Mark Twain: A Concise Biography.
Written, produced, and directed by Malcolm Hossick. (Famous Authors series.)
West Long Branch, NJ: Kultur International Films, 1996?.
VHS, 30 mins., color, mono. Cat. no. 1821. $19.95.

The following review appeared 31 January 1997 on the Mark Twain Forum.

Copyright © Mark Twain Forum, 1997.
This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.

Reviewed by:

Wesley Britton
and his 9:30 Tuesday/Thursday American Literature class
Grayson County College
Denison, TX

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 about.
--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 assignments.

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 an 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 readings.

However, among the flaws is that 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 soldiers 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 this 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 students 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 versions.