Mark Twain (1835-1910)

Mark Twain was the pseudonym of Samuel L. Clemens, who was born in the tiny town of Florida, Missouri, in 1835. The family moved to Hannibal, Missouri, when Clemens was four. His father died when he was 12, and he was apprenticed to a printer at the Hannibal Courier. He left home early and made his living as a typesetter in various towns in the Midwest and New York and then worked on a riverboat on the Mississippi.

Clemens served for two weeks during the Civil War in the Missouri militia before he and his whole company deserted. He went West and worked as a prospector and a journalist in the Nevada Territory and California. In 1867, he moved to the Northeast and began traveling in Europe and Palestine. His literary career began in earnest with The Innocents Abroad in 1868. He wrote many successful novels during the next two decades, including The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). His later works—including A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court and Puddn'head Wilson (1894)—share this tone of disillusionment. He died in 1910, survived by only one of his four children.

Background on A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court met with mixed reviews when it was published in 1889. The British especially took offense at the novel, feeling that it maligned their history and culture and disgraced the ideals of King Arthur and his Round Table. Others hailed it as a triumph, full of genuine insight and sensitivity to social injustices throughout the ages. Many critics call attention to the cynical ending as evidence of Twain's own disenchantment with the promises of technology and progress as a result of his financial hardships, particularly the failure of an automatic typesetting machine in which he had invested.

Film Adaptations of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court might seem like difficult work to adapt to film, but there have been multiple attempts—two of which are discussed here. In 1949 the novel was the original basis for a lush, full-color musical adaptation starring the actor and singer Bing Crosby (who was enormously popular at the time) as Hank Martin. It is, in fact, a film adaptation of a mostly light-hearted 1927 Broadway musical take on the novel—called A Connecticut Yankee—created by the composing team of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart with the musical’s book by Herbert Fields. The resulting film, while it features several memorable songs and has its share of entertaining moments, is only intermittently true to Twain’s source novel. One explanation for this is that conflict-weary post-World War II audiences would likely not have been as receptive to a work steeped in social awareness as they were to a lavish, feel-good musical. (The same could probably said of the audiences that flocked to the hit Broadway musical adaptation at the close of the Roaring Twenties.)

There was also an earlier, far less remembered film version of the book (also called A Connecticut Yankee) made in 1931 with radio and stage star Will Rogers in the Hank Martin role. Just as the later version largely served as a vehicle for Crosby, this was a set piece for Rogers, who was the most popular entertainer in America in the early 1930s. Even so, it was somewhat more faithful to Twain’s book. The scenes depicting industrialization run amuck near the end of the film are particularly striking and memorable. It is plausible that audiences in 1931—in the midst of the economic collapse of the Great Depression—were more open to a story showing the ill effects of unchecked industrialization than audiences in 1949 (or 1927).

Both of these film versions of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (especially the 1949 film) show up periodically on TCM (Turner Classic Movies), and are worth checking out by fans of the novel.

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