weeks.  No matter where we went, the Mark Twain number of being interviewed by this crazy lady, even the kids loved it.  We ended the show with it, because we could get off with our life.  And everybody liked the Mark Twain show, that they could take.  Hamlet, no so much.  Elizabeth and Essex, I don't know, but Mark Twain, okay".  And that, apparently, is how it all got started.  For some reason I'm reminded of a passage from a novel called Salem's Lot.  "Of such inconsequential beginnings dynasties are begun," he said, and although it was a joking throwaway remark, it hung oddly in the air, like a prophecy spoken in jest (27)".  I suppose the real reason for thinking about it lies in the way Holbrook's start with Twain has a similar feel about it, albiet in a more positive sense.    

The History of the Act.

This next part is somewhat hard to talk about.  This is not for want of any sufficient subject matter, but rather from an overabundance of wealth.  The fact is once, you start to talk about Holbrook's performance, you also have to bring in the man he was imitating.  Once you've brought in Mark Twain, and his own performances on-stage, in front of live audiences, then, for better or worse (though I tend to think more of the former than the latter), it's like you've walked right in on one of those crosswalks, or nexus points where all kinds of differing yet related strands of art and thought come together.  One of the great things to be said about Twain can also, for that very reason, be a source of minor headaches for any critic trying to evaluate him.  He could very well have wound up as the closest America has ever come to having a Renaissance Man.  There may be a few others who have earned that title, but the list is probably very small, and none of them loom as large in the popular memory as the man in white from Missouri.

In many ways, Twain seems to have acted as a living human sponge.  He seems to have had this natural ability for soaking in every amount of detail from his observations of daily life.  It's as if his mind was a crucible that was able to digest, break down, and reassemble all of the sights and sounds, and distill them into their essences in such a way that his audiences were granted a clear picture of themselves.  This picture was not always flattering.  If there's one thing Twain was burdened by, then it was to have a conscience that wouldn't shut up.  It just kept yammering away at him, day and night.  Often this would come in the form of almost visceral responses to a lot of the less flattering aspects of American society.  One in particular concerned a peculiar institution known as slavery.  The odd part was how he was able to find the humor (and above all, the humanity) even in these troubled quarters.  He was able to take all this and develop it into a literary style, and modern vernacular that, in essence, could be viewed as America finding its own mode of expression.

That makes him sound pompous, and for that I have to apologize.  Perhaps it helps to just try and focus in one one particular aspect of Twain's art.  This is the one Holbrook was able to turn to good use.  Before he grew to fame as a novelist, Twain was something of a feature on what was known in the 19th century as "The Lecture Circuit".  The setup of the whole deal should sound familiar by now.  All you had was a stage, maybe a lectern and a chair off to one side, and just the performer himself, illuminated by a single spotlight.  I don't recall hearing much of anything about the stage background, however if some of you are busy visualizing the by now familiar blank, brick wall backdrop of your local Improv comedy theater, then you're in essence close to the mark.  The basic idea of Twain's so-called "lectures" was that they really could be considered the among the first incarnations of what would grow up to be the modern form of stand-up comedy as we know it.  It's perhaps a mistake to say that Twain's efforts were the first of its kind.  That said, he is undoubtedly a pioneer of the art form.

Which sort of begs the question, can the same be said of Holbrook?  He started the act way back in 47.  Bear in mind, all the talents that are nowadays considered as representative of the modern form, or voice of stand-up humor (guys like Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, Carlin, Pryor, and even Elaine May and Carole Burnett) didn't really begin to make their first waves until around the mid-point of the 1950s.  The basic common thinking here is that you pretty much have to go way back to the original Mad Men era in order to find the start of open mic night.  Except here's Holbrook, in full character, going out on-stage, and telling jokes to the audience long before any of these other names were able to find their way into the spotlight.  It's not just a question of whose on first.  In addition to perhaps setting the groundwork for all these later talents, Holbrook seems to have found himself using the voice and mannerisms of one of the format's pioneers in order to do it.  In that sense, it could be argued the legacy of Mark Twain was utilized in helping to sustain and create that modern American satirical voice.  The result is that it makes Holbrook's act something of an overlooked achievement.

If any of this is the case, then perhaps another unremarked achievement on Holbrook's part is that by turning to the past for his comedic expression, he also might have left behind some unwitting clues as to the nature of stand-up as an art form.  If we're willing to take Mark Twain's performances as our starting point, then what can his escapades on-stage tell us about the nature of the format?  Specifically, it would be interesting to know just how much of an influence Twain exerted on the idea of telling jokes to a mass audience.  What kind of artistic content did Twain put into his performances, and perhaps more importantly, how did this performance (with Holbrook's help) inform the nature of the medium as we know it today?

The Folklore of Comedy.

I've said there are a number of reasons for why it's so difficult to know where to start when talking about a writer like Twain.  One of the other challenges he presents to the critic is that his art seemed to contain multitudes.  It sounds like facetious hyperbole, yet I'll swear it really is based on a careful observation.  It all comes from stopping to take a closer look at Twain's prose.  I'm not talking about an examination of his style, but also the content of his words.  The style itself itself is familiar enough.  It's a combination of colloquial Southwestern backwoods talk blended together with the diction and erudition of a half-bright college professor.  This makes the language and wit appear simple on the surface.  It isn't until you let the words linger and roll around in the mind that you begin to realize just how complex the thought process going on underneath the hood really is.  It's all just part of Twain's method.  He starts out making you laugh, with the ultimate hope (if any) of making his audience think.

Understanding how he does this requires looking into the nature of his subject matter.  Twain is most familiar with audiences today for creating characters like Jim, Becky Thatcher, Tom Sawyer, and Huck Finn.  There are plenty of good reasons why this is the case.  The irony is it does tend to push a lot of necessary examinations regarding Twain's influences as a writer off to the wayside.  The punchline here is that it's one of those rare occasions when you really do have to sort of blame the writer for this predicament.  He was such an artist at dramatizing the problem of racism in America that the country still finds itself reacting in a visceral way to what the author has to say.  That's all well and good, and in a sense remains even more necessary than questions of where the stories and humor come from.  The latter question will always remain, however.  It concerns a natural part of the writer's toolkit, something that can never be limited to just one southern humorist.  Besides which, it was Twain's capacity as a stage comedian that Holbrook was able to tap into best.  That makes a look into the genetic material of Twain's humor something of a necessary act of critical excavation. 

In examining the literary lineage of Twain's humor, there are just two elements that stand out with the most clarity.  Clemens' way of telling jokes and narration was comprised of two equal elements blended seamlessly together.  They belong to the interrelated realm of folklore and the tall tale.  Trying to create a distinction between the two modes of artistic expression is perilous at best.  It could be that all certain critics have done is to focus in on what are really two modes of expression from the same literary source, and then create an artificial division where there really is none.  For these reasons, I find it best to address this part of the discussion by just referring to the author's use of folklore proper, with the tall-tale being just one mode of expression out of numerous others.  The trick is that it was precisely this particular mode that allowed Twain to give his own folkloric expression its distinctive voice.  Without it, I'm not at all sure that this country would even have a lot of the vernacular it relies on in modern forms of satire and humor.  This makes Twain's skills as a Folk Comedian a key subject in the shaping of modern comedy.  That's why it's surprising to see so little attention given to this subject.

This poverty of helpful study, scholarship, and useful secondary reading material is very much like an undiscovered thorn in the side of Twain scholarship.  Nor is this a new complaint.  As far back as 1955, critic and scholar Ray William Frantz observed "that little critical attention has been directed toward Twain's use of folklore (iv)".  This irony is somewhat compounded by the fact that I have been able to discover just two other major studies of the topic in all the years since Frantz made his observation.  Even then, the topic was reserved for just one chapter in Gretchen Martin's Dancing on the Color Line: African American Tricksters in Nineteenth-Century Literature.  Shelly Fishkin tackles the subject intermittently, while her main focus remains fixed on Twain's use of the African-American vernacular as a literary style, or voice.  The situation is frustrating, yet there is some compensation to be had.  It makes the critic's job a bit more easier than it might have been otherwise.  It means there is a decisive point of origin from which to start the excavation.

Gretchen Martin, for instance, provides a decent enough summary in her own book, where she observes: "Like his close personal friend Joel Chandler Harris, Mark Twain was also uniquely familiar with many facets of African-American culture...Scholars have also addressed various aspects of African and African American oral traditions in his work as well.  Jennifer Hildebrand examines "the African philosophy behind some beliefs in witches and ghosts" in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and contends that "the witchlore and other folk beliefs" held by both black and white characters undermines the perspective of associating "Jim's 'superstitious' behavior with the racist caricatures presented in the nineteenth-century minstrel show (128)".  This is a point where the contemporary writings of Martin match up well enough with at least some statements in the older research of Frantz.  

In his unpublished study, Frantz records that "Young Sam Clemens was surrounded by a world of living folklore.  Although this folklore made an impression upon most of the youths of Hannibal, it made an inordinately pervasive impression upon him; and whereas many of the Hannibal youths undoubtedly grew up to recall this part of their childhood with a vague detachment, these experiences remained starkly vivid in Sam's mind (4-5)".  I think a lot of it is explained by two factors.  In the first instance, the beliefs and wisdom sayings of the African American communities of the time was as much a product of art as it was philosophy.  It was the ability to express an ethical fact of life in a way that set both mind and imagination alight.  Always, provided, that the receiving mind was willing to listen.  They seemed to have hit some kind of pay-dirt when it came to a youngster like Sam Clemens.    

Frantz also points out that some of the folk beliefs Twain imbibed came from within his own immediate family circle, citing that his mother, Jane, "was nevertheless influenced by ghostlore and superstitions (5)".  In addition, there is also the second strand of influence that shaped the author's comedic voice.  While Frantz points out that Twain "was to draw upon folklore for the rest of his life and be susceptible to the tales and spells of other countries...he now developed a knowledge of a new, literary genre of folklore which was to become the second major influence upon his writing.  This was the tall tale and its ancillary characteristics, the hoax, the artistic lie, the shrewd boast, the careful understatement, and wild extravaganza (21)".  These are the aspects of his storytelling and joking style that audiences are probably most familiar with when it comes to thinking about Twain as an artist.  

A lot of it can be seen on display in that burlesque interview that served as Holbrook's introduction to Twain, back in 47.  There the tall tale technique is employed to poke fun at an intended target.  Exaggerated statements are set down in front of the straight man figure as if they were the solid truth, and the befuddled target has no choice but to slowly become a double laughing stock in the eyes of both author and reader.  This is also the sub-genre that gave the United States such figures as the legends behind the real life figure of Davy Crockett, along with other such luminaries as John Henry, Billy the Kid, and Babe, the Big Blue Ox.  It was a strand of national folklore that Twain seems to have had as much of a natural artistic inclination for as the ancient, African tribal beliefs.  The two strands seem to have melded together in his mind, creating what I guess would have to be called a hybrid voice.  He could use it to tell a lot of old, uncomfortable truths to a society that didn't care to hear them.  While at the same time using an old mode of expression to say a few new things, as well.

I think the tall tale wit is best on display in the epigrams that have made Twain not just famous, but also something of a refrigerator door philosopher.  Where else (aside from, like, the guy's actual books) can you find such nuggets of wisdom as: "Always obey your parents; when they are present".  "Be respectful of your superiors; if you have any".  "Rise early, for it is the early bid who catches the worm (I once knew a fella who tried it.  Got up at sunrise.  Horse bit him)".  However, I think the real main root of Twain's humor, the one that explains not just his own style, but perhaps the fundamental nature of modern American humor was put best by Shelley Fishkin, when she observed the  following in her own study.  Her main claim is that a lot of Twain's humor was based, in fairly large degree, upon what might be termed the very archetype of comedy.  This figure has been called various names throughout the years, by numerous and diverse cultures.  The one label that always sticks is when you refer to it as the figure, or myth of the Trickster.

"In traditional trickster tales from both Africa and the United States, a weak figure outwits a stronger and more powerful one with cleverness and guile.  Popular among those at the bottom of the social structure in rigidly   hierarchical...societies, "African trickster tales often illustrate the traditional right of the individual to contest irrational authority."  The implications of the smaller, weaker, more cunning figures outwitting the larger, stronger, more dull-witted one remained the same when these tales took root in the United States.  It was a source of hope for those at the bottom (65)".  It's statements like that which cause funny notions to enter the mind.  What if, for instance, Twain, acting as a kind of bridge figure, helped establish that same motif from traditional African folklore, and pretty much enshrined it, on both a conscious and unconscious level, as an essential building block in the history and nature of stand-up comedy?  I haven't got a clue how that must sound to anyone reading this.  For what it's worth, if you do choose to use that particular rubric as a lens, then it would mean that the advent of comics like Richard Pryor would mean that process had sort of come full circle, in a way.  All I know with any certainty is that it is just a thought that crossed my path.  I leave it to the consideration of others.

Besides, it is always possible for someone to make the criticism that Twain, by his very nature, is outmoded, over the hill, or just passe in general.  The unremarked statement here being just how is it possible for a non-twentieth, or twenty-first century writer to be able to generate a laugh, or be in any relevant to an audience of today.  To which I must resort back once more to the Holbrook/Twain documentary for my answer.  At one point, director Scott Teems samples Holbrook delivering one of the old writer's public speeches.  And here I'd better preface the statement itself, because if the critics are correct, all we've got is a pair of tired old men saying absolutely nothing.  Therefore it's good to recall some writerly advice.  "Person's attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot".  The sample Teems selected for inclusion goes as follows:

"If you want to know what the human race is truly like, observe it at election time.  That's when the parade of half-truths goes marching by.  It is a monument to the gospel that truth is stranger than fiction.  The candidates rearrange the facts to suit themselves, and keep the lies and the half-truths spinning in the air while the great, gullible public cheers and shouts, and stomps its approval the way they always do, when a politician has just said something they don't understand.  We can discount ninety percent of what the candidates say at election time, and assign it to softening of the brain.  Because the contents of their skulls could change places with the contents of a pie, and nobody would be the worse off for it but the pie.  There is not one brain among them superior to the rest.  And yet this sarcastic fact does not humble the arrogance, or diminish the know-it-all pronouncements, of a single ignoramus among them.  They are the scions of an ancestral procession of ignoramuses, stretching back to the missing link.  The one true fact that rises above this circus of mendacity and misrepresentation, is that truth has no place in Washington".  Like I said, of no relevance whatsoever.

Conclusion: A Legacy Worth Preserving.

This documentary is somewhat astounding for both the artistic act it uncovers, as well as the levels of commitment involved to help bring it off.  At the close of the film, Teems notes that Holbrook kept the act going from 1954 till 2017.  His performances as Twain were not just limited to the New York Stage.  If that were the case, he'd be no more than a minor local institution.  Instead, Holbrook took the act to all fifty states in this country, along with stints in other countries, as well as before five U.S. presidents.  The result is a legacy that even I wasn't aware of.  I had to have it all pointed out to me.  Even then, finding out about this documentary was a bit of an accident.  Still, the good news is this accident turns out to be one of the happy ones.

Teems and his crew were granted all-access to their twin subjects, and it shows in the final result.  The documentarian's camera is allowed in to a backstage world where the artist is always consumed with the perfecting of his art on an almost 24/7 basis.  We are treated to scenes of Holbrook seated at his dressing room desk at various points throughout.  This is a constant recurring image in the film, as it was in its subjects life.  In these moments, Holbrook can often be found trying to get into character, or else going over his own notes for that evening's performance.  At other times, he acts as an informal tour guide to not just his act, but the history behind it.  These are some of the best parts of the documentary, in my opinion.  It shows us that Holbrook has never, in the strictest sense, been anything like one of the big Hollywood celebrities.  Instead, he's something of a throwback or a fossil.  His entire demeanor harkens back to the much older conception of the actor as an artist dedicated to his craft.

This sense of dedication is best on display when Holbrook brings Teems and his camera out onto the stage of the theater he will be performing in later that night.  The camera picks up an old and somewhat worn figure.  When we first see Holbrook, our instinct might be to just hang around to help him into his chair.  Then he moves out onto the stage, and its like the old man has vacated the premises.  In his place is a ten year old boy whose enthusiasm for playing the game is palpable, even as he displays enough awareness that he's still in the presence of so-called "polite society", so he makes sure to keep his voice to a respectable grown up pitch.  In those moments, its almost as if Holbrook the adult is just the mask, and Hal the Twain enthusiast is the true reality.  This is something that is not lost on some of the other crew members of Holbrook's production.  Writer David Bradley makes the claim at one point that:

"Hal Holbrook is probably the greatest Twain scholar in America.  Because he not only has to talk about Twain.  He has to express Twain.  And he knows an awful lot of Twain.  And that's a lot different from memorizing a few jokes, slap your thigh, wearing a white suit, or whatever.  His knowledge allows him to decide what Twain's going to say.  Because Twain said something about everything, and you know, you can go through Twain like the Bible and find a quote.  And Holbrook knows the quotes".

I think that whether or not Holbrook deserves to be called anything like the greatest scholar on the life and writings of the man from Hannibal, it probably does at least make enough sense to label him as something of an authority.  There may very well be countless other scholars out there, most of them tenured academics with tons of diplomas on the walls, who could probably outdo Holbrook in the minutiae of Twain's life.  Still, it does not seem to be too much of a stretch to call him a part of the critical consensus surrounding the writer.  This is a recognition that Dr. Barbara Snedecor, director of Elmira College's Center for Mark Twain's studies seems willing to recognize.  On her judgment of Holbrook's performance as Twain on-stage, the director has this to say:

"You walk out, and you think, that could have been written yesterday.  Those comments could have been said three weeks ago.  The political content, the humor, it's remarkable.  But Samuel Clemens life touched every aspect of the century in which he lived.  Things are different now, but they're the same, you know?  Technology, communication, politics, finances.  Life changes, but there's a continuity that goes on amidst all the change, too, and Clemens, Mark Twain, he's got those things so nailed that they resonate no matter when you hear them".  It all just begs one single question.  Why would Holbrook, or any actor, for that matter, feel the need to devote so much time and effort the writings of one single author, over, and over again, out on the public stage?  I think the film does supply an answer to this, and what it reveals is intriguing on a few levels that the audience might not be expecting.

Somewhere near the end of the proceedings, Holbrook gives the audience a brief moment of confession.  Perhaps it's not the sort of thing the audience is expecting, based on what we've seen and heard so far.  Once I listened to what the actor was saying, however, I found myself thinking that maybe it really does make a kind of sense.  "My mother disappeared", Holbrook tells us, "just left.  Left us in the playpen all untended.  My father followed her.  We were never told why our parents left, why our mother left.  I never had any comfort when I was a kid, like somebody to hug me.  It never occurred to me until just a little while ago, I didn't have a family.  I wasn't trained to be part of a family, and they trained me.  They have trained over the years".  The "they" Holbrook is referring to is both his children from his first marriage, as well as those from his third and final one to actress Dixie Carter.  "Dixie trained me in her way", he says.  "She always put the important thing first.  She renewed my respect for what I was doing.  She kept telling me how important it was, what I was doing".

It seems as if she might have done just a bit more than that.  What Carter seems to have done is to help repair her husband's reputation in more ways than one.  The first aspect has to do with Holbrook's personal life.  His admission of a parentless childhood didn't go unnoticed in the way he interacted with others.  Stuff like that tends to leave marks, even if they're the kind that are invisible to the carrier.  Holbrook seems to have done well enough for himself in professional matters.  As long as he could hold things at arms-length, then for the longest time it was smooth sailing.  I wonder if realizing it was possible to fall in love for the first time came as something of a genuine shock.  If that was the case, then bearing in mind the actor's lack of upbringing, perhaps he really had no choice in the matter.  At least I'm willing to argue it is something that can happen to those whose who always harbor the beliefs that their horizons are narrow and limited.  From that perspective, discovering that the picture frame can be expanded to a great extent must seem like stepping into the Twilight Zone for some of us.

In any case, Holbrook married his first wife.  The trouble was his lack of experience in family matters meant he never could quite make a go of it the first time round.  If I recall, he had to make at least one more stabs before third time's the charm.  In that sense, Holbrook's whole life seems to have been about learning two things.  The first was the curious concept known as the family man.  The second was realizing it was more than just a part to play, but rather something it was possible for a lot of people to actually live, himself included.  For the record, Mark Twain found the introduction to domestic bliss something of an immediate safe harbor, one he took to like a man grasping at a life preserver.  In that one instance, at least, it could be said he had an easier time of it than Holbrook.  The latter artist proved to others, and eventually to himself, that he could be just as good at the job as the writer he liked to portray.  It payed off in more ways than one.  It not only made him a better performer, it also helped Holbrook to patch things up with his own son.  This is something that the family members themselves acknowledge during the course of the documentary, and everybody claims they owe it all to Dixie.  I think they're onto something as far as it goes.  However, I wonder how well she could have succeeded without a little bit of help from the funny little cigar smoking man, all dressed in white?

This the part where Twain himself fits into the picture, not just as a performer, but also as an author and personality in his own right.  The way Holbrook started to perfect his act was simple enough.  All he did was go through the public library and start reading the author's own words.  As he continued to read, the more Holbrook found himself impressed by what he read.  It's not any kind of exaggeration to say that Twain won him over.  There is perhaps a least a bit more to it than that, however.  This part is all pure speculation, however I can't help thinking that part of the reason Holbrook kept reading Twain, and performing him live on stage for most of his life has to do with the fact that the actor looked up to the writer (whether consciously or otherwise) as a surrogate father figure.  It's not something anybody goes out of there way to state, or intuit.  I'm not even sure anyone ever makes this connection during the course of the whole film.  However, the idea itself is there, unstated, and left hovering over the whole proceedings.

For what it's worth, I have seen one or two other examples that convince me this sort of phenomenon happens all the time.  Or at least it always exists as a possibility.  The most famous one I'm able to recall at the moment is that of French New Wave director Francois Truffaut.  In his own words, the filmmaker never had any kind of abusive childhood because he was never really treated at all.  His parents never seemed to give a rip, and he was left to his own devices.  This would have meant life as a street thug in his case, if not for being somehow taken under the wing of a filmmaker who pretty much mentored Truffaut into the art of making movies.  The rest, as they say, is a history that I worry is in danger of being forgotten about.  The point, however, is that it was through filmmaking and studying the of artists and their craft, that Truffaut was able to get his act together and pull himself up from the gutter.  A much more positive example can be found in the words of Horror novelist Joe Hill.

In the introduction to his short story collection, Full Throttle, Hill makes a distinction between different types of father-son relationships.  "Most sons fall into one of two groups.  There's the boy who looks upon his father and thinks, I hate that son of a bitch, and I swear to God I'm never going to be anything like him.  Then there's the boy who aspires to be like his father: to be as free, and as kind, and as comfortable in his own skin.  a kid like that isn't afraid he's going to resemble his dad in word and action.  He's afraid he won't measure up (2)".  If we take this starting point and apply it to Holbrook, then it almost looks as if we have to add a third type, or at least a sub-category of the first, negative group.  Holbrook never knew his parent, and it apparently did some kind of number on his head, because he had a hard time relating to people as a result.  Then he runs across Twain, and the writer turns out to be the first person the actor can establish a connection with.  From there, it's as if Twain is mentoring the young man well into old age and fatherhood.

The almost inevitable picture the viewer is left with is that of an out of the ordinary, yet also endearing portrait of a man who learned what it was like to have a full and fulfilling life thanks to the efforts of another artist who was able to fulfill the role of both mentor, and surrogate parent.  It's the one aspect of the movie that never gets spelled out on any explicit level.  No one ever seems to go to the trouble to connect all the dots between Holbrook and Twain, even when it's all right there in front of everyone's faces.  To be fair, though, this may also be one of the film's unheralded strengths.  The connections are so obvious that it's almost like no one even has to say anything.  They just need to stand back and let the subtext speak for itself.  It's one of those rarest of occasions, where the thematic content of real life is sometimes able to match the practice of a well written work of literature.  It is this, along with a host of other elements that allows me to say that viewers should allow themselves to catch up with Holbrook/Twain.  It's a spotlight on a corner of American history that deserves to be remembered. 


  1. (1) I have no idea why I haven't read more Twain. I have read both "Tom Sawyer" and "Huckleberry Finn" and love both, but have never gone beyond that.

    (2) Confession time: when I think of Twain being depicted, I think of Jerry Hardin playing him in the TNG two-parter "Time's Arrow." My perception is that Hardin was really playing Holbrook playing Twain, though. The second thing I think of is the audio-animatronic Mark Twain at Epcot in Disney World, and that, too, I believe, is a Holbrook impersonation.

    (3) Interesting point regarding Hill's two types of fathers.

    (4) Sounds like a documentary well worth seeing!

    1. (1) He's definitely one of those types that reward further exploration.

      (2) I can't say that comes as too much of a surprise. It must be like one of those inventing the wheel type deals. Once someone is able to make an icon out of their performance, then it becomes a piece of pop-culture. Case in point, "You talkin' ta me?" For the longest time, everyone was parodying and satirizing both the actor, the character, and the line. It got so that De Niro himself finally got in on the act.

      Apparently, it seems as if the same process has been at work, albeit in a much more quieter way with Holbrook's work as Twain.

      (3) That was just an insight that sort of clicked into place as I was working on the whole thing. I don't think it would have fit if Holbrook didn't provide such a good example of what Hill was talking about.

      (4) It's definitely something I can recommend.

      (5) Just thought of something, are you sure Holbrook didn't voice the Epcot animatornic himself? That might explain the similarities.


      Apparently it's just what happens when