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TV REVIEW : Robards Breathes Life Into ‘Twain’

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

“Mark Twain and Me,” starring Jason Robards in a rich and revealing interpretation of Samuel Clemens, is an early Christmas card from the Disney Channel (premiering tonight at 8).

The production dramatizes Twain’s devoted friendship with an 11-year-old girl in the last years of his life. But don’t expect a saccharine story woven in frills and lace for children and sentimental grandparents. This show, adult and Goldilocked at the same time, is captivating as an expression of a time and innocence that we can only gaze upon in melancholy wonder.

Besides that, this disarming view of Twain, a striking impersonation under Robards’ snowy hair and droopy mustache, will surprise viewers conditioned to regard Twain in terms of Huck Finn or that sly old humorist made famous on American stages by actor Hal Holbrook.

“Mark Twain and Me” uncovers another portrait altogether.

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The “me” of the title is the schoolgirl Dorothy Quick, who late in her life wrote a little-known book about her years with Twain, “Enchantment: A Little Girl’s Friendship With Mark Twain,” which served as the source of Cynthia Whitcomb’s delicate script and director Daniel Petrie’s touching and classy production.

A 12-year-old Toronto discovery, Amy Stewart, plays the golden girl who first meets Twain on vacation with her mother on board a cruise ship crossing the Atlantic.

However innocently playful and full of propriety Twain was, his little girl hobby couldn’t easily happen today in an era of the ubiquitous Child Alert and hyper-anxiety about children. But these events unfold in the genteel calm of 1908 and cover Twain’s idyll with Quick until his death at 75, two years later.

For Twain, who had no grandchildren of his own, childhood was the preeminent experience of life. Young Quick became his surrogate granddaughter.

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In a fascinating personal coda to Twain’s final years, the larger historical truth (which the movie epitomizes in a single story) is this: In the last five years of his life, Twain, fighting off pessimism and the ravages of old age, surrounded himself with swirls of bright young girls aged 10 to 16, whom he called “angelfish.” He met and befriended a dozen of them on his travels and regularly invited them (with or without chaperones) for extended visits to his country house in Connecticut for games, stories, short story writing lessons.

Twain also shared his public life with these girls, most from rich East Coast families. They adored Twain and constantly exchanged letters with him, as evident from the known 300 angelfish letters in various Mark Twain collections. (These letters were recently collected in a new book, “Mark Twain’s Aquarium--The Samuel Clemens Angelfish Correspondence, 1905-1910,” edited by John Cooley.)

In Dorothy Quick’s adventure, the filmmakers capture a lovely, long-ago world where families in big houses play charades after dinner, sing carols, shoot billiards with the children and read stories to one another. That’s the Christmas card part of the movie. Dark premonitions are part of it, too, and Twain’s eyes suggest the bitter losses of his wife and two daughters, and Robards’ portrayal is of a complex figure--blustery, sensitive, despairing, tender and funny--who physically ages before our eyes.


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